My Journey Toward the “New Evangelicalism”

By Richard Cizik | September 13, 2012

Richard Cizik

(Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

If you’ve never changed your mind about something, you may be dead. Spiritually, intellectually, and even politically, if new facts and realities don’t ever prompt you to alter your way of thinking, you might as well be dead. To not learn and change, especially spiritually, is a form of death.

But change is hard. It’s also risky.

I know about the consequences of changing one’s thinking. I was fired from my position as vice-president for governmental relations at the National Association of Evangelicals. That’s right, I was asked to resign for comments made on a nationally syndicated radio show called “Fresh Air.” I provided too much “fresh air” for my bosses to handle. Officially, I was asked to resign. But the reality is that I was fired.

This event devastated me and my family. We were shocked that such a drastic action had been taken. “Please have your office cleared out within a few days”—these were my instructions. That wasn’t an easy thing to do. I had worked for the Association since 1980, and this was 2008. So, for twenty-eight years I had faithfully represented the organization, the last ten as vice president. I loved it and the people I had worked with.

Being axed in such a fashion proved hard. As if to dramatize their dissatisfaction, my “going away” severance was three months of salary. It was a clear message: please, just go away. Or as one editor wrote: “Evangelicals, one surmises, aren’t always against divorce.”

I was heartbroken. The nation’s newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as small dailies such as my hometown Free Lance-Star, ran stories with these headlines: “Evangelical Leader Quits Over Gay Union Remark,” and “Truth Breaks a Fall.”

In a broad-ranging conversation about my work to educate my fellow evangelicals about the impacts of climate change, I told Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” that I could support “civil unions” for gays and lesbians and that government funding of contraception was morally acceptable as a way to avoid abortion.

Perhaps most offensive to the board of the National Association of Evangelicals, which had given speaking platforms for Republican candidates for the presidency going back to Ronald Reagan, and whose officials I had joined for election campaigns for these Republican candidates, was that I said I had voted for candidate Barack Obama in the Virginia primary (against Hillary Clinton) for the presidency. Implied, of course, was that I had voted for Obama in the general election of 2008. And Barack Obama is a Democrat.

The impacts were felt personally and professionally. It prompted the president of Houghton College to write and cancel my graduation speech. It prompted Denver Seminary, where I had graduated, to drop me from the Advisory Board of the Grounds Institute of Public Ethics. It prompted the head of a family ministry, Marriage Savers, which I had served as a board member, to call me and tell me, “We’re dropping you from the board of directors.”

Sadly, it prompted friends and colleagues to shun me and no longer inquire about my health and well-being. Even our friends from church, where we had attended faithfully for a decade, didn’t understand.

A poll by America On Line (AOL) asked its readers to weigh in on this question: “Did the National Association of Evangelicals do the right thing in firing Richard Cizik?” Nearly 50,000 cast ballots. By a slim majority the consensus was “yes.”

So who’s to blame? I had lived on the edge of American evangelicalism, speaking out on the need to broaden the movement’s agenda to include issues such as climate change, and, if you will pardon the flat-Earth imagery, tumbled over the edge.

While I didn’t represent the NAE in the interview with Bose-like fidelity, I did represent millions of evangelicals—especially the younger ones. Friends such as Dr. David Gushee at Mercer University and Katie Paris of Faith in Public Life posted a website where one hundred evangelical leaders signed a letter affirming my ministry and principles, and the need for the Association to carry on with these principles.

However, for most evangelicals who dare to differ with their fellow evangelicals over issues of politics, there’s no one to come to their defense. Personal friendships or relationships are frayed, sometimes even broken.

How did this rigid political conformity happen? Sociologist Robert Putnam has argued that most evangelicals now choose their local church based upon its political views, not theology. Within the unique evangelical subculture, the prevailing beliefs are conservative. To be politically liberal, and express that viewpoint, can get you fired. Politics is the new orthodoxy.

Should the NAE be blamed? Arguably, it did what it had to do to preserve its reputation for conservative Christianity. Did it really do the right thing? What message did it send?

Inescapably, the message is this: “We are controlled and intimidated by the Religious (that is, Political) Right and will do whatever it takes to avoid their criticism.”

