John Edwards: 'My Faith Came Roaring Back'
In the first of a series of interviews with presidential candidates, Edwards discusses how faith affects his decisions.
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What parts of American life do you think would most outrage Jesus?
Our selfishness. Our resort to war when it's not necessary. I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs. I think he would be appalled, actually.
You've had a lot of experience with suffering. Part of your career has been representing people who we see as suffering. You've also had what you called "world stopping pain" and suffering in your own life. What has that suffering taught you?
It's been part of my own personal faith journey. Because I've done what I think a lot of Americans have done, which [is]: I was raised in a very Christian home and a Southern Baptist church, and baptized in the Southern Baptist church. My dad has been a deacon in the Southern Baptist church for many years. In fact, we went back to my church a few weeks ago and he was getting the Lay Person of the Year Award, which we were all very proud of him for.
But when I went away to college, I drifted away from my faith. Even after Elizabeth and I got married, I had drifted away. It isn't that we didn't exercise faith. We would go to church, but it was not the sort of dominant day-to-day living faith that it is for me today. And in 1996, on a day I'll never forget, my 16 year old son died. And the days after that, when I was trying to survive and Elizabeth's trying to survive, my faith came roaring back and has stayed with me since that time, and helped me deal with the personal challenges we've had. Not only the death of my son, but some of the politics and the difficulty of that on our family. Elizabeth's breast cancer. All the things that we've seen, which is not that unusual for families.
What has it taught you about God?
That God will be there when you need him. That I believe in a benevolent and merciful God. That when things seem at their worst and their lowest, he will always be there for you. That no matter what you do, he will forgive you. And it is important to ask for his forgiveness. It's important in my case to have a personal relationship with the Lord, so that I pray daily and I feel that relationship all the time. And when I'm faced with difficult decisions, which I regularly am, I very often go to him in prayer.
Do you have a favorite prayer?
No. My praying is more conversational than that. It is me explaining to God what I am going through, what our family is going through, and asking him to help me see the way, to do what's right.
And asking him also, which I do regularly, to allow me not to focus on myself and my own selfish desires. Because I am a sinner and selfish, like every human being on the planet. And asking him to give me the power to get outside that and do what he would have me to do. That's sort of the heart and soul of my prayer.
In what ways do you feel God is happiest with you right now?
I think he would be happy with the fact that I have focused on people who live in poverty here and people without healthcare. And the suffering of others in other parts of the world, like some of the work that I've done on humanitarian issues in Africa, for example, and going to the slums outside of Delhi and India.
Focusing on problems in a very personal way that exist, and without regard to my own selfish ambitions, talking about things that may not seem so politically powerful, but are important to me, and I think important to God.
Do you feel like there's a way in which God is disappointed with you now?
Yes, absolutely. Every day. Every day. Because I am like anyone else. I revert to bad, selfish behavior. I try to make myself not do it, but I'm like everybody else. Sometimes better; sometimes worse. And I think there's not a single day goes by that he doesn't feel some disappointment in me. But, he doesn't give up on me--never gives up on me.
In 2004, John Kerry said that he wouldn't let his faith affect his decision making. Does it affect yours?
Yes, it does. I do believe in the separation of church and state. But I don't think separation of church and state means you have to be free from your faith. My faith informs everything I think and do. It's part of my value system. And to suggest that I can somehow separate and divorce that from the rest of me is not possible. I would not, under any circumstances, try to impose my personal faith and belief on the rest of the country. I don't think that's right. I don't think that's appropriate. But freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion. And I think that anything we can do to promote the idea that people should express their faith is a good thing.
Do you think that America is a Christian nation?
That's a good question. I never thought of it quite that way. There's a lot of America that's Christian. I would not describe us, though, on the whole, as a Christian nation. I guess the word "Christian" is what bothers me, even though I'm a Christian. I think that America is a nation of faith. I do believe that. Certainly by way of heritage--there's a powerful Christian thread through all of American history.
Polls show that a lot of Americans think the Democratic Party is hostile to religion. Do you think that the Democratic Party is hostile to religion? If not, why do you think it's perceived that way? Do you think it's changing?
I think that there are lots of very good, strong national Democratic leaders who are people of deep faith. President Carter would be a clear example of that. I think there are lots of us who are people of deep faith.
I think that one of the things that's happened on some of the hot cultural societal issues is that those issues have been used to create a wedge, in some cases, between people of deep faith and the Democratic Party.
