John Edwards' Faith

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I was reading an old entry from 2008central.net that I'd saved in my RSS reader until I had more time. It includes some of the Democratic presidential candidates' discussions of religion. I have a few comments on three of the candidates, but I'm going to treat them in separate posts, starting with John Edwards.

O’BRIEN: What do you say to all the people — and there are millions of people who go to church every Sunday and who are told very clearly by their pastors that, in fact, the Earth was created in six days, that it’s about creationism? Are those people wrong? Are their pastors wrong?
EDWARDS: No. First of all, I grew up in the church and I grew up as a Southern Baptist, was baptized in the Baptist Church when I was very young, a teenager at the time. And I was taught many of the same things. And I think it’s perfectly possible to make our faith, my faith belief system consistent with a recognition that there is real science out there and scientific evidence of evolution. I don’t think those things are inconsistent. I think a belief in God and a belief in Christ, in my case, is not in any way inconsistent with that.

Is that even coherent? I mean everything after the "No" is coherent, but given the question asked, and his initial answer, can he coherently say what he goes on to say? I'm having trouble imagining how unless Edwards is a relativist about religious truth such that these people are correct in their six-day creationism while he is correct in his acceptance of evolution as consistent with his faith.

One reason I worry that that's going on is his answer to the question about gay marriage. He goes on to say that he has a personal belief against gay marriage but doesn't think he could as president enforce his personal religious views. I'm sure that's how many Christians will view these statements, but I think it's a mistake.

As Edwards goes on, it's clear that his worry isn't that there are different truths for different people. He thinks the role of the president is to show respect to all faiths in the country (even Islamicist terrorits?). His problem isn't relativism, according to which all these views are true for those who hold them. It's a confusion between respect for those of different faith systems and embracing different faith systems. He seems to use the terminology of respect as if it's synonymous with the terminology of embracing.

But this is a very bad idea. Why should I embrace views that I think are completely wrong? In certain contexts and to a certain extent I should tolerate them. I should recognize that, while people holding such beliefs are wrong, they have that right. I should allow for their practice to a certain extent (when it doesn't involve flying planes into buildings, for instance). If I had a position that represents people from various faiths, it might be nice if I acknowledge that publicly in some way and not assume that all people I represent have the same views I have. But surely I should embrace those views as if they are true or all equally good. That's not what tolerance is.

So I wonder if this confusion is what lies behind his original answer to the evolution question. He does personally disagree with six-day creationists, but is he just saying that he respects and tolerates them and therefore has to embrace that view also? But then why does he go into all that stuff about how he was raised among people who believed that? Maybe it's just to indicate that he was taught all that and yet realized that he can retain his faith while accepting evolution. But I don't think he's being very clear about what he means, and I'm not convinced he has a coherent view. There's at least the confusion betwen tolerance and embracing that's at work here.

I'm suspicious about many politicians at that level who speak about their faith. Edwards certainly seems much more sincere than John Kerry or Howard Dean, but this sort of thing makes me wonder, especially from someone as well-educated as John Edwards. I do have to say that I'm in agreement with Edwards' fairly strong view of divine sovereignty. That's refreshing to hear from a politician, since only a faker who has been completely immersed in something like evangelicalism might think to spout it off insincerely. But for now I'm happy to treat him as a thoroughly confused evangelical who also happens to be way on the other end of the political spectrum from me.

11 Comments

I think the "no" is non-cognitive. He doesn't want to give the impression that he's against the evangelical tribe. That's all that most voters care about. If he gave a literal answer, too many would dismiss his 'nuanced' explanation, and just assume that he's inherently opposed to "the millions of people who go to church every Sunday".

(Compare Obama's denial of the possibility that soldiers can die in vain. Stupid voters force politicians to say stupid things themselves. It's sad.)

You're probably right that the "no" doesn't have the semantic content that it appears to have when taken as a literal response to what he was asked. But that's my point. There's no coherent way to take the word as what it means. If we want to be charitable toward him in terms of using language in a meaningful way, we end being uncharitable to him in terms of his having coherent views. If we want to be charitable to him in terms of coherent views, we make him out to be using language in a way that isn't just non-standard (as is the case with the few Bushisms that amount to genuine complaints) but is completely incoherent semantically. I guess you're more willing to side with the latter as more charitable. Maybe that's right. But what he goes on to say does lend some credence to some incoherence in his thought on the issue.

I see another way of looking at things. Edwards' "no" is (one would assume) an answer to the question "are those people/pastors wrong?" Edwards may have taken that question not as being about creation, but as being about the Bible or Christianity in general. ("Is their faith wrong?") That would make the rest of his answer make a lot more sense to me.

"But what he goes on to say does lend some credence to some incoherence in his thought on the issue."

How so? His recounting of personal history is just to establish his tribal credentials: he's "one of us". I'm sure he wouldn't bother saying any of that if addressing a more rational audience.

