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Why Elizabeth Edwards Left God Out of Her Last Goodbye

4 years ago
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A dying person's last words are often, and perhaps too easily, held out as the key to understanding all that went before, and so it has been with Elizabeth Edwards.

Her final public message, posted on Facebook, was characteristically eloquent, to the point, and full of grace -- that last word being one that Edwards herself often invoked, and one that was often applied to her, especially as she bore up under so many trials, the last of them the cancer that claimed her life on Tuesday.

But the opening line of her public farewell was especially notable for its careful phrasing (Edwards, who did post-graduate work in literature, was, after all, a student of the novelist Henry James) about matters of the soul:

"You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope," Edwards wrote.

That she seemed to carefully evade a mention of God or Jesus or things eternal and Christian was striking, and it struck some as "odd," in the words of "American Power" blogger and neocon Donald Douglas.

"I can't say what it is -- spiritual or otherwise -- that animates her sense of grace, but it's not God," Douglas wrote before proceeding to add some even less graceful conjecture.

elizabeth edwards"Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards' non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists," he said. "Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn't find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I've been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought."

Douglas drew some sharp critiques in the comments on his post but also strong support, and even in the report on the faith angle at Christianity Today -- the leading mainstream evangelical publication -- some commenters rued Edwards' apparent lack of orthodox Christian faith.

But a closer look at the faith of Elizabeth Edwards offers a more nuanced view, and one that might elicit more charity from those who would judge her at her death.

What seems clear above all is that Edwards' late-in-life spirituality was forged by the flames of unspeakable heartache, from the death of her 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car accident in 1996 to the faithlessness of her husband, John Edwards, who ran for president in 2008 and thrust his wife into the public spotlight while he betrayed her with a private affair. And of course, there was the cancer that since 2004 ravaged her body and also shaped her theology.

As Adele M. Stan recounted in a July 2007 profile of Edwards for the liberal journal the American Prospect, Edwards told audiences that she "grew up in the Christian tradition" and attended a Methodist church with her husband, but that during her early years as a child in Japan -- her father was a Navy pilot, so the family moved around -- "I grew up with Shintos and Buddhists."

That Eastern influence seemed to emerge as Edwards faced her illness:

"I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God," Edwards explained to an audience of women bloggers when asked how her beliefs inform her politics. "I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer."

Edwards, according to Stan, laughed after describing God as "her" -- hardly a heresy and certainly understandable given her audience -- and continued on:

"I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right."

Stan thought Edwards sounded a bit like John Lennon singing "Imagine," essentially arguing that there is nothing beyond ourselves and this moment, so make the best of it.

Yet Edwards clearly seemed far more engaged with the dilemmas of God and evil -- and grace -- than such a narrow reading allows.

In a moving interview with Larry King in May 2009, for example, she spoke frankly about the death of her son and the religious questions it raised and the recalibrations it forced her to make.

In the weeks and months after Wade's death, she told King, "I had this idea that God was going to find some way to turn back time and he was going to be alive." She continued to ask herself, as many do, whether she had done something wrong -- did she not teach him well enough, not get him a safe enough car? And then when cancer struck, and her husband's affair was revealed, she agonized about the possibility of her own cosmic cooperation in it all.

"And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen," she told King. "You didn't have to do something wrong to justify them."

But she added, "You still sort of wonder: Is there some grand plan where you've done something someplace else?"

Edwards said she had to move on from such magical and negative thinking, and she quoted a line from the Bill Moyers PBS special on the Book of Genesis, to the effect that "You get the God you have, not the God you want."

"The God I wanted was going to intervene. He was going to turn time back. The God I wanted was -- I was going to pray for good health and he was going to give it to me," she said. "Why in this complicated world, with so much grief and pain around us throughout the world, I could still believe that, I don't know. But I did. And then I realized that the God that I have was going to promise me salvation if I lived in the right way and he was going to promise me understanding. That's what I'm sort of asking for . . . let me understand why I was tested."

Such openness to doubt and, in particular, to the persistence of suffering runs counter to powerful currents of American Christianity that stress the blessings (mostly material) that will flow to those who believe (and donate), as well as to the premium so many Christians place on voicing a confident and undiluted conviction, no matter what the reality.

For instance, compare the testimony of Elizabeth Edwards to that of her husband, who frequently touted his faith -- as it seems every candidate for office must -- which he said came "roaring back" after the death of Wade. Edwards alternately cited Jesus to reprove Americans for not caring for the poor and for his (albeit reluctant) opposition to gay marriage.

John Edwards, who was raised a devout Southern Baptist and is now a Methodist, told Beliefnet in 2007 that his Christian faith also helped him deal with Elizabeth's cancer.

"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," he said. "And when I'm faced with difficult decisions, which I regularly am, I very often go to Him in prayer."

This was at the time Edwards was having an affair with a campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, who would soon bear their child.

