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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.

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Edwards, the eldest of three siblings, was born in 1953 in Seneca, in the northwest corner of South Carolina. By the time his family landed in Robbins, N.C., another small town, a dozen years later, his father had risen from floor worker at a cotton mill to supervisor.

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"My children were well fed and well clothed, and we lived in a decent house, but we had to be very careful with money because there was no extra," his mother, Bobbie Edwards, recalled in a phone interview with the Monitor.

His father advanced to production supervisor in a textile mill, but felt that his lack of a college degree stood in the way of further promotions.

"He knows what working people go through," Wallace Edwards says of his son.

Wallace and Bobbie Edwards taught Sunday School at the First Baptist Church in Robbins. As a boy, Edwards went to services regularly and attended revivals.

"Did the pastor preach hell and damnation? That's part of it, you know – the consequences of sin," Mrs. Edwards says, recalling the church's leaders in those days. "But most of it was the love of God and the promises of God."

Though now seen as a linchpin of the activist Christian right, the Southern Baptist church had very different views about the role of faith in public life in the era of Edwards's childhood.

"We think of evangelical Protestants today as being extremely politically engaged and aware, but historically that hasn't been the case," says Laura Olson, a Clemson University professor who co-edited the book "Christian Clergy in American Politics." "Southern Baptists had for a very long time been very strong advocates of church-state separation and this idea that we don't want to force anyone's religious perspective on anyone else. They saw faith as a very individual thing – between you and God."

After leaving home for college and law school, Edwards says, he drifted away from Christianity.

"There was a significant period of my life where I wasn't close to the Lord," Edwards says. "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."

Hard-working, ambitious, and possessed of a silver tongue, Edwards charmed law-firm colleagues and juries and soon became North Carolina's top personal injury lawyer. He won record verdicts for victims of car accidents, faulty products, and botched medical procedures.

In 1990, at age 37, he was named the youngest member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an invitation-only group of the country's 100 winningest personal injury lawyers.

The verdicts – plaintiffs' lawyers typically keep 30 percent – made him a millionaire many times over. But as he entered politics, they also exposed him to charges of being an "ambulance chaser" whose cases helped drive up healthcare and insurance costs. Edwards has defended his legal work as just one more example of his embrace of powerless people against corporate interests.

In 1996, his 16-year-old son Wade was killed in a car crash, devastating Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. Both quit their law practices to grieve and reassess their lives.

"When Wade died, I was in intense pain and trying to deal with that pain and cope with it," Edwards said in the interview. His faith, he said, "just came roaring back to me."

He joined the United Methodist Church – his wife's denomination – and a Bible study group and began praying every day.

The loss of his son – as well as his wife's diagnosis of breast cancer – convinced him that many aspects of life were beyond his control.

"It just came roaring back to me how much I was dependent on my faith, on God, and that I was not in control," he said in the Monitor interview. The idea that "we can control the things around us, we can control what's going to happen tomorrow" is "how we get through the day," he said. But in reality, he said, "it's completely fake."

He does not believe that prayer can prevent illness or tragedy. "I did pray before my son died; I prayed intensely before Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer and then rediagnosed," he says. "God in his wisdom decides what prayers to answer and what prayers not to answer."