Cover Story

Mister Edwards' neighborhood

"Mister Edwards' neighborhood" Continued...

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

Edwards emulated his father's dogged work ethic, taking hard jobs in difficult conditions: cleaning out ducts at the mill and laying carpet in mobile homes. After graduating from high school, Edwards enrolled at Clemson University in South Carolina. When a football scholarship didn't materialize, he transferred to North Carolina State University, working the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift unloading boxes at UPS to fund his education. (His mother refinished and sold antiques to help with college expenses as well.)

Edwards graduated with a textile technology degree summa cum laude in three years, and enrolled in law school at the University of North Carolina, where he met his future wife. The couple married in 1977, allowing Elizabeth's mother to pay for a one-night honeymoon in Williamsburg, Va., since Edwards was low on cash and didn't believe in credit cards.

Edwards quickly became a successful trial lawyer and formed his own firm with a friend in 1993. He specialized in medical malpractice suits, winning massive judgments against hospitals and doctors, and becoming a multimillionaire in the process. (As a U.S. Senator from North Carolina from 1999-2005, Edwards resisted malpractice reform legislation.)

Though Edwards doesn't talk much about his father's work-driven rise to middle-class status-or his own work-driven rise to wealthy status-he does talk about something else he says motivates his emphasis on "eliminating poverty": his faith.

Edwards declined several interview requests from WORLD, but in a recent interview with beliefnet.com, the candidate said Jesus would be "appalled" about the 37 million people living in poverty in America, noting the New Testament's instruction to care for the poor: "And I think I as a Christian, and we as a nation, have a moral responsibility to do something about it."

In an interview on his website with Jim Wallis, Edwards called poverty-fighting "the Lord's work," adding, "our place is to lift up these people who God and Christ would have lifted up."

But if poverty-fighting is the Lord's work, the government is the tool to accomplish it, according to Edwards. To that end, the candidate has unveiled a detailed plan that includes: raising the minimum wage, raising taxes to implement a universal health-care system that could cost $120 billion a year, and encouraging legislation to strengthen unions.

Instead of awarding school vouchers to allow families with children to choose schools for themselves, including private ones, Edwards proposes creating 1 million new housing vouchers to pay for families to move to neighborhoods with the public schools of their choice.

All the while, Edwards seems to acknowledge that private groups are better at fighting poverty than the government. He's touted the work of teen pregnancy centers, private charities, youth baseball coaches, and one-on-one mentors.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Edwards praised the work of private groups and churches in responding to the disaster effectively. "The government was a mess responding to the hurricane," he said. "But the country wasn't."

Edwards has also acknowledged the indispensable role of churches in helping the needy. "There are a lot of places in America, that without faith-based groups there is no support for the poor," he told beliefnet.com. "And [the poor] would not survive without the existence of good, effective faith-based organizations."

Edwards calls his vision of government programs for the poor the out-working of his faith, but the candidate is less clear about the inner workings of his faith. Edwards grew up in a church-going, Southern Baptist home, but drifted away from the church in college. He says his faith came "roaring back" after the tragic death of his 16-year-old son, Wade, in 1996. He also credits faith in coping with his wife's cancer, which has recently recurred.

But while Edwards often talks about his Southern Baptist upbringing, he talks little about his current church involvement. He has attended United Methodist churches in the past, but a spokeswoman for Edwards said she doesn't know what church he currently attends.

After Edwards' defeat in his bid for the vice presidency in 2004, ABC's George Stephanopoulos noted that Edwards said he wished he had been able to talk more about his faith during the campaign. So he asked Edwards: "What do you want people to know about your relationship with God?" Edwards replied: "My faith is an enormous part of my life, and this is part of who I am. But I don't believe the answer for us going forward is to invoke the Lord's name 55 times in a speech."

Edwards' religious views came under scrutiny in February when he refused to fire from his campaign two bloggers with a history of viciously offensive writings about Christians. Among other things, Amanda Marcotte had used foul, explicit language to ask what would have happened if the Virgin Mary had used so-called emergency contraceptives. Campaign co-worker Melissa McEwan called President Bush's conservative Christian supporters his "wingnut Christofascist base."

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