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John Edwards: working-class values and a closely held faith

While Christian beliefs help gird his antipoverty campaign, he believes that politicians who identify closely with one religion cannot be inclusive.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 2007



Manchester, N.h.

A major address on poverty would seem an ideal place for a Democratic presidential hopeful to toss in a mention of religious faith, particularly if he was on a ticket that narrowly lost the 2004 election to so-called "values voters."

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But in long speeches on his signature issue this spring and summer, John Edwards said nothing about the Christian beliefs he says help underpin his antipoverty campaign.

He instead chose the more universal language of ethics and public policy. Poverty is as much "the great moral issue of our time," he said, as a practical threat to the economy and national security.

For Mr. Edwards, a Southern Baptist-turned-United Methodist, faith is deeply felt but intensely private, a refuge after family tragedy and a daily source of wisdom, but not a platform for politics.

"It's a very dangerous business – that intersection" of religion and politics, Edwards said in an interview with the Monitor. "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."

His reticence owes as much to a Baptist upbringing that cast faith as a private relationship with God as the belief that a politician too closely identified with one religion cannot be inclusive in a diverse America.

"My belief in Christ plays an enormous role in the way I view the world," Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, said at a presidential forum on faith in June. "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," he added, in an apparent allusion to President Bush, "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."

At a recent campaign stop, he went so far as to suggest that politicians should stay out of matters – like abortion – that were properly between an individual and their spiritual beliefs.

"Nobody made me God about this," he said at a rally in Wolfeboro, N.H., last month, after a question from the antiabortion director of a local Catholic group. "Because nobody made me God about it, I don't believe it's right for government to tell women what to do."

His reluctance to mix religion and politics is also a product of political considerations. Edwards has said that if Democrats stung by electoral losses suddenly start talking religion on the stump, they risk charges of opportunism and insincerity.

"People are naturally skeptical of any politician who talks at length and openly about their faith, because they assume, just like with a lot of things, that they do it for political gain," Edwards told the Monitor.

Uplifting blue-collar Americans

Edwards is far more at ease – to the point of overkill, some critics have said – talking about a more earthly source of his values: his mill-town childhood in Georgia and the Carolinas.

The son of a factory worker and a rural letter carrier, Edwards was the first person in his family to go to college. He has portrayed his rise from millworker's son to millionaire lawyer and US senator as proof that anyone can succeed if hurdles like poverty, bad schools, and inadequate health insurance are swept out of the way.

"I am still optimistic that America can be a country where anyone who works hard is able to get ahead and create a good life for their family," he said in an antipoverty speech in New Hampshire in March. "I am optimistic we can do these things because my own life says it is possible."

Many of his campaign pledges seem aimed at improving the lives of blue-collar Americans. A centerpiece is his plan to end poverty in 30 years through a mix of a higher minimum wage, stronger unions, an expanded housing voucher program, and tougher laws against predatory lending. His proposal would also create a million government-subsidized "steppingstone" jobs, plus new work and child-support requirements for fathers of children on welfare.

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