Article Info

published: 1/21/08
updated: 2/14/14

John Edwards and Religion

What is Jonathan Edwards' Religion?

John Edwards grew up in a Baptist home. His father was a deacon at his church. Edwards lost his Baptist convictions in college; nevertheless, he and his wife Elizabeth attended church after they were married. His faith returned in 1996 when his teenage son was killed in a car accident. Later he became a member of a United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Fast Facts on John Edwards

Age: 54
Education: University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, J.D., 1977; North Carolina State University, B.A., 1974
Political Party: Democrat
Religion: United Methodist. Personal Religion and Beliefs
On Abortion: Pro-choice. Favors funding for "family planning." Views on Abortion
On Church and State: "Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion." Supports faith-based initiatives. Views on Church and State
On the Death Penalty: Supports. But "we need reforms... to ensure that defendants receive fair trials... with full access to DNA testing." Views on the Death Penalty
On Homosexuality: Opposes gay marriage. Supports civil unions. States should decide policy. It is "the single hardest social issue for me personally." Views on Homosexuality
On Medical Ethics: Supports stem cell research. Views on Medical Ethics

John Edwards on His Personal Religion and Beliefs

"And I lost a son in 1996, and my faith came roaring back. And it played an enormous role in my ability to get through that period, and it stayed with me and has been enormously important." [7/9/04]

Edwards became a United Methodist and is a member of the Edenton Street Methodist Church in Raleigh, where he was also on the board of the faith-based Urban Ministries of Wake County. In Washington, he has attended the more liberal Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church. Edwards has also co-chaired the heavily evangelical National Prayer Breakfast, where he led a prayer in 2002." [7/9/04]

"I've done what I think a lot of Americans have done, which [is]: I was raised in a very Christian home and a Southern Baptist church, and baptized in the Southern Baptist church. My dad has been a deacon in the Southern Baptist church for many years. In fact, we went back to my church a few weeks ago and he was getting the Lay Person of the Year Award, which we were all very proud of him for.

"But when I went away to college, I drifted away from my faith. Even after Elizabeth and I got married, I had drifted away. It isn't that we didn't exercise faith. We would go to church, but it was not the sort of dominant day-to-day living faith that it is for me today. And in 1996, on a day I'll never forget, my 16 year old son died. And the days after that, when I was trying to survive and Elizabeth's trying to survive, my faith came roaring back and has stayed with me since that time, and helped me deal with the personal challenges we've had. Not only the death of my son, but some of the politics and the difficulty of that on our family. Elizabeth's breast cancer. All the things that we've seen, which is not that unusual for families." [3/07]

"It's a very dangerous business – that intersection [of religion and politics]. I don't like to talk about my faith openly. I do in answer to questions, but I don't usually bring it up myself. My belief in Christ plays an enormous role in the way I view the world. But I think I also understand the distinction between [my faith and] my job as president of the United States, my responsibility to be respectful of and to embrace all faith beliefs in this country. One of the problems that we've gotten into is some identification of the president of the United States with a particular faith belief as opposed to showing great respect for all faith beliefs." [9/20/07]

"There was a significant period of my life where I wasn't close to the Lord. I wasn't praying. I wasn't seeking His advice and counsel. I wasn't always looking to Him, saying, as I pray, to do His will and not my own. I became more interested in my own desires and will than His will. When Wade [his 16-year-old son] died, I was in intense pain and trying to deal with that pain and cope with it. It just came roaring back to me how much I was dependent on my faith, on God, and that I was not in control." [9/20/07]

References and Further Reading

  1. "John Edwards and Religion." PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, July 9, 2004.
  2. David Kuo, "John Edwards: 'My Faith Came Roaring Back'." Beliefnet, March 2007.
  3. Ariel Sabar, "John Edwards: Working-Class Values and a Closely-Held Faith." Christian Science Monitor, September 20, 2007.