And I think one of our responsibilities, one of my responsibilities as one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, is to bridge that gap that has been created. I could go into any evangelical church in America, for instance, and talk about poverty, and our responsibility to those who are living in poverty, and get a terrific response. I am certain of that.
There are several. One is here within our own borders. The fact that we have 37 million people who live every day worrying about taking care of themselves and their family, living in poverty, I think is a huge moral issue.
I would say the same thing about the 47 million people who don't have health care coverage. I think those are the big moral issues here within our borders.
But I think there are big moral issues in other parts of the world, too. Global poverty, half the planet living on $2 or less a day. Three billion people.
I think this genocide that's going on in Western Sudan, Darfur, is a huge moral issue. Us continuing to allow kids to be born in Africa with AIDS because their mothers can't afford $4 medicine is a big moral issue.
Does your concern for the poor come mostly from your own background, or does it come from your faith?
Both. It comes from both.
My own personal experience has been that I came from a very poor background when I was young. But, by the time I was in middle school/high school, we were solidly in the middle class. And now I've had everything you could ever have financially in this country. And so, I feel some responsibility myself to help and give back, to give that opportunity to lots of people who I don't think have it today. That's part of it. And it also comes from my faith. If you took every reference to taking care of the least of these out of the Bible, there would be a pretty skinny Bible. And I think I as a Christian, and we as a nation, have a moral responsibility to do something about this.
You've received a lot of criticism from people about the size of your house. In your book, "Home," you quote Rick Warren saying, "What I've noticed is that where people live affects how they live." If that's true, how does your home impact you? What does it say about you? And does it in any way undercut your discussion of the poor?
I think it's a fair question, first of all. And here's how I feel about it. The book that you made reference to that Rick Warren is in, "Home," I think the overwhelming message from that is, whatever the structure, the physical structure--some of the houses in my book were very small, tiny. Some of them were huge. And what matters in the message from that book is [that] the physical structure's not important. What matters is what happens inside that physical structure, and what kind of values and beliefs and faith are taught inside that structure. And so, you know, I come from a very modest place and I've done well and we have a very nice physical structure. It's completely unimportant. What matters is what happens inside that structure.
And back to your question about Jesus and what he would be most disappointed in, what we're doing to meet the needs of those around us. I'm not for a minute suggesting we are saints or we have done more than a lot of other people have done, but Elizabeth and I have spent a lot of time building a couple of learning centers for low-income kids who need a place to use technology, made college scholarships available, helped build houses for people who don't have houses, helped with humanitarian needs in Africa. Those are some of the causes--I'm sure I'm forgetting some--that we have been personally committed to, both before we got in politics and since that time. So, do I think we've done everything we could do? No. I don't think anybody does. But I think Jesus would be happy with some of the things we've done.
Would it be your hope that a John Edwards Supreme Court would allow public schools to encourage more prayer in schools?
What I'm not in favor of is for a teacher to go to the front of the classroom and lead the class in prayer. Because I think that by definition means that that teacher's faith is being imposed on children who will almost certainly come from different faith beliefs. Allowing time for children to pray for themselves, to themselves, I think is not only okay, I think it's a good thing.
What do you think about Ten Commandments being displayed in local courthouses?
I guess I've been in courthouses where I've seen the Ten Commandments. I've never had a strong reaction to it. I do think that it's the same issue. How would Muslims feel if they went into that courthouse, and how would people of other faiths feel, Hindus, others feel, if they were in the same circumstance?
So I'm sensitive to that. You know, of course it wouldn't offend me because I'm Christian. And I'm certainly not offended by the idea of expressing faith in that circumstance. But probably it causes more trouble than good.
President Bush, obviously, has talked a lot about empowering faith-based organizations. Vice President Gore during the 2000 campaign talked about it. Yet, there's been a lot of hostility from the Democratic Party about the idea of using faith-based groups. Would an Edwards presidency see aid to faith-based groups expanded?
Well, I'll tell you what I have seen, first, as the foundation for what I believe.
In the last few years, I have been all over the country going to Community Action centers, faith-based local organizations who are providing help to the poor because of my work on the issue of poverty. And there are a lot of places in America that, without faith-based groups there is no support for the poor. It's just that simple. And [the poor] would not survive without the existence of good, effective faith-based organizations.
So the answer is I think is that in an Edwards presidency faith-based groups, I believe, could be used. But I think it is also tricky business. I think you have to be careful about how you implement it for all of the separation of church and state issues, because you don't want discrimination. You don't want federal money going to any organization, including a faith-based group, that's discriminating. So, you have to be very careful about that.
