Why God Forgives John Edwards (and You!)

By Robert Wright

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.

In other words, maybe the rest of us, by virtue of the careers we've chosen, our social landscapes, the constraints we face, are poised over different slippery slopes than the one Edwards was poised over. But pretty much all of us, if we stepped onto the slope, could fall into deeper and deeper deception, until the point where the cost of the deception was no longer justified by the cost of being found out.

To be sure, if we don't take that first step--don't have the extramarital affair--we get some credit that Edwards doesn't get. Then again, most of us aren't handed the lengthy menu of potential extramarital affairs that a handsome presidential candidate faces. More to the point: again, the condemnation raining down on Edwards isn't so much about his taking the first step as about the subsequent deception. What I'm suggesting is just that the deception, however massive its scale, was more or less immanent in the affair--in keeping with the slippery slope view of sin.

And, according to that view of sin, the affair was itself immanent in some lesser lapse--having an innocent drink with Rielle Hunter or something like that. The handsome southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham, if I recall correctly, early on implemented a rule that he would never do anything alone with a woman other than his wife--not even have lunch. Call it prudish, call it sexist, but it sure makes it hard to wind up in an extramarital affair (a pre-internet affair, at least). The slippery slope view of sin can be burdensome, but if applied religiously it can be effective.

In suggesting that none of us are in a position to cast the first stone, I'm not really trying to insulate Edwards from blame. My view of justice in both the moral and legal realms is that, as a practical matter, we have to dish out blame and punishment even if there but for the grace of God go we. I'm just suggesting that maybe in this case, as in so many others, there but for the grace of God, in fact, go we.

[Note: I realize that some of the things I'm attributing to the southern Baptist faith (1) may or may not still be common in the faith; (2) may be common in some southern Baptist churches but not others; (3) may be found in other Christian, and indeed non-Christian, denominations as well.]

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/06/why-god-forgives-john-edwards-and-you/257983/