A Sad Day for Evangelicalism

This is a sad day for the evangelical movement. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) just tossed Richard Cizik overboard. A more apt metaphor might be that some biggies in the NAE, who had been stalking him for a while, finally nailed their target. Charles Colson responded to the news of Cizik’s departure with this: “I’m not surprised. I’m sorry for him, but I’m not disappointed for the evangelical movement.” I’m not surprised either, but I’m sorrier for evangelicals than I am for Cizik. Richard can hold his head high; I’m not sure we can.

Cizik is a bright thinker, consummate communicator and courageous man who has been the NAE’s vice-president for governmental affairs for the last twenty-eight years. Through these years he has been a credible and winsome representative for evangelicals in the nation’s capital and in the national media.

Some time ago Richard attracted the ire of right-wing evangelicals for his articulate championing of the cause of “creation care,” and his insistence that Christians have a moral obligation to address the peril of global warming. Vigorous efforts were made in the corridors of evangelical power to discredit, muzzle or oust Cizik for his convictions, and his fearless expression of them. Up until now he has been able to survive.

A few years ago Bill Moyers interviewed Richard Cizik for a documentary entitled “Is God Green?” and I recall how proud I was of Cizik in his bold declaration that God is both Creator and Redeemer, and that Christians who worship and obey this God must therefore be both green and evangelistic. Since then I’ve shown the DVD version of this interview in my ethics classes on numerous occasions. Generally my seminary students have been challenged and impressed, and in some instances inspired to action. For some it was a revelatory moment to realize that Christian ethics includes environmental stewardship, and excludes irresponsible destruction of the planet. We fulfill our moral responsibilities through creation care, not simply waiting for an end-time bail-out at the Rapture.

But the opposition to Cizik caught him on an unrelated technicality. He mentioned in an NPR radio interview that he had come to believe that supporting civil unions (not marriage, mind you) for same-sex partners might be an appropriate position for an evangelical like himself who was trying to navigate the tension between biblical principles and civil rights in a secular society. Evidently this honest admission went beyond the bounds of published NAE orthodoxy. Cizik apologized and recanted, but no grace was extended. His opponents on the evangelical inside finally had their man in their cross-hairs.

No organization that refuses to take an ethical stand on global warming, but insists on making opposition to civil unions a condition of membership, can fully represent the richly diverse and historic evangelical tradition. Up until now Richard Cizik’s survival in the NAE has been a symbol that evangelicalism today is more socially engaged and inclusive than Fundamentalism ever was or is. It was an assurance that candor and independent judgment were respected within the evangelical coalition more than one’s absolute adherence to a narrowly defined and official “message.”

This news of Richard Cizik’s resignation under fire is very troubling. I have grown up within the evangelical tradition, and have embraced it as my own—warts and all. But today, upon hearing this sad news, I find myself referring to the NAE organization for the first time as “them” rather than “us.” This new pronoun that came out of my mouth startled me. Now I feel a deep sadness settling in, and I suspect that I am not the only one who does.

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