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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.

(Page 4 of 4)

Foray into public life

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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, he said, "I decided to forgive [the bloggers] and stand by them, knowing there would be potential political consequences for that."

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