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.