Why God Forgives John Edwards (and You!)

John Edwards was raised a southern Baptist, and in a sense he's a pretty good advertisement for that faith. I don't mean that, by confessing what he calls his "sins," he's done what a southern Baptist is supposed to do. (Ideally, we can all now agree, the confession would have come sooner.) I mean that the sinful behavior itself corroborates a specific conception of sin that is part of the southern Baptist faith. Or at least, it was part of the faith back when I was growing up southern Baptist.

It's a paradoxical conception of sin: though it originates in a fire-and-brimstone mentality, it can actually lead to a certain kind of tolerance of, or at least sympathy for, wrongdoers. In fact, I think it could lead people who ponder it to be more sympathetic toward Edwards.

You might call this view of sin the "slippery slope" view. According to the southern Baptist doctrine that prevailed when I was a kid, it was wrong to do even modestly adventurous things like go to a dance or drink a drop of alcohol (though my father had the occasional beer and my sisters went to high school dances). The logic was that, harmless as something like dancing might seem, one thing leads to another. Dancing leads to intimate contact between unmarried people, and--especially if alcohol gets mixed in--the next thing you know the unmarried people are doing something they're not supposed to do.

The implied conception of human nature is not flattering. We are weak creatures impelled by animal drives. Once you step onto the slippery slope, natural impulses whisk you down toward Satan's door.

This is, in a sense, one reason God's forgiveness is an endless resource--because sin is so understandable; however grave our ultimate transgressions, they often begin with a slight all-too-human misstep, and the rest is all too human as well. "I am like anyone else," Edwards said in a 2007 interview. "I revert to bad, selfish behavior." But, "No matter what you do, he [God] will forgive you."

If you ask people why they find Edwards's behavior so outrageous, most would probably mention the magnitude of his deception. He didn't just have an extramarital affair in secret--something that isn't exactly unheard of these days and doesn't by itself draw incredulous condemnation; he denied he'd fathered a child he fathered. And he didn't stop there. He tried to get somebody to pose as the child's father! That dwarfs the petty frauds that ordinary people perpetrate.

But does it? Doesn't pretty much everyone who has an extramarital affair engage in whatever deceit is necessary to conceal it? Sure, many would stop short of the lengths Edwards went to and fess up. But then again for many of them the revelation of the affair wouldn't be the devastating career setback it would have been for Edwards in the midst of his presidential campaign. Besides, most people don't have access to the resources it would take to create a whole fake family. A Bunny Mellon is a rare thing.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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