Some evangelicals also complained about my response to a question on abortion: I said: “Two-thirds of younger evangelicals say they would still vote for a candidate even if the candidate disagreed with them on the issue of abortion, and that’s in spite of the fact that younger evangelicals are decidedly pro-life. In fact, health care is just as important to younger evangelicals as is abortion.” I also spoke in favor of the government supplying contraceptives in response to Obama’s campaign promises to reduce unintended pregnancies.
Terri Gross of “Fresh Air” is a very good interviewer, the best there is. I told her what was really on my mind. I went back a year later and did a second interview, not apologizing for anything I said previously—indeed, reaffirming my original comments. They are what I believe.
The difficulty, as I see it, is that the evangelical world is unable to tolerate dissent. Unity has become uniformity. Authority cannot be questioned. However, on matters of politics, particularly, which are so subject to personal judgment or prudence, we need to grant some freedom.
Setting aside my role as spokesman for evangelicals and whether or not I should have admitted to some personal changes of mind, a larger truth is at stake. Will we use the Gospel for political purposes, or make it hostage to any political person or cause? Some sixty times in the New Testament the death and resurrection of Christ are described as liberating, and the Christian life as one of freedom. The apostle Paul declared, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
A demand for political conformity is a form of legalism that must not characterize the body of Christ. Neither should any judgmental or unloving attitudes over differences of opinion. Disagreements, moreover, should not be regarded as off limits but as legitimate and even healthy. They offer the opportunity to discuss conflicting ideas with a spirit of prayer, openness to the Holy Spirit, and unconditional submission to God’s Word. In this way the church is a community that transcends, while never denying, its internal differences. Here is victory over the last great temptation (as the book of Revelation intimates): that of making politics more than itself.
AT THE TIME OF my firing, I was too shell-shocked to want to say anything to the press, wisely concluding in hindsight that anything said might be misunderstood or perceived as self-serving. Now a number of years have passed, and the lessons learned from my experience might be of some assistance to the body of Christ, which is still the uppermost consideration in my decision to write about it here.
So what might be of a salutary nature to say to my fellow believers? Is it possible that the condition of the evangelical movement has changed so much that the lessons of my experience no longer apply? I don’t think so. We’re in a presidential race, and the temptations toward partisanship abound with even more ferocity. The Religious Right has a visceral dislike for President Obama and wants to defeat him, no matter what. Pastors didn’t hesitate to endorse certain Republican candidates for the GOP nomination.
All the more reason to speak out now, before this election cycle gets even more heated. I believe three primary lessons can be learned from my experiences: to see and think more clearly; to care more deeply; and to act more boldly. Let me elaborate.
I believe that God still gives us a “vision” of what he calls us to do, and we need to be able to see it. Cal DeWitt, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin, the grandfather of the creation care movement, calls it being able to “behold” the world and events around us in a new way. From the cross, Jesus said, “Mary, behold thy son,” and, “John, behold thy mother.” Each would have to see the other in a new way.
We need to see the evangelical movement with a new set of lenses. The assumption is that evangelical Christians won’t change their allegiance to a narrow set of litmus-test values—opposition to abortion and gay marriage— and that those issues still define what it means to be an evangelical.
Au contraire. A group of “new evangelicals” have already left the political right. Theologian Scott McKnight calls this “the biggest change in the evangelical movement,” nothing less than the emergence of “a new kind of Christian social conscience.” These new evangelicals focus on such startlingly different types of issues as economic justice, environmental protection, immigration reform, militarism, and consumerism.
We’re not saying the Religious Right is not a potent political force, just that the evangelical movement no longer sings in one voice, but rather in robust polyphony. According to a June 2008 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, devout Christians who don’t think of themselves as part of the Religious Right come to roughly 24 percent of the population. This growing constituency has a vision for evangelicalism that will rescue it from the narrow-mindedness of the Religious Right. Evangelicals need a different vision. We want to see an engagement of Christians in American public life that is loving rather than angry; holistic rather than narrowly focused; healing rather than divisive; and independent of partisanship and ideology rather than subservient to party or ideology. We want to see a Christian public witness that reflects the actual life, ministry, and teachings of the Jesus Christ we meet in Scripture and experience in the church at its best.
I’ve said in many college chapels, “A vision without a strategy is a hallucination.” Unless you have a strategy that appropriately complements your vision, that noise you hear is the sound of defeat. The evangelical church is losing the challenge to see and think more clearly because it is way too calloused about how it operates in “the world.” Thus, we need to care more deeply about the vision we espouse. It is this quality of tenacious “caring” for the welfare of the church of Jesus Christ, tenacity in the face of opposition, that the new evangelicals must embody if we are to succeed. My sense back in 2008, and confirmed even more by the events that followed my departure from the NAE, is that if we are winsome, respectful of the other’s viewpoint, and always loving, we will win back the evangelical church to a more Christlike stance.
It is also my judgment that America generally, and the church in particular, has lost its nerve. We need a kind of holy boldness. This kind of boldness requires old-fashioned courage. It requires being what others will criticize as being “divisive” or a “disturbance.” Why is this necessary? Leadership is not just about vision and strategy. It is equally about “creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted,” to quote Jim Collins from his book Good to Great. Collins explains that “there’s a huge difference between the opportunity to ‘have your say’ and the opportunity to be heard. The good-to-great leaders understood this distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard.”
We must understand this truth and boldly assert the right within our churches for the “new evangelicals” to be heard. Changing the status quo also demands that we understand that the most powerful force for altering the internal psychological structure of a human being is discontinuity between one’s prevailing thinking/behavior and one’s most deeply held values and aspirations.
We’re courageously challenging the evangelical movement toward what is right—an unpoliticized, holistic Gospel. For this higher value and aspiration to break into the prevailing thinking requires the followers of Jesus to be courageous and speak out. This means: be prepared to suffer the consequences. This requires courage.
The Reverend Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. This article is adapted from his chapter contribution to A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good, edited by David Gushee and released by Chalice Press in August.