Defense: John Edwards a sinner, not a criminal

CHRIS KEANE REUTERS Former U.S. Senator John Edwards leaves the federal court house in Greensboro, North Carolina April 24, 2012. … Continued

CHRIS KEANE

REUTERS

Former U.S. Senator John Edwards leaves the federal court house in Greensboro, North Carolina April 24, 2012. Edwards, 58, is accused of secretly soliciting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign funds from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress during his failed bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

John Edwards is “a man who has committed many sins but no crimes.” That was the recent line from the defense at his trial, and true or not, it’s both a heartening and disturbing claim.

On the upside, the idea that one can commit sins–moral or theological misdeeds–yet still be within the law, is a good thing, especially in a world in which more and more people feel that the line between personal faith and public policy should be erased. In fact, the defense’s claim that Edwards committed sins and not crimes reminds us that in a culture which respects freedom of religion, that distinction must always be maintained.

Sin describes the stain of a religious failing –one which may also constitute a legal transgression but not necessarily. The fact that sin and crime are not identical, as they are in theocratic states, preserves the notion that some areas of life should be ruled by laws and that humans may attempt to influence, but should not compel or control through government. If we lose that distinction we lose one of the hallmarks of American culture and law for the almost three centuries, not to mention that we endanger each member of our society.

To be sure, if the gap between what is legal and what is good grows too large, then the law loses much of its authority. Authority, in a democracy grows, ideally, from the bottom up. Authority is a function, not simply of coercive power, but a reflection of how people collectively authorize their leaders and their institutions to govern. That is why the defense’s claim is also disturbing.

It is disturbing to imagine that one can be, in the words of classical rabbinic thought, a scoundrel (love that word!) who acts within the boundaries of the law. That possibility can make people cynical about the legal system and especially about those leaders who seem to live forever in that morally questionable zone. It can also cause one to give up on any notion of goodness beyond what the law can demand. Neither choice however, serves us well –not politically and not personally.

Giving up on law altogether, or demanding a legal system which leaves no room for personal choice and the potential for error which accompanies it, destroys individual dignity in the name of abstract goodness. Political systems that do that, however well-intentioned, typically do pretty awful things to real people in the name of their abstract ideals.

Giving up on a sense of the greater good impoverishes us personally. It limits moral imagination and aspiration. The fact that everyone falls short of their ideals is not an excuse to not try to do better.

The distinction between sinner and criminal is one worth preserving and even celebrating. Whether John Edwards is either or both is to be determined- each decision to be made by the appropriate, and graciously separate, authorities.

About

Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • smv604

    Nice try Mr. Edwards’ defense team, but this case is not about sin. And dear Mr. Hirschfield, I am sorry that you took the bait, and then used it to pontificate about the role of religion in our society. Religion had done a fairly good job of providing the underpinning of many laws in our culture, and done so with great success. It is sad that you cannot give credit where credit is due, and only find the faults in that. But really, common, Mr. Edwards is not on trial for sin, he broke campaign finance laws, he lied about it, and so on.

  • SODDI

    Just another hypocritical Evangelical – and a criminal who violated campaign law to hush up an extramarital affair.

    Send him to jail with George W. Bush and Dick Fuld. A little hard time for the lot of them will do this nation a world of good.

  • TopTurtle

    Two things are apparent based on the scant attention I’ve payed to this case:

    1. John Edwards is a first rate jerk.

    2. If what Mr. Edwards, his campaign, and his donors did is not illegal, it should be.

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