- Former co-chair of Win Without War
- Former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches
- Served six terms as a Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania
- Died in April 2013
Robert Edgar was the President and CEO of Common Cause, an advocacy organization that professes to “hold … elected leaders accountable to the public interest.” He was also a co-chair of Win Without War, and a board member of the National Coalition on Heath Care.
A United Methodist minister, Edgar served as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC) from January 2000 to November 2007. Moreover, he spent six terms as a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, from 1975 to 1987. During his tenure in government, he developed a reputation as one of the most liberal members in the House of Representatives.
Edgar was born in May 1943 in Philadelphia and grew up in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lycoming College, and a Master of Divinity degree from the Theological School of Drew University. He also received four honorary doctoral degrees.
Edgar signed statements deriding the violence of American foreign policy: “American culture, society, and policy are addicted to violence at home and overseas.” Shortly prior to the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, Edgar led a religious delegation to that country to get a first-hand look at people's quality of life under Saddam Hussein. He met with Saddam's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz. At a press conference in Baghdad, Edgar said that the then-impending U.S. invasion was illegal, immoral, and in violation of the Bible. Attributing Iraqis’ poor living conditions to U.S.-led sanctions rather than to the greed and corruption of Saddam, Edgar later said, “We visited schools and hospitals and saw for ourselves the devastating impact of twelve years of sanctions on the people of Iraq.”
In May 2004, Edgar was a signatory to a letter calling on President Bush to lift trade restrictions against Cuba. The letter read, in part: “Forty-three years of the strongest embargo in our history has resulted in increased hardship for the people of Cuba while making no change whatsoever in the political makeup of the Cuban government. We can no longer support a policy carried out in our name which causes suffering of the most vulnerable -- women, children and the elderly.”
In October 2004, Edgar endorsed a political ad that appeared in The New York Times sponsored by an organization called "Church Folks for a Better America,” a project of the Peace Action Education Fund. Titled “A Call to Recover America's Moral Character,” the ad maintained that “the war on Iraq is not a just war. It did not pass the test when it was started. And it does not pass the test now.” Another noteworthy endorser of this ad was William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
Following the 2004 U.S. presidential election won by incumbent George W, Bush, Edgar stated, “This election confirmed that we are a divided nation, not only politically but in terms of our interpretations of God’s will. We in the church must redouble our efforts to call all people of faith to affirm the values of both public morality and private piety.”
In March 2004, Edgar and NCC organized a press conference and “silent walk” through Washington, DC, on behalf of the suspected Islamist terrorists incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. NCC was joined in this effort by the American Civil Liberties Union, actress Vanessa Redgrave of the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission, folk singer Peter Yarrow, and family members of the prisoners. “The National Council of Churches has said that the denial of rights that inhere in the worth of human beings before God are not only a crime against humanity,” Edgar declared. “They are a sin against God. All faiths share this basic teaching … All persons are connected in the family of God. My rights, your rights and the rights of the detainees are inseparable.”
In late 2004, Edgar denounced the U.S. for detaining Chinese Uighur Muslims at Guantanamo. The Uighurs had been in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Having found them no longer a threat, the U.S. wanted to release them but could not return them to China, where they would have been imprisoned or killed. Edgar demanded that they be given immediate refugee status in the U.S., since Uighurs are a “persecuted minority” in China. Edgar offered the services of NCC’s relief arm in the Uighurs’ potential U.S. resettlement. Rejecting Chinese demands for their return, the U.S. ended up sending the Uighurs to Albania.
“We have a long way to go before we can truly stand as a beacon of Christ’s light for the rest of the world,” Edgar wrote in his blog about Guantanamo. “I pray that Congress and the Supreme Court may continue to apply pressure on the president to meet the basic standards of the Geneva Convention”
In 2006 Edgar blogged: "'I was in prison and you visited me,' Jesus says in Matthew 25:36. But the detainees at Guantanamo are not permitted visitors. I know this from personal experience. The National Council of Churches requested to visit these children of God simply to see how they were being treated. We simply wanted to visit these prisoners as our Lord commands in Matthew 25:40."
Also in 2006, Edgar stated: “We urgently reaffirm our 2003 call for the prompt reconvening of talks with North Korea leading to a non-aggression pact between North Korea and the United States, renouncement of pre-emptive attack and negotiation of a peace treaty replacing the present Armistice Treaty of 1953 and the establishment and exchange of liaison offices between the United States and North Korea as a sign of good faith.”
Just hours after an April 16, 2006 incident where a deranged student gunned down 32 people on the Virginia Tech University campus, Edgar issued a news release that said: “How many more will have to die before we say enough is enough? How many more senseless deaths will have to be counted before we enact meaningful firearms control in this country? How many more of our pastors, rabbis and imams will have to preside over caskets of innocent victims of gun violence because a nation refused to stop the proliferation of these small weapons of mass destruction?”
In an August 12, 2007 commentary titled “White Immigrants Get a Pass; Brown Ones Do Not,” Edgar complained that “devilishly clever” conservative “fearmongers” and “demagogues” were using “nearly every scare tactic they can think of to reduce us [Americans] to a highly suspicious lot all too willing to not love the alien[s] as ourselves and to evict them from their homes, get them fired, separate them from their families, in an all out rampage of oppression and prejudice.” “Immigrants have become the contemporary scapegoat,” he said. “It’s time we call it for what it is — racism.” Edgar characterized illegals generally as “people who have come here in search of the same thing my northern European ancestors were seeking … a better life for their families, more opportunities for their children and to learn English.” “They [illegals] already pay millions in taxes and contribute to their communities,” he emphasized.
In October 2007, Edgar was a signatory to an “interfaith call” for a day-long fast -- in recognition of Ramadan and Yom Kippur -- designed to inspire efforts to end the War in Iraq. “American culture, society, and policy are addicted to violence at home and overseas,” the statement read; “Ending this war can become the first step toward a policy that embodies a deeper, broader sense of generosity and community at home and in the world.” Other signatories included Rabbi Michael Lerner and Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Organizations that endorsed the “interfaith call” included the American Friends Service Committee, the National Council of Churches, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Pax Christi USA, Sojourners, and the Islamic Society of North America.
On November 8, 2007, Edgar was succeeded as NCC General Secretary by Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon.
Edgar attacked conservative “fearmongers” and “demagogues” with the charge of “racism” in the debate over granting expanded rights and amnesty to illegal immigrants.
In addition to his work for NCC, WWW, and Common Cause, Edgar also served on the boards of such organizations as the National Coalition for Health Care, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, and Independent Sector. He was Chair of the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, and was a member of the Select Committee on Assassinations (which investigated the circumstances surrounding the killings of President John F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
Edgar died suddenly, at his home, on April 23, 2013.