Why Bob Edgar Matters

Bob Edgar, United Methodist pastor, former Congressman, and former National Council of Churches general secretary, left this world last week while fighting for what mattered most to him: integrity and accountability in public life. For the past five years Bob had been running Common Cause, bringing new juice to that venerable ’70s-era voice for clean government.  

Douglas Martin gave Bob a fair and full obituary treatment in the Times, one only slightly marred by mention of the picture of Don Quixote that the self-deprecating and good-humored Edgar used to keep in his Congressional office. Edgar meant this as a bit of joke at his own expense, but Martin’s reader might be left with the impression that the causes Bob took on have been unwinnable—and that anyone who takes them up is thus amusingly quixotic.

Those central causes at the time of Bob’s passing—organized pushback against abuse of the filibuster rule and systematic action to at least mitigate the worst effects of the Citizens United decision—remain daunting, to say the least. But if we say they are unwinnable and simply move on to easier targets, we are really not that serious about fighting the greatest peril facing American democracy at this hour, and not that serious about cleansing the deepest possible corruption.

Bob was deadly serious about the urgency of the basic struggle to win back some measure of popular democracy. This is what distinguishes him, in my judgment, from some in progressive faith circles who simply ride the wave of whatever is current and trendy, adding a froth of faithiness to the gun violence campaign, for example, or dropping a dollop of devotion onto the immigrant rights effort. 

I don’t wish to be mistaken here: those battles are also important, and I’m very glad that there is significant faith community participation in them. But the greatest moral contest of our era is the fight against the domination of our politics by the wealthiest. Everything else we say we deplore relates directly to the gluttony of the top tier and the concomitant immiseration of the bottom tier within the American population.  

It should not be necessary to point out that achieving health and educational equity, reducing poor communities’ daily exposure to traumatic violence, raising real wages for everyone who works, ending unethical and reckless bank practices, making the shift to clean energy sources, even fighting the juvenile diabetes epidemic—none of this will be possible unless we also break big money’s stranglehold on the political system.

Activists should feel free to work in any issue arena they choose, but all should be present and accounted for in the fight against a rapidly advancing plutocracy. But this is a fight that many in the Religion Industrial Complex choose not not engage because they fear it would involve turning on patrons who happen to be Democrats and who are apparently comfortable enough with wealth’s dominion inside of their own party (while always claiming to abhor the other party’s more visible marriage to the powerful and predatory).

Bob Edgar had to contend with plenty of timidity among the good and the great during his years at Common Cause, and even more during his time with the NCC, where denominational bigwigs (Bob’s bosses on the governing body) were privately horrified that their point person should actually seek to change oppressive systems rather than simply make mewling noises about them.

Two days after Bob died, the Times ran a fine Nick Confessore report and a tough editorial decrying the furious push by top US corporations to prevent the SEC from requiring them to reveal their political purchases (excuse me, their political contributions). In this instance, at least a few Democrats are are on the side of the angels—but let us remember that this is mainly because most high-level corporate cash has been flowing to the GOP lately. It’s not that the Dems are unwilling in principle to whore themselves out. God knows they’ve demonstrated their subservience to the corporate agenda often enough. 

If news of the orchestrated pushback against the SEC rule has reached him, Bob may already spinning so fast that it will be hard to bury him. I hope not. I hope that this great justice warrior may finally rest in peace.