John Edwards on Abortion

"On the issue of abortion, I think -- I believe in a woman's right to choose, but I think this is an extraordinarily difficult issue for America. And I think it is very important for the president of the United States to recognize, while I believe the government should not make these health-care decisions for women -- I believe they should have the freedom to make them themselves -- this is a very difficult issue for many people. And I think we have to show respect for people who have different views about this." [4/26/07]

Voted No on S.1692: "A bill to amend title 18, United States Code, to ban partial birth abortions." [10/21/99]

References and Further Reading

  1. "Transcript: Democratic presidential debate in S.C." MSNBC, April 26, 2007.
  2. "U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 106th Congress - 1st Session." U.S. Senate, October 21, 1999.

John Edwards on Church and State

"Q: In 2004, John Kerry said that he wouldn't let his faith affect his decision making. Does it affect yours?
Edwards: Yes, it does. I do believe in the separation of church and state. But I don't think separation of church and state means you have to be free from your faith. My faith informs everything I think and do. It's part of my value system. And to suggest that I can somehow separate and divorce that from the rest of me is not possible. I would not, under any circumstances, try to impose my personal faith and belief on the rest of the country. I don't think that's right. I don't think that's appropriate. But freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion. And I think that anything we can do to promote the idea that people should express their faith is a good thing.
Q: Do you think that America is a Christian nation?
Edwards: That's a good question. I never thought of it quite that way. There's a lot of America that's Christian. I would not describe us, though, on the whole, as a Christian nation. I guess the word 'Christian' is what bothers me, even though I'm a Christian. I think that America is a nation of faith. I do believe that. Certainly by way of heritage--there's a powerful Christian thread through all of American history." [3/07]

"Q: Would it be your hope that a John Edwards Supreme Court would allow public schools to encourage more prayer in schools?
Edwards: What I'm not in favor of is for a teacher to go to the front of the classroom and lead the class in prayer. Because I think that by definition means that that teacher's faith is being imposed on children who will almost certainly come from different faith beliefs. Allowing time for children to pray for themselves, to themselves, I think is not only okay, I think it's a good thing.
Q: What do you think about Ten Commandments being displayed in local courthouses?
Edwards: I guess I've been in courthouses where I've seen the Ten Commandments. I've never had a strong reaction to it. I do think that it's the same issue. How would Muslims feel if they went into that courthouse, and how would people of other faiths feel, Hindus, others feel, if they were in the same circumstance? So I'm sensitive to that. You know, of course it wouldn't offend me because I'm Christian. And I'm certainly not offended by the idea of expressing faith in that circumstance. But probably it causes more trouble than good." [3/07]

"Q: Would an Edwards presidency see aid to faith-based groups expanded?
Edwards: Well, I'll tell you what I have seen, first, as the foundation for what I believe. In the last few years, I have been all over the country going to Community Action centers, faith-based local organizations who are providing help to the poor because of my work on the issue of poverty. And there are a lot of places in America that, without faith-based groups there is no support for the poor. It's just that simple. And [the poor] would not survive without the existence of good, effective faith-based organizations. Before I ever got in politics, I served on the board of Urban Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is a group set up by a consortium of churches. So I know how important faith-based groups are. So the answer is I think is that in an Edwards presidency faith-based groups, I believe, could be used. But I think it is also tricky business. I think you have to be careful about how you implement it for all of the separation of church and state issues, because you don't want discrimination. You don't want federal money going to any organization, including a faith-based group, that's discriminating. So, you have to be very careful about that. And then secondly, I would just be concerned from what I've seen practically about the burden that comes with getting federal dollars--you're going to have accountability, you're going to have audit systems, and you just need to be certain that the faith-based groups are prepared for that, because I think some are not. And that's not the way in which they're used to operating, and I think it could cause a lot of trouble and cause a lot of disenchantment. But, the bottom line is, if you can work through these problems, I think there is a great potential delivery system there." [3/07]

