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NCC's Edgar looks to 'Middle Church' to restore values

Oct. 5, 2006

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The Rev. Robert Edgar

By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) — The Rev. Bob Edgar has a wake-up call for those he thinks can help restore America’s moral values.

The call can be found in his new book, Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right, published by Simon & Schuster.

Edgar, 63, has announced he will leave his position as chief executive of the National Council of Churches at the end of 2007. The United Methodist pastor also served six terms as a congressman from Pennsylvania and was president of Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology.

While depictions of sex and violence on television are a measure of morality, so are “hunger, illiteracy, disease, war and environmental degradation,” he writes.

As Edgar defines it, the "Middle Church, Middle Synagogue, Middle Mosque" that he addresses in the book represent "the many millions of faithful people who do not always connect their spiritual values with political issues and whose voices are, as a result, often drowned out by the far religious right.

"This faithful majority must have the courage to confront their government when it makes bad decisions and have enough confidence in their own judgment not to believe unquestioningly the ‘expert’ political leaders, who most Americans assume know more than they do," he writes in the preface.

Edgar is not shy about naming those "bad decisions," and he is convinced that others of faith are unhappy with direction the country has taken. "I think there’s a faithful majority out there who has finally discovered the emperor has no clothes," he tells United Methodist News Service.

Edgar, who characterizes himself as being on "the right wing of the left," says he wants his book to inspire those in the middle who are concerned "but who haven’t been energized" and progressives "who need some direction."

To reclaim the nation from an increasingly isolated radical religious right, "we must shake ourselves from our complacency and connect the values of the faith we share with the policies of the nation we cherish," he writes.

Edgar says he would like to see the United Methodist Church return to its commitments of the 1950s and '60s of attacking poverty and unemployment and promoting civil rights.

His problem with the denomination today, he notes, is that United Methodists are so reflective of U.S. society, they have been sidelined by "what I call the piety issues" at the expense of Methodism founder John Wesley's call to care for the poor. The piety issues include homosexuality, civil marriage and abortion.

When bombs fall

Throughout the book, Edgar blends his personal experiences and encounters with discussions of poverty, global warming and the environment, war and peace, terrorism and torture.

He remembers Caroline, a playful little girl he met on New Year's Eve, 2002, at a Presbyterian church in central Baghdad. He was part of a 13-member NCC delegation making a humanitarian inspection of Iraq less than 90 days before the United States declared war.

"As I looked into the face of this 4-year-old Iraqi girl, who was distinguished from any one of my grandchildren only by her olive-toned skin and her Arabic heritage, all I could think was: This is the face of those who may die if my country goes to war," he writes.

"When the bombs begin to fall, they will be equipped with the most advanced military technology in the history of humankind, but not one of them will bear a sensor telling it how to avoid Caroline."

Deadly poverty

Edgar, who has made campaigning against poverty a hallmark of his leadership at the NCC, reports that he was a na´ve 18-year-old the first time he saw "poverty that kills." A youth delegate to the World Methodist Conference in Oslo, Norway, he was part of a group touring mission projects and other sites in 11 European countries.

He found himself overwhelmed by the slums of Naples, Italy, and equally overcome by an orphanage there run by Methodist ministers and deaconesses that provided an oasis in a desert of despair.

"All that separated the children on the inside from those huddled under cardboard boxes within shouting distance from the gate was luck – and love," he writes. "It was a day of stark contrasts and stirring inspiration, the first time I fully contemplated the tremendous impact people of faith could make on their world, and it cemented my decision to enter the ministry."

It is such an impact that Edgar is trying to stimulate. "The question Middle Church must ask, that mainstream Americans of all traditions must ask, is simple: Do we value our faith enough to reclaim it? ... Do we believe our family values – peace, poverty and planet Earth – deserve equal billing with the so-called values agenda of the far religious right?"

What's needed to reactivate the mainline denominations is not money, according to Edgar, but "vision and mission." If Protestant churches "want to be relevant, they have to be more effective."

More information about Edgar’s book can be found at online.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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