Friday, August 08, 2008

john edwards and the question of public and private morality

The breaking news of this afternoon--that the former senator of our state and candidate for the vice-presidency John Edwards has admitted to an extra-marital affair within the context of his wife Elizabeth's battle with cancer---is tragic on a number of levels. The sad events await more truth to be revealed, and of course we do live in a country where one is innocent until proven guilty, but this much is apparent: once again, the damaging residue of the divide between public and private morality comes to light. Edwards has been a strong, even prophetic voice on the subject of poverty, which is the great moral evil of our nation, and yet this public work, which is so essential, and so needed, and his narrative of the two Americas, which is so truthful, is undermined by a private moral failure. One prays for the Edwards family, and for the restoration of all that is broken. And one also laments the distraction and the diminishing of the message.

The moral life is strongest and most appealing when it holds together the public and private. For this reason there are no private sins, or private sins without social consequence (note the lust of Bill Clinton or the sloth of George Bush, and the havoc created among countless people in the world and indeed in the creation itself). Our private lives flow into our public ones. There has been much discussion this week about the Archbishop of Canterbury's distinction between his personal feelings about same sex relationships and his actions related to his official role as head of the Anglican Church. Can one hold to this distinction? Yes. Is it ideal? No. Finally, the role becomes exhausting, and the need for alignment of person and work takes precedence.

Intelligent people do make mistakes, and all human beings commit sin. And yet we yearn for the integrity of the public and the private. These two realities are best held together when there is real accountability within community (Christian friendship) and ongoing acknowledgement of our human frailty (confession of sin, repentance and absolution). In the meantime, John Edwards becomes the very public face that conveys the disintegration of the whole into separate and weakened public and private spheres, and, simultaneously, the moral agenda to which he gave voice is pushed aside, awaiting a hearing on another day.


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