"Q: Is politics corrupting religion?
Edwards: Faith is not a political strategy, and should not be a political strategy. If it is being used as a tool to garner votes, to convince people they should support one political party or the other, I think that is a huge mistake. I believe with every fiber of my being that God is not a Democrat or a Republican and does not support either party. If you're being asked about how you make decisions, what are the things that affect you when you make decisions, I think it's perfectly reasonable under those circumstances to give honest answers about your faith and how your faith affects your value system and what you believe and what you care about. You asked me very early in this interview whether faith plays a role in my views about poverty and what to do about poverty. It does. It plays a very powerful role. So I think it's one of those things that is not a black and white. It's one of those things where you have handle it the right way and with honesty. But I think it's offensive to see any politician, or potential politician, using faith as a political strategy." [3/07]

References and Further Reading

  1. David Kuo, "John Edwards: 'My Faith Came Roaring Back'." Beliefnet, March 2007.

John Edwards on the Death Penalty

"Very serious issue, and it means we need to take lots of serious steps to deal with it, which means using DNA testing. It means making all of the most modern technologies available. It means making the court system work, not just for those who can hire the best lawyers money can buy, but for folks who have to have indigent counsel. I've seen what happens in court rooms. I know how important it is to have a lawyer representing an indigent defendant who knows what they're doing." [2/27/04]

Those men who dragged James Byrd behind that truck in Texas -- they deserve the death penalty. And I think there are some crimes that deserve the ultimate penalty." [2/27/04]

References and Further Reading

  1. Dan Balz, "In Debate, Kerry Touts Experience And Edwards Stresses Electability." Washington Post, February 27, 2004.

John Edwards on Homosexuality and Gay Marriage

"I think [gay marriage] is a decision that should be made on a state-by-state basis. I think each state should be able to make its own decision about what they embrace." [1/22/04]

Q: Do you believe you're born gay?
Edwards: I'm not an expert on sexual orientation. I think that there's a real possibility that people are born gay, yes.
Q: Do you believe that homosexuality is a sin?
Edwards: No.
Q: Do you believe that openly gay men and women should be able to serve in the military.
Edwards: Yes.
Q: And you would do that as president?
Edwards: Absolutely. [2/4/07]

Q: On gay marriage, you said this: "It is [a hard issue] because I'm 53 years old. I grew up in a small town in the rural south. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and so I have a belief system that arises from that. It's part of who I am. I can't make it disappear. I personally feel great conflict about that. I don't know the answer. I wish I did. I think from my perspective it's very easy for me to say, gay civil unions, yes, partnership benefits, yes, but it is something that I struggle with. Do I believe they should have the right to marry? I'm just not there yet." Why not?
Edwards: I think it's from my own personal culture and faith belief. I struggle myself with imposing my faith belief. The question is whether I, as president, should impose my views on gay marriage because I know where it comes from. I'm aware of why I believe what I believe. And I think there is consensus around this idea of no discrimination, partnership benefits, civil unions. [2/4/07]

"What Gov. Richardson did [in New Mexico] and what New Hampshire has done is a great example for the rest of the country, not only civil unions, but all the partnership benefits, including getting rid of this 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. I don't think the federal government has a role in telling either states or religious institutions, churches, what marriages they can bless and can't bless. New Hampshire ought to be able to make that decision for itself, like very other state in the country." [6/3/07]

Q: You said your opposition to gay marriage is influenced by your Southern Baptist background. Most Americans agree it was wrong to use religion to justify slavery, segregation, and denying women the vote. So why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their equal rights?
Edwards: I do not believe that's right. I feel enormous personal conflict about this issue. I want to end discrimination. But I personally have been on a journey on this issue. My wife Elizabeth supports gay marriage. I do not. But this is a very, very difficult issue for me.
Q: The question is, why is it OK to cite religious beliefs when talking about why you don't support something?
Edwards: It's not. I mean, I've been asked a personal question, do I personally support gay marriage? The honest answer to that is I don't. But I think it is absolutely wrong, as president, for me to have used that faith basis as a basis for denying anybody their rights, and I will not do that when I'm president. [7/23/07]