Jonathan, that doesn't sound all that natural to me, but maybe that's how he heard the question.

Richard, I meant his confusion of tolerance and embracing.

Edwards uses of the word "real" in front of science. This suggests he thinks the Bible and Christ are bed time stories which can be shoehorned into what's real (science).

I'd actually wish Democrats would be more open about their beliefs that the Bible is a book of child's stories and platitudes. Then we could have a _real_ dialog.

I'm pretty sure he means to contrast real science with pseudo-science, not real science with scripture (which isn't science in any modern sense of the term).

I'm not sure what he'd include in pseudo-science, though. It would at least include Answers in Genesis and other six-day stuff. It might include intelligent design, which it wouldn't surprise me to to discover he's bought the standard lefty line on.

What you're suggesting may be true about some of the other Democratic candidates, but I suspect it's true of a couple of the Republican ones too. I very much doubt this is what Edwards meant by "real science", though.

Jeremy, you are confused. First, it is clear what Edwards means by No. That people who believe in "creationism" and who believe "the Earth was created in six days" are not wrong. He then says that Evolution has support from Science ("real" science most likely means Scientific Method science), however, Christians can understand/accept Evolutionary theory and still believe Genesis. "I don't think those things are inconsistent." His meaning is pretty clear - both grammatically and politically. Your feigned confusion is a little over the top. Secondly, "Islamicist terrorists" don't represent the faith of Islam (in any sort of mainstream way) any more than Christian terrorists represent Christianity. Terrorist are terrorists, not believers - they use the faith for political gain.

Wait, so exactly how is it that someone can believe that the earth was created in six days and that evolutionary theory as standardly accepted (which involves much more time) is true? You think it's clear that that's what he means. I think it's clear that he's a lot smarter than he could be if he were to be meaning that.

When did I say that Islamicist terrorists represent the faith of Islam? I've never said such a thing, and I certainly didn't say it here. I did say that such people have a faith, and accepting all faiths requires accepting that one. But that doesn't imply that all Muslims accept such a radical agenda.

Jeremy -

You are right and wrong. First, "Wait, so exactly how is it that someone can believe that the earth was created in six days and that evolutionary theory as standardly accepted (which involves much more time) is true? You think it's clear that that's what he means."
Yes, that is exactly what he means. I believe the phrase is "having it both ways" (like being a social conservative AND having exciting, anonymous gay sex in the men's room). Then you continue.."I think it's clear that he's a lot smarter than he could be if he were to be meaning that." You are right about the first part but apparently you forgot you are referring to a politician/lawyer. That such a beast could say such a thing is easily imaginable. As you well know, he won't point out that 6 day creationism is not possible given the last century of scientific work (don't want to offend the religious types) and he won't say some anti-science thing for fear that many people will stop taking him seriously (take note Sen. McCain). I infer you are holding the statement under discussion to some sort of "making sense to a normal human" standard - why would you do that?

Secondly, you said Islamicist terrorists represent the faith of Islam when YOU DESCRIBED THEM AS ISLAMIC!!! What other faith would they be operating under???? What do you mean by faith in this sentence.."He thinks the role of the president is to show respect to all faiths in the country (even Islamicist terrorits?)." One meaning is "Faith" as in the commonly accepted tenents of a mainstream religion. The second meaning is as anyone's personal beliefs - regardless of how whacked they are. If you mean the former, then you are lumping Islamicist terrorists in with muslims - if you are not doing this then they are simply terrorist. If you mean little-f faith then the concern expressed in the above sentence is obviously dumb because no one would respect all the beliefs of everyone in a nation of 300 million people.

First of all, one can be a social conservative on particular issues (e.g. being pro-life, opposing gay marriage) while being pro-gay (e.g. favoring civil unions, being opposed to employment discrimination against gays, hiring gays yourself). All the evidence points to Larry Craig being exactly that sort of person, regardless of whether you believe him or the police officer in this case.

As for politicians deliberately saying contradictory things, I will accept that sometimes politicians say one thing to one group and another to another. I would not expect a politician with a lawyer's training to be stupid enough to say contradictory things back-to-back to the same audience, at least not in such an obvious way. It's politically stupid, not just intellectually inconsistent. John Edwards is an experienced politician. I do think this is surprising from someone of his experience and intelligence.

I don't recall describing anyone as Islamic terrorists. I did refer to Islamicist terrorists. Describing someone according to what religion they happen to belong to is not tantamount to taking them as representative of that religion, but I didn't do that anyway. I described them with a much narrower label, one describing a much narrower faith, one that sees harming others as a very good thing. Islamicism is a religion, and it is a pretty foul one. It shares many of its beliefs in common with mainstream Islam, but it has key religious reasons for some of its more harmful tenets. There's no argument that those tenets are not religious, and thus it does make sense to refer to it as a faith. Not all terrorists have religious reasons. These people do, and they are reasons not shared by many Muslims.

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