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Farewell to Bob Edgar—Congressman, Minister, Activist

By | June 11, 2013

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

B ob Edgar was in his element on April 18. He stood behind a podium in Washington, D.C., making the case that the United States’ current system of campaign finance does not work. “It’s smashed. It’s crushed. It’s hijacked. It’s poisoned, taken hostage by money and partisan politics,” he said, soon abandoning his notes before the nearly 100 attendees at the debate, which was sponsored by Syracuse University’s Campbell Public Affairs Institute. He told the crowd that one hundred people had more than half of the money involved in the 2012 political campaign. “Money is soiling our system,” he said.

Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause, a lobbying group that focuses on government transparency and accountability, was preaching the message he had been sharing in churches, on the streets, and in Congress since the 1970s: democracy is in trouble; money tarnishes the system; American citizens deserve better. He wore a dark suit jacket and tie, along with his trademark green ribbon and dove on his left lapel, which represented his mantra of promoting “peace, prosperity, and planet Earth.” He ended his opening statement by quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “You and I will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of good people.”

Five days later, Edgar died of a heart attack at the age of 69 while exercising at his home in Burke, Virginia. His unexpected death spurred an outpouring of grief and affection for a man who seamlessly crisscrossed the worlds of religion and politics motivated by the simple belief that his role on Earth was to make the world a better place. “A fighter for the little guy is gone,” wrote one mourner on Edgar’s online obituary and guestbook. “A genuine American hero,” wrote another. “In a nonprofit arena where egos so often dominate, Bob’s style was one of collaboration and coalition building,” wrote Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Common Cause Board Chair Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor, said of him in a statement: “His deep commitment to social justice and strengthening our democracy is his greatest gift.”

Edgar, who would have been 70 on May 29, was born in Philadelphia. He married at 21, and he and his wife, Merle, had three sons. He felt a tug toward ministry at 16, and later he earned degrees in history and religion from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 1965. He obtained his master of divinity degree from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and was ordained a United Methodist minister in 1968. He served as a chaplain at Drexel University in the early 1970s, where he also co-founded Philadelphia’s first shelter for women and children. He would go on to pastor several United Methodist congregations in Pennsylvania.

He was elected to Congress in 1974 as the first Democrat in 36 years to represent the Seventh Congressional District of Pennsylvania. He was among the congressional representatives dubbed “Watergate babies,” elected amid outrage at the illegal and immoral behavior that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. “We were sort of the liberal tea party,” he said during the April 18 debate. Edgar had no interest in politics before Watergate, and he talked often about the moment that inspired him to seek office. “A year before I was elected, I had never been to a political meeting,” he told the crowd at the Syracuse University event. “On October 20, 1973, Nixon fired Archibald Cox for asking for the Watergate tapes … I was appalled at the money involved in Watergate.”

During six terms in Congress, Edgar served on the committees for Public Works and Transportation, Veterans Affairs, and Assassinations. The latter assignment involved investigating the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy. As a young minister, he had met King; years later as a member of Congress, he found himself interviewing King’s assassin, James Earl Ray. In Congress, he championed public transportation and fought wasteful water projects and public works spending bills. He wrote the “Community Right to Know” provision of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup legislation and supported legislation to help Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

His political career ended in 1986, when he lost a Senate race to incumbent Republican Senator Arlen Specter by 13 percentage points. Edgar then went back to more direct theological work. For a decade, starting in 1990, he served as president of California’s Claremont School of Theology, a seminary of the United Methodist Church. He left the post when he was named general secretary to the ecumenical National Council of Churches in 2000. There he focused on issues around poverty, environmental degradation, international peace, and interfaith relations; he also worked to improve the group’s finances. He once said it was the hardest job he ever had: “Getting 36 different Christian traditions to work all in the same direction is a task, mostly in terms of financial problems. ” In his first year as NCC leader, Edgar urged the return of Elián González, the Cuban child found at sea after a boat capsized while carrying people seeking refuge in Florida, to his father in Cuba. He opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. “How we handle this crisis with Iraq is ultimately not about what kind of person Saddam Hussein is but what kind of people we want to be,” he wrote in a 2003 letter published in The New York Times. Some say Edgar’s liberalism, including his support for same-sex marriage, alienated conservative members of the ecumenical NCC. 

