‘Power of resilience and hope’

If you’re looking for reflections on God and religion in mainstream news coverage of Elizabeth Edwards’ death, the hunt may take a while.

Mentions here and there of faith, grace and religion punctuate major obituaries reviewed by your GetReligionistas. But in general, the reports stop short of meaty details on what Edwards believed and even if she had a particular religious affiliation.

Religion ghosts, anyone?

In Edwards’ home state, The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., included this detail concerning how the 1996 death of her 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car accident influenced Elizabeth and husband John:

Wade’s death changed the arc of the Edwardses’ lives. They found religion, changed careers from law to politics and added to their family.

“We asked ourselves, what gives us joy?” she recalled. “Well that was easy. Children gave us joy. Should we have more children? That would be wonderful, but I was 46. Could we?”

Found religion. Does it get any better — er, vaguer — than that?

Well, OK, maybe it does. Edwards titled her best-selling 2006 memoir “Saving Graces.” The Los Angeles Times quoted from that memoir:

“In many ways John and I were different,” she wrote in “Saving Graces.” “I had traveled the world; he had never left the South….But we had each moved from place to place, following our fathers’ jobs. We had each lived in company housing — military bases for me, mill villages for John. Neither of us had a chance to be rooted in a place, so we were rooted in family and faith, the things we took with us.”

Rooted in family and faith. But what kind of faith?

Sorry, that’s it.

For a different twist, The Washington Post’s obit contained this section:

The publication of an anonymously sourced book, “Game Change,” this year shocked many, because it punctured “the lie of Saint Elizabeth,” as writers John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote, repeating allegations that she berated campaign staffers and raged profanely at volunteers.

“With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive,” they wrote. “At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know that she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. She called her spouse a ‘hick’ in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks.”

Jennifer Palmieri, a former Edwards campaign official, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed defense of her friend: “Elizabeth would be the first to tell you that she is opinionated, unyielding, blunt and unwilling to suffer fools. Saint Elizabeth she is not. And no one laughs louder than she at that notion. But she is also one of the wisest, warmest and funniest girlfriends a woman could hope to have, truly a call-her-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-she-will-drop-everything-to-help sort.”

Saint. That’s a religious term, right? But still, there’s no substantive discussion of Edwards’ religion.

Perhaps that’s because Edwards’ religion wasn’t so easy to pin down — or to describe, although she apparently served at one time on the board of the Call to Renewal, a leading organization of the religious left.

Writing in “Saving Graces” about her son’s death, Edwards referenced the trials of Job from the Bible (page 140). She shared her dialogue with other grieving mothers:

We are not Job, I wrote, though the wind took away our child. These deaths cannot be tests of our faith. The level of malevolence or ambivalence from a god that this conclusion requires is unthinkable. We may each, like Job, face questions of faith, including facing questions of our own pride. The lucky of us come to a complete and comforting faith. It is hard not to wish for us all the peace that comes with that acceptance.

But her final statement, posted on her Facebook page the day before her death, did not mention God. Instead, as one blogger pointed out, it noted “three saving graces” and “a faith in the power of resilience and hope”:

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. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human.

But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.

Writing for Christianity Today, GetReligion’s own Sarah Pulliam Bailey cited a 2007 American Prospect piece in which Edwards discussed her theology:

Asked by Beth Corbin of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to explain how her faith beliefs inform her politics, Elizabeth Edwards gave an extraordinarily radical answer: She doesn’t believe in salvation, at least not in the standard Christian understanding of it, and she said as much:

“I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God. I do not have an intervening God. I don’t think I can pray to him — or her — to cure me of cancer.” After the words “or her,” Mrs. Edwards gave a little laugh, indicating she knew she had waded into water perhaps a bit deeper than the audience had anticipated. Then she continued:

“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 that believe 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.”

Extremely interesting and relevant. Just don’t look for that kind of insight in this morning’s paper.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • melxiopp

    On MSNBC’s Hardball last night, Chris Matthews spoke about a conversation he had with Elizabeth Edwards where he told her she “seemed Catholic” and she responded that she was “raised Italian” so that might be why he thought that. As noted above, Elizabeth Edwards’ maiden name was Palmieri – and she only gave up her maiden name after the death of her son.

  • Jerry

    Thanks for what you were able to find given the media’s silence on her religious beliefs and practices. I tend to find celebrity religion boring, but when we have a story like hers along with tantalizing quotes, I did become interested in her religious beliefs.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks for that information, melxiopp.

    Jerry, appreciate your perspective, as always.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    On NPR this morning there was an interview with a journalist (i can’t recall who) who had done extensive interviews of her for a profile. He said that she didn’t believe in a personal God who could answer prayer. He said that the most outstanding thing about her was “brutal honesty,” and cited her saying that she couldn’t believe in a God who would allow her son to be blown off the highway and die. She told him that if God wouldn’t save her son from that, that it was pointless to pray for a cure to her cancer.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Interesting. Thanks, Ann. Do you think that kind of detail belongs in the obits?

  • TysonK

    melxiopp,
    Mrs. Edwards’ maiden name was not Palmieri; that’s the last name of the Edwards “campaign official” and self-described friend quoted in the WaPo obit. However, her maiden name was (as the piece itself notes) Anania, which sounds just as Italian to me.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Bobby,
    I’m all for detailed obits, but how much religious information to include depends on how significant faith was to a an individual’s life. I would argue that Elizabeth Edwards’ loss of faith should be mentioned because it affected her approach to cancer and because it was a direct result of her son’s horrific death. In that sense it’s organic to her story. I’m not much of a political junkie, so I could be wrong about this, but I didn’t sense that Elizabeth Edwards sought to be a public voice on religious matters one way or the other. She was, however, a symbol of how women face hardship. And faith — or lack thereof — is always part of that story.
    Ann

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks, Ann. Given your expertise, really appreciate your insight.

  • Jimmy Mac

    “Sometimes I like to put sands of doubt into the oyster of my faith.” Brother Cadfael

    “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Sir Francis Bacon

    “Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith.” Thomas Merton.

    I don’t think any of us should venture to judge her relationship with her God.


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