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No Martyr

A top official from the nation's largest evangelical group resigns over same-sex unions comment.

11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2008 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) chief lobbyist Richard Cizik has won plaudits from the New York Times and criticism from his own constituency for shifting NAE to the left, on global warming and other issues over the last 6 years. But endorsing same sex civil unions on National Public Radio proved to be too much even for NAE, which announced Cizik's resignation after his return from an anti-nuclear weapons event in Paris.

"In a December 2, 2008 broadcast interview on National Public Radio, Richard responded to questions and made statements that did not appropriately represent the values and convictions of NAE and our constituents," NAE President Leith Anderson, a Minnesota megachurch pastor, announced on December 11. "Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized and affirmed our values there is a loss of trust in his credibility as a spokesperson among leaders and constituents."

Cizik has served with NAE for 28 years. Over the last 10 years, as NAE presidents came and went (most recently Colorado megachurch pastor Ted Haggard, who was felled in a sex scandal), Cizik, as vice president for government affairs, has become the NAE's main public voice. Urging evangelicals to shed their traditional political identity with social conservatism, he pushed new issues like climate change, U.S. interrogation policies, and nuclear disarmament. But his push on same-sex unions exceeded NAE's patience.

"I'm shifting, I have to admit," Cizik told National Public Radio (NPR) on December 2 when asked about an NPR interview two years ago asserting opposition to same-sex marriage. "I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining traditional marriage I don't think." He approvingly noted that young evangelicals, with whom he identifies in attitude if not age, tell pollsters they are more open