That’s why the evangelical church in America is in big trouble. It has lost its center: the Gospel. It is a movement that has been captured by conservative politics and treats that message as more important than the Gospel. It will do anything, literally anything, to maintain the conservative status quo. Throw anyone overboard. Avoid taking a stand on controversial topics, such as climate change. Even refuse to confront racism, Islamophobia, or antigay bigotry. No matter the heresy, or bad judgment, organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals will choose to walk away from a controversy before they will confront the major figures of the Religious Right.

This is why I often say, “We need to put the protest back in Protestantism.” Not against Catholicism as in Martin Luther’s day, but on behalf of the holistic Gospel. Why do I say this? We who are evangelicals have allowed ourselves to be co-opted by a pale substitute of the real thing.

NOW I SERVE AS president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (NEP). Wherever I speak now, someone always comes up to say something like: “I’d never heard of you until I was driving down the highway listening to your interview on National Public Radio. I want to commend you for your courage in speaking out.”

The agenda for my ill-fated interview on “Fresh Air” focused on my views about American evangelicalism and my role as a lobbyist for the NAE. Terri Gross had been following my efforts to educate the movement on what we had begun to call “creation care,” a term designed to help frame biblical truth about the need to care for the environment.

Leading figures of the Religious Right had been attacking me for years. In 2006 the Evangelical Environmental Network released the “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” which I had helped formulate and market to our movement. The following year, radio broadcaster and child psychologist Dr. James Dobson became so disturbed by what he called my “relentless campaigning” about the reality of climate change that he and twenty-five other leading figures in the conservative movement essentially demanded my resignation. At that time, the NAE’s President Leith Anderson backed me, suggesting that my work as a spokesman for the NAE was equally balanced between a host of duties and issues, none of which were related to global warming. But that support would evaporate in late 2008.

The actual events that led to my being asked to resign are now nearly four years old, but not something I’ve previously written about. I spoke mostly on the environment in that interview with Terri Gross, but did respond to her questions about same-sex civil unions and gay marriage. In a short portion of the program, Gross asked me, “Two years ago, you said you were still opposed to gay marriage. But now as you identify more with younger voters, would you say you have changed on gay marriage?” I responded, “I’m shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions. I don’t officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don’t think.”

The uproar that followed forced Leith Anderson, president of the Association, to explain: “The NAE is not an advocate for civil unions and the role of an NAE spokesperson was primarily on behalf of what we have said, not on behalf of what we have not said. It’s also to represent our constituency, and our constituency does not favor civil unions.” (It should be noted that the NAE had never taken an official policy position on the topic of civil unions.)

I had been weighing the controversy over the years and come to the private conviction that it was not possible for me to hold that the country could deny constitutional rights, such as “equal protection” and “due process” to an entire class of people (gays, lesbians, and trans-genders) just because of tradition or because their behavior constituted sinful behavior in the minds of Christian evangelicals. Needless to say, this view was a minority view among evangelicals in 2008, though much less so in 2012. The political pendulum has swung quite rapidly toward equality of rights regardless of sexual orientation. For example, I personally approve of the lifting of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, and military brass now have testified that doing so has not been a problem for “unit cohesion.”

I also told Gross that I had voted for Obama in the primaries, but stopped short of saying whom I voted for in the general election. I thought this was a way of giving some political cover to all those evangelicals (38 percent, if you count black and Latino evangelicals) who voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. Having traveled around the country and visited more than forty campuses (many in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities), I have routinely heard students and adults confess: “To say I voted for President Obama will only provoke a fight or challenge, so I keep my mouth shut.”

To leaders of the Religious Right, my interview on NPR was too much. They rose up to demand my resignation. “For better or for worse, Rich became a great, polarizing figure,” said the late Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship. “Gradually, over a period of time, he was separating himself from the mainstream of evangelical belief and conviction. So I’m not surprised. I’m sorry for him, but I’m not disappointed for the evangelical movement.” In other words, I was no longer staying comfortably within the Republican mainstream. My views were characterized by Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council as “off the reservation.” In my mind, however, I was simply trying to avoid politicizing the Gospel.

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 valuesopposition to abortion and gay marriageand 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.

© 2011 Religion & Politics