The devil’s accusations against us are often true and so are sometimes, it turns out, those of the National Enquirer. Over a year ago the tabloids announced a secret affair and “love child” for former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.)—the Democrats’ 2004 nominee for vice president. Edwards admitted the adultery and now, according to news sources more reputable than the Enquirer, is mulling acknowledging his ex-mistress’ baby as his own.
At one level, we might wonder why this sad, tawdry story matters at all. After all, Elvis Presley is more likely to be elected president than John Edwards (no doubt through the success of a conspiracy theorist “deather” movement successfully questioning where the Tennessee death certificate is).
Edwards is a pariah treated with barely veiled scorn even in the latest memoirs of his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth. Edwards is probably rattling around in his mansion rehearsing how he could have been, at least, attorney general of the United States and, at best, the eventual commander-in-chief.
It also just isn’t true that the Edwards scandal is indicative of some unique rot of liberal “family values.” After all, Republican Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina also concealed paternity of his child for a generation. Worse still, he breathed out racial segregationist rhetorical fire while he denied the very existence of his African-American daughter.
But the Edwards story matters.
It matters because it highlights, first of all, a key cause of the poverty Sen. Edwards once commendably made a central aspect of his presidential campaign. Numberless children wake up in grinding poverty because their fathers are “deadbeat dads” just like (if the story is true) Edwards, just without the means to secretly transfer funds for child support.
In admitting the affair, Edwards tells us he fell due to his narcissism. He started to see himself as “special,” and exempt from the boundaries of marriage and fatherhood. Of course he did. So does the impoverished teenage boy who skips town when his girlfriend sees two pink lines. So does the middle-aged mid-level success story who offers $300 to his paramour to “put it all behind us.”
Former Edwards aides are stunned by his recklessness. He was willing to put the Democratic Party’s entire electoral fortunes at risk. What, they ask, if he had won the nomination before this story broke? But every man drunk on the buzz of hormonal desire and ego-stroking is just as reckless, just relative to whatever he has.
Edwards risked more than his career or his party or even his country. He risked, if the stories are true, his little daughter’s very identity.
And that’s where it matters to us. Because no matter how many jokes are made about the “Brek Girl candidate,” we’re all vulnerable here.
We know from the Bible that a child learns who he or she is in relation to his or her father. That’s why persons in the scriptural story are known as “Joshua son of Nun” or “John son of Zebedee.”
Our personal identities are shaped after a cosmic pattern, a Father from whom fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named (Eph 3:14-15). We reflect a Father-Son dynamic in which a Father God announces “you are my Son, this day I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7).
That’s why Jesus’ Kingdom ministry doesn’t start with a display of sovereignty but with an announcement of paternity. As Jesus comes up out of the waters of Jordan, he hears “You are my beloved Son, and with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
Every child is made to hear this from his parents, to be acknowledged, to be loved, and to find an identity in that.
This is threatened in our churches, and not by John Edwards. It’s threatened by generations of men, including evangelical Christians, who are just as willing to sacrifice a child’s identity for the sake of what we want.
A few weeks ago, I felt my knees buckle as I knelt down during a closing worship service invitation at the church where I preach. A four year-old boy asked me, “Preacher, please pray my Mama and Daddy don’t get a divorce.” That sense of horror hit me also the next day when I realized how, in the frenetic “busyness” of my ministry I hadn’t been home to pray with my sons at their bedtime in almost a week.
We shouldn’t rejoice in scandals like this, no matter what the truth turns out to be. We should see in this the need to call out a hurting people to a welcoming Father, a Father who is “not ashamed” to call us his own (Heb 11:16).
If John Edwards is the father of this baby, I hope he’ll admit it. If not, I hope she finds her dad, whoever he is. And I hope she’ll discover what it’s like to have a Daddy who looks her in the eyes and sings out, “You are my beloved child and with you I am well pleased.”
And I hope John Edwards discovers, or rediscovers, what that’s like, too.