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Former senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards identified poverty, healthcare, genocide and AIDS as the greatest moral issues facing America in a Beliefnet interview, adding he believes Jesus would be “appalled” by the nation’s selfishness and lack of concern for people who suffer.

Interviewing Edwards was David Kuo, former deputy director of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and author of Tempting Faith, a book claiming the Religious Right was duped by Republicans, who courted their votes but gave them nothing in return.

Kuo asked Edwards, a United Methodist who grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist deacon, about the biggest moral issues facing America today.

“There are several,” Edwards said. “One is here within our own borders. The fact that we have 37 million people who live every day worrying about taking care of themselves and their family, living in poverty, I think is a huge moral issue.

“I would say the same thing about the 47 million people who don’t have healthcare coverage. I think those are the big moral issues here within our borders.”

“But I think there are big moral issues in other parts of the world, too,” he said, “global poverty, half the planet living on $2 or less a day–three billion people.

“I think this genocide that’s going on in Western Sudan, Darfur, is a huge moral issue,” Edwards continued. “Us continuing to allow kids to be born in Africa with AIDS, because their mothers can’t afford a $4 dose of medicine, is a big moral issue.”

Edwards said he thinks Jesus would be most disappointed with America because of: “Our selfishness; our resort to war when it’s not necessary. I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs. I think he would be appalled, actually.”

Edwards, who admitted he drifted from the religion of his youth until the death of his 16-year-old son in 1996 brought his faith “roaring back,” said his beliefs affect his decision making. “I do believe in the separation of church and state,” he said. “But I don’t think separation of church and state means you have to be free from your faith.”

“My faith informs everything I think and do,” he said. “It’s part of my value system. And to suggest that I can somehow separate and divorce that from the rest of me is not possible. I would not, under any circumstances, try to impose my personal faith and belief on the rest of the country. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s appropriate. But freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion. And I think that anything we can do to promote the idea that people should express their faith is a good thing.”

But Edwards said politicians should not use religion as a tool to win votes.

“Faith is not a political strategy, and should not be a political strategy,” he said. “If it is being used as a tool to garner votes, to convince people they should support one political party or the other, I think that is a huge mistake. I believe with every fiber of my being that God is not a Democrat or a Republican and does not support either party.”

“It’s one of those things where you have handle it the right way and with honesty,” he said. “But I think it’s offensive to see any politician, or potential politician, using faith as a political strategy.”

Edwards said his concern for the poor comes both from his own background and his faith.

“My own personal experience has been that I came from a very poor background when I was young,” he said. “But, by the time I was in middle school/high school, we were solidly in the middle class. And now I’ve had everything you could ever have financially in this country. And so, I feel some responsibility myself to help and give back, to give that opportunity to lots of people who I don’t think have it today. That’s part of it. And it also comes from my faith. If you took every reference to taking care of the least of these out of the Bible, there would be a pretty skinny Bible. And I think I as a Christian, and we as a nation, have a moral responsibility to do something about this.”

Edwards has been criticized for the size of his house, a 28,200-square-foot home and the most valuable residence in Orange County, N.C.

“I think it’s a fair question,” he told Kuo. “I come from a very modest place, and I’ve done well and we have a very nice physical structure. It’s completely unimportant. What matters is what happens inside that structure.”

“I’m not for a minute suggesting we are saints or we have done more than a lot of other people have done, but Elizabeth and I have spent a lot of time building a couple of learning centers for low-income kids who need a place to use technology, made college scholarships available, helped build houses for people who don’t have houses, helped with humanitarian needs in Africa,” Edwards said.

“Those are some of the causes–I’m sure I’m forgetting some–that we have been personally committed to, both before we got in politics and since that time. So, do I think we’ve done everything we could do? No. I don’t think anybody does. But I think Jesus would be happy with some of the things we’ve done.”

Edwards said he hasn’t given anything up or picked up any new habits for Lent.

“I haven’t done any of those things,” he said. “You want an honest answer, so I’m going to tell you I haven’t done any of those things. What I intend to continue to do, though, if I can bring us full circle back to the beginning of this discussion, is no matter whether anyone asks, no matter whether any other candidate ever raises the issue, as long as I’m alive and breathing and as long as I am a presidential candidate, I will be speaking up for the little guy. And I think that a lot of that has been lost in American politics for strategic political reasons. And their voice needs to be heard–desperately needs to be heard. And if I do nothing else, their voice will be heard through me.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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