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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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.

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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.

Unusual for a presidential candidate, he has also pushed for a larger American role – including a cabinet-level post – in the fight against global poverty. He says his $5 billion plan, with its focus on preventive health measures and schooling for every child on the planet, will restore America's battered moral standing in the world.

His efforts have gone beyond campaign-trail rhetoric. After leaving the Senate in 2004, Edwards raised $3 million to found The Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, an arm of the University of North Carolina Law School, his alma mater, that sponsors research and public forums on poverty.

Edwards, the center's director until announcing his bid for the presidency last December, had a particular interest in the working poor – how to raise their wages and rates of union membership, associates there say.

Marion Crain, the associate director under Edwards and now the director, says Edwards spoke often of the state-subsidized college education that launched his career.

"He thought it was wrong to have a country premised on equality of opportunity where everyone can live the Horatio Alger dream and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when in fact that's not the reality" for most people, Ms. Crain says. "The reality is shaped by public policies and laws and accidents of birth that leave people really ill-equipped to do that."

Besides his plan to end poverty, Edwards also backs a universal healthcare system financed by higher taxes on wealthy Americans and fees on employers without worker health insurance, and a "College for Everyone" program that pays one year of tuition at a public college for students willing to work part time.

Edwards's embrace of working-class America is matched by sometimes sharp attacks on the country's elite. He has vowed to end Bush-era tax cuts for well-to-do Americans, refuses campaign money from lobbyists and political action committees, and has taken bare-knuckled stances against big business.

"I don't want to sit at the table and negotiate with the insurance companies – I want to beat them," he said in July at a steelworkers' union hall in gritty Georgetown, S.C., to applause. "I don't want to negotiate with the drug companies – I want to beat them."

"There is a huge class consciousness to John," a friend, US bankruptcy Judge Rich Leonard of Raleigh, who didn't return telephone calls from the Monitor, told a North Carolina newspaper a few years ago. "I think it plays out in so many of his political decisions. I think his primary, overriding political view is to put the starting point in the same place for everybody."

Yet little about Edwards's life now evokes images of the common man. The folksy persona that helped launch his political career has been buffeted in recent months by what pundits call "the three H's": the $400 haircuts he charged to his campaign, his new 28,000-square-foot home in North Carolina, and his high-paying consulting job for a New York hedge fund.

"It's a well-known criticism, and that's the accusation of hypocrisy," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Given his populist message, many critics have noted that his lifestyle does not seem to fit the image of someone who wants to level the playing field."

But in his interview with the Monitor, on his campaign bus here last month, Edwards insisted that his personal wealth did not undercut his populist agenda.

"I think they're wrong," he said of his critics. "You could look at anybody's life and pick out particular things and say, 'Well, that's inconsistent.'

"It is true I worked at a hedge fund," he added. "And there's no doubt that one of the reasons I worked there was to earn some income.

"But it's also true that I started a poverty center at the University of North Carolina, I did humanitarian work in Africa, I started a college program for low-income kids in eastern North Carolina, I worked to help raise the minimum wage in six different state ballot initiatives, I helped organize workers, particularly low-income workers, into unions. All those things are indications of what I care about and what my priorities are."

An evolving faith

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.

"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."

Foray into public life

His decision to enter politics and eventually run for president, he says, was partly rooted in the biblical injunction to serve "others and to serve Him."

"What keeps me going on these 16-hour days is my desire to serve," he says, "and I think my faith plays a huge role in that."

In 1998, Edwards spent millions of dollars of his own money to unseat an incumbent Republican senator, Lauch Faircloth, and soon built up a voting record as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat. Through sharp-elbowed brinkmanship on Capitol Hill, he won North Carolina $250 million in disaster aid after hurricane Floyd in 1999.

But his only lead role in major legislation fell short of the mark. A patients' bill of rights bill he cosponsored in 2001 with Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts died because of the sponsors' refusal to accept a cap on legal damages patients could seek against health maintenance organizations and insurers.

Edwards served quietly for two years as a co-chair of the Senate Prayer Breakfast, a group typically dominated by Republican lawmakers. When Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Catholic, selected Edwards as a running mate in the 2004 presidential race, Democratic strategists hoped that Edwards's Southern roots and mainline Protestantism would help balance the ticket.

But on the campaign trail, Edwards rarely linked his faith to his talk of "Two Americas" – of haves and have-nots. He told a South Carolina newspaper at the time that his religion was a "private matter."

"There was a hope that Edwards would amplify Kerry's appeal to religious voters, particularly in the South – that he was a kind of a Southern Everyman and that he would know how to use religious language and imagery in a way that people could recognize," says Stephen Chapman, a professor at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. "In the end, he didn't do it – not to the expectations that people had for him."

A longtime friend and adviser, Ed Turlington, says Edwards's Christianity is "part of his core" but plays a nuanced role in his policy decisions.

"He doesn't think before talking or making a proposal: 'What's my faith teach me on this one?' " Mr. Turlington said in an e-mail interview. "He acts and answers based on core beliefs arrived at over years of thinking, worshiping, and contemplating."

Edwards worshiped with Turlington at the nearly 4,000-member Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh. Since moving to Chapel Hill in 2005, his campaign said, Edwards has attended several churches but has yet to find a home church. Edwards says his Christianity is most explicitly a factor in his antipoverty initiatives. "I think the Lord speaks very clearly about that and our responsibilities about" helping the poor, he says.

In other areas, like universal healthcare, civil rights, and his opposition to the war in Iraq, the influence of faith is more diffuse. "I start from a really basic place," he says, "which is that we are all created equal and God doesn't have favorites among us. And that base belief, which is both in my mind faith-based and morality-based, it's in almost everything I do."

He says his opposition to gay marriage is grounded not in religious belief, but in a "gut" feeling with which he continues to wrestle.

Edwards has been as reluctant to speak of faith as he has to cede to the demands of religious critics.

In February, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights asked Edwards to fire two campaign bloggers who had made what the group deemed anti-Catholic remarks on their personal blogs.

The bloggers eventually quit. But Edwards, despite saying their comments troubled him, had declined to fire them.

He said the bloggers had not meant to offend and believed conservative critics were exploiting the issue for political gain. In an interview with the website beliefnet.com, he said, "I decided to forgive [the bloggers] and stand by them, knowing there would be potential political consequences for that."

See csmonitor.com for previous articles in this series, on Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Joseph Biden.

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