In 2007, he became president and CEO of Common Cause, a liberal-leaning, non-partisan group that advocates for issues including campaign finance reform, election reform, and government accountability. Common Cause was founded in 1970 by Republican John W. Gardner, former secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. It describes itself as a citizens’ lobby, advocating for transparency and accountability in government and politics. Edgar is credited with improving finances at Claremont, the NCC, and Common Cause as well as strengthening the public image of the two latter groups. “He was friendly to me even though we were coming from a different perspective,” said Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). IRD was founded in 1981 to counter the NCC’s support for liberation theology and Marxist regimes of the era, Tooley said. Despite philosophical differences, Tooley respected Edgar’s skills. “He was not strident or highly political. He seemed deliberate,” he said.

The work at Common Cause brought him full circle to the issues that drew him to politics, said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman at Common Cause. “It connected him back to his political world in Congress and gave voice to a lot of things he had worked for in terms of social justice and our whole effort to fix the political system to give voice to the people,” she said.

All of Edgar’s jobs, in the church and public arena, were manifestations of the same person, said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church. “He was a proud practitioner of a long Methodist heritage,” said Winkler, who met Edgar in 2001. “He had a strong personal faith that made him want to make the world a better place.”

Edgar’s understanding of social justice grew out of the nineteenth-century Methodist-Wesleyan tradition of translating faith into action and combining personal and social holiness. Edgar “saw the Gospel as providing the mandate for social improvement,” said Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College. It’s a mistake to categorize Edgar’s many jobs as either “political” or “religious,” according to Balmer. “He saw it all as a piece. His faith informed his activism. It didn’t trail off into activism for the sake of activism.”

In July of 2011, Edgar and ten other clergy were arrested in Washington during a protest in the Capitol Rotunda over proposed cuts in social services. “Budgets reflect the priorities of a nation, and we are not a nation that puts its biggest burdens on the on the backs of those who have the least,” Edgar said at the time—his fifth arrest for a protest.

During the last few years, in his role at Common Cause, Edgar primarily advocated for campaign finance reform. After the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, Edgar led Common Cause in seeking a constitutional amendment to stop the expansion of campaign spending. “Big money has no place in elections, and our democracy should never be for sale,” he wrote last October in an op-ed for The New York Times. His outrage extended to President Obama’s creation of Organizing for Action, a lobbying group pushing Obama’s agenda. “It just smells,” Edgar told the Times in February. “The president is setting a very bad model setting up this organization.”

Until his death, Edgar remained a frequent media presence from Washington. In a March 13 appearance on C-SPAN, he advocated for increased transparency in campaign finance. In an April 5 piece on Huffington Post, where he was a regular contributor, he criticized the Senate’s abuse of the filibuster in preventing gun legislation from coming to the floor. He maintained an active Twitter account, commenting frequently on public policy issues and breaking news. His last tweet, on April 22, linked to a Mother Jones story: Will the “Koch Brothers Bill” make industrial accidents more likely?

In the debate just before he died, Edgar introduced himself as “the Forrest Gump of religion and politics.” It was a phrase he used often, and in his 2006 book Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right, he described his life as “a series of Forrest Gump moments at which I somehow find myself in the middle of places or events that seem bigger than I am.” In the book, Edgar explained the connection between his beliefs and his political work. “I believe in the separation of church and state, but not in the separation of people of faith and institutions of government,” he wrote. “What is politics if not the highest expression of our moral feelings as a people? If discussion of morality is banished from the pulpit, then where is it permissible to speak about right and wrong?” 

Renée K. Gadoua is a writer and editor in Syracuse, New York. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.

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