And then secondly, I would just be concerned from what I've seen practically about the burden that comes with getting federal dollars--you're going to have accountability, you're going to have audit systems, and you just need to be certain that the faith-based groups are prepared for that, because I think some are not. And that's not the way in which they're used to operating, and I think it could cause a lot of trouble and cause a lot of disenchantment.
But, the bottom line is, if you can work through these problems, I think there is a great potential delivery system there.
I realize that this is a bit of a strange question but do you think that candidates are almost to the point of talking too much about their faith? President Bush in 2000 and 2004 garnered a lot of support by simply telling evangelicals that he was a devoted Christian. Now candidates galore seem to be wearing their faith out front. Is there too much of that going on? Is politics corrupting religion?
Faith is not a political strategy, and should not be a political strategy. If it is being used as a tool to garner votes, to convince people they should support one political party or the other, I think that is a huge mistake. I believe with every fiber of my being that God is not a Democrat or a Republican and does not support either party.
If you're being asked about how you make decisions, what are the things that affect you when you make decisions, I think it's perfectly reasonable under those circumstances to give honest answers about your faith and how your faith affects your value system and what you believe and what you care about.
You asked me very early in this interview whether faith plays a role in my views about poverty and what to do about poverty. It does. It plays a very powerful role. So I think it's one of those things that is not a black and white. It's one of those things where you have handle it the right way and with honesty. But I think it's offensive to see any politician, or potential politician, using faith as a political strategy.
I want to go to the controversy that you've experienced in the last few weeks about bloggers. Lots of different people were surprised, shocked, and offended by by the things that the bloggers wrote. Did you really grasp the depth of that? Do you think that you made a mistake somehow in how the situation was handled?
Yeah. Well, it was a very difficult decision for me about what to do. Because as anybody who was participating [in] it would have heard, people start off yapping about politics and what's going to happen here and what's going to happen there. But every one of these people will tell you what I said to them is, I want to do what's right. And so, I'm going to tell the truth about what it is they have said before they came to work for me. And then I want to talk to them. And if I believe that they're being honest with me and they're asking for forgiveness, which I believe in, then we will keep them on. And I was troubled by some of the things they had said, and I was also troubled by the way it was brought to the forefront, which was from some people who had a clear ideological agenda. And I did not think these women should be made to suffer because they were being attacked by that agenda.
So, I wanted to hear what they had to say. I wanted to find out whether they, in fact, were trying to denigrate a particular religion. And when I had those conversations with both of them--and I had them and my wife Elizabeth did the same--I came away with a feeling that, number one, they did not intend to demean anyone's faith.
And number two, to the extent people read it that way--because they did use a lot of hot rhetoric, as often happens in the blogosphere--that they were sorry for that. Under those circumstances, I decided to forgive them and stand by them, knowing there would be potential political consequences for that.
You've been critical, obviously, of President Bush. But, where do you give him the most credit? What do you think he's done a really good job?
You know, I have to be honest about this. I no longer give him much credit. Because I feel like a lot of what the president has done has been either ideologically driven or, in some cases, ego driven. And I don't think he's been open and honest with America in the way that I believe he should have.
I do applaud how he responded in the immediate aftermath of September 11th... I think America was in a difficult place and he was strong for a short period of time after that. But beyond that, it's very hard for me to find [much credit to give]--the cutting away of nutrition programs and so forth from the most needy people in America and taking away funds for kids to be able to go to college. I couldn't personally live with that. I don't know. And it troubles me. It troubles me.
And I think he's very personally invested in his definition of success in Iraq, which I think undermines good judgment about what we ought to be doing under these circumstances.
Last question. In this season of Lent, what's your focus? Are you giving something up? Are you trying to focus on something? Are you trying to fast from something or pick up a new habit?
I haven't done any of those things. You want an honest answer, so I'm going to tell you I haven't done any of those things. What I intend to continue to do, though, if I can bring us full circle back to the beginning of this discussion, is no matter whether anyone asks, no matter whether any other candidate ever raises the issue, as long as I'm alive and breathing and as long as I am a presidential candidate, I will be speaking up for the little guy. And I think that a lot of that has been lost in American politics for strategic political reasons. And their voice needs to be heard--desperately needs to be heard. And if I do nothing else, their voice will be heard through me.
Interview by David Kuo