Video: John Edwards answers the above question

"Q: You've raised your faith as part of the reason for your opposition to same-sex marriage.
Edwards: I shouldn't have said that, because I believe, to my core, in equality.
Q: If it is not your faith, then what is at the core of that resistance? I know that you said you're on a journey, and I'm curious where and when you might end up on that journey.
Edwards: I can tell you where I am. First of all, I think you deserve to know the truth, and the truth is that my position on same sex marriage has not changed. I do believe strongly in civil unions and the substantive rights that go with that. I believe we desperately need to get rid of DOMA. I think we need to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell." I think we need to get rid of those things. Today I believe in all these other things, but I do not support same sex marriage. All I can tell you is where I am today. That's the best I can do. You deserve to know that from me." [8/9/07]

"Q: You've expressed your opposition to same-sex marriage, and you've raised your faith as part of the reason for your opposition. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about what is it within your religion that's leading you to this position?
Edwards: Well, I have to tell you, I shouldn't have said that, because I believe, to my core, in equality. It makes perfect sense to me that gay and lesbian couples would say, '"Civil unions, great; 1,100 federal benefits, great; give us these rights, we deserve these rights.' And they're absolutely right about that. But it stops short of real equality. And the only thing I would say about the faith question is I think from my perspective it is wrong -- because we have seen a president in the last six-plus years who tries to impose his faith on the American people. And I think it is a mistake and I will not impose my faith belief on the American people. I don't believe any president should do that. I believe in the separation of church and state." [8/9/07]

Q: Last year some parents of second graders in Lexington, Massachusetts, were outraged to learn their children's teacher had read a story about same-sex marriage, about a prince who marries another prince. Would you be comfortable having this story read to your children as part of their school curriculum?
Edwards: Yes, absolutely. I want my children to understand everything about the difficulties that gay and lesbian couples are faced with every day, the discrimination that they're faced with every single day of their lives. Second grade might be a little tough, but even in second grade to be exposed to all of those possibilities because I don't want to impose my view. Nobody made me God. But what I will do as president is I will lead an effort to make sure that the same benefits that are available to heterosexual couples--1,100, roughly, benefits in the federal government--are available to same-sex couples; that we get rid of DOMA; that we get rid of "don't ask, don't tell." [9/6/07]

Video: John and Elizabeth Edwards' Differences on Gay Marriage

References and Further Reading

  1. "Democratic 2004 Primary Debate at St. Anselm College." January 22, 2004.
  2. "Meet the Press: Meet the Candidates." February 4, 2007.
  3. "2007 Democratic debate at Saint Anselm College." June 3, 2007.
  4. "2007 YouTube Democratic Primary debate, Charleston SC." July 23, 2007.
  5. "2007 HRC/LOGO debate on gay issues." August 9, 2007.
  6. "2007 Democratic primary debate at Dartmouth College." September 6, 2007.

John Edwards on Issues in Medical Ethics

John Edwards signed the following letter from 58 senators:

Dear Mr. President:

We write to urge you to expand the current federal policy concerning embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to be used to treat and better understand deadly and disabling diseases and conditions that affect more than 100 million Americans, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, and many others.

We appreciate your words of support for the enormous potential of this research, and we know that you intended your policy to help promote this research to its fullest. As you know, the Administration's policy limits federal funding only to embryonic stem cells that were derived by August 9, 2001.

However, scientists have told us that since the policy went into effect more than two years ago, we have learned that the embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding will not be suitable to effectively promote this research. We therefore feel it is essential to relax the restrictions in the current policy for this research to be fully explored.

Among the difficult challenges with the current policy are the following:

  • While it originally appeared that 78 embryonic stem cell lines would be available for research, only 19 are available to researchers.
  • All available stem cell lines are contaminated with mouse feeder cells, making their therapeutic use for humans uncertain.
  • It is increasingly difficult to attract new scientists to this area of research because of concerns that funding restrictions will keep this research from being successful.
  • Despite the fact that U.S. scientists were the first to derive human embryonic stem cells, leadership in this area of research is shifting to other countries.

We would very much like to work with you to modify the current embryonic stem cell policy so that it provides this area of research the greatest opportunity to lead to the treatments and cures for which we are all hoping. [6/4/04]

References and Further Reading

  1. "Letter from 58 Senators to the President." U.S. Senate, June 4, 2004.

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