This past Monday evening, I heard on the news that Elizabeth Edwards had stopped cancer treatment. There on the television screen were the words that became her public goodbye, as she passed away a day later:
“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 in the Facebook post. “These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined.”
As I read those words and contemplated this woman’s heroic fight against cancer, it occurred to me her message was missing the key word that politicians and public figures in America frequently use: God.
Turns out that, in the days since she died, other people have noticed, too. So, did Elizabeth Edwards believe in God? And if so, why didn’t she talk about it as part of her last public statement?
In an interview sometime earlier this year, while sharing her thoughts on death, she spoke with conviction that she would be reunited with her son Wade, who died in 1996. To me at least, her belief was evident. Why, then, the omission?
Here are several excerpts from religion writer David Gibson’s thoughts on the subject The complete article, Why Elizabeth Edwards Left God Out of Her Last Goodbye from AOL’s Politics Daily, is here; links within the excerpts below were provided in the source material.
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.”
“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.”
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?”
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.