The testimony of Elizabeth Edwards, by contrast, seems much more human, but is also orthodox in channeling the Stoic philosophy that influenced early Christians along with the biblical tradition of lamentation, from the Psalmist whose words are echoed in the cry of Jesus dying on the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

And Elizabeth Edwards' view that Christians should take care of others not out of a self-interested salvation but out of selflessness and love of God is also about as mainstream as you can get, since it was the command of Jesus himself.

Moreover, Edwards seemed increasingly embedded in what might be described as the "communion of saints," relying on those around her to provide the spiritual support she so badly needed and desired.

"Connections have enriched and sustained me; they have strengthened me by holding me up when I needed it, and they have strengthened me by letting me hold up my end when it was needed," she wrote in her 2006 memoir, "Saving Graces."

That communal sense of the faith is also characteristic of American believers, as demonstrated by an extensive study released Tuesday, the same day Edwards passed away. The surveys showed that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people and that the satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation rather than factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God's love or presence.

Whatever Elizabeth Edwards believed at the hour of her death is known only to God, and is beyond the scope of our ability to judge or to affect. But her honesty in posing hard questions that most leave unasked -- or simply gloss over with biblical bromides -- seems like a legacy equal to the joys and griefs of her life.

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Maybe she didn't mention "God" because she didn't believe in fairy tales.

February 17 2011 at 4:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

We each get to choose our personal faith, belief, or lack therof. No one has the right to comment on another person's thoughts in this regard. That someone chooses to critique anyone else's last thoughts is totally repugnant.

January 09 2011 at 8:40 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

"Christians" practice a religion ABOUT Jesus, not the religion OF Jesus. They are quick to criticize, accuse, slander and abuse. Their belief in an angry God that demands--and allegedly has committed--child sacrifice (Passover, Jesus on the cross) has such a horrific and barbaric message, yet "Christians" dare criticize a dying woman's spiritual focus that happens not to include blood sacrifice. The "Christian" god is devoid of love and compassion, just an angry old man who threatens his followers into obedience. If he were a real human being he would be in jail for his crimes against children.

I'll never forget when my dying friend turned toward a minister who entered his hospice room uninvited and said, "Get the hell out of here! I don't need any crap from you. Let me die in peace." Amen.

January 07 2011 at 1:34 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Ray and Carmen


The left doesn't embrace the idea that mentioning Christianity is offensive to non-Christians. What we embrace is the fact that your religious belief is YOUR BELIEF, and not to be forced onto anyone else. Religion has no place in matters of state, and should never be used as a basis for law in a FREE nation. Also, you can't use your religion to dispute scientific facts, such as evolution and the age of the earth being billions of years, not 6000 years.

Tannirocker I wonder why it is that the Left espouses that Christianity is our belief and not to be forced onto anyone else, but then they proceed to force many of their beliefs like Homosexuals should have the same rights as a Man and Woman who marry, or It is a Womans Right to choose rather or not she wants to keep her baby or not. Now these are beliefs that have been truely forced the Liberal groups that believe this have used litigation, protests, mass media and ever other method available to them to usher this belief into Laws that all must abide by. I cannot think of any such actions taken by those of the christian faith to ensure that their beliefs are recognized and obeyed.

January 06 2011 at 5:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply


January 06 2011 at 3:36 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

How sad that so many Christians will bash anyone who has a view different from their own. It's enough to make one turn against Christianity. But, never fear, in another few months they'll be selling an entirely different story about Ms Edwards' death bed views, as they did with Voltaire, Darwin, and so many others.

December 24 2010 at 12:11 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Many who claim they are Christians are not. Look at the RC Church's priests. God knows those that are His. People should not specualte where one is spending eternity. That is God's territory.

December 20 2010 at 12:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The comment about the "left" not believing a g-d, HELLO! we do not believe in you "MEAN SPIRITED g-d!

December 18 2010 at 2:33 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Look around folks...Most of the problems existing in this world today, can be traced back to religion...The only thing measurable that comes out of these groups are their big buildings...

December 17 2010 at 3:01 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to davmayf5's comment

While it is quite predictable that persons (such as Ms. Edwards) who have experienced an affluent, coddled existence has the leisure to expound on faith as one of many life choices, the vast majority of humanity struggles for the most minimal of life's pleasures and nourishments. For these, "faith" provides the primary (if not sole) access to comfort and hope they will ever experience.
As Karl Marx wrote in the often ignored line preceeding "Religion is the opiate of the people".., "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions."
Surely, only the cruel and heartless would wish to deprive those with so little this crumb of comfort upon which they feast.
You, sir, are cruel and heartless.

January 16 2011 at 10:10 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I agree whole heartedly with Paul, this truly was an uncommon person. She would have made a wonderful First Lady. Rather than reiterate everything that Paul said,
I will only propose that Elizabeth Edwards not be forgotten as an example of how large a human soul can grow when blessed by intelligence, integrity, character and inner strength. As for those who voice hateful things against her, let their iniquities be banished and their unChristian bile be banished to the the dark regins from which it spewed forth.

December 16 2010 at 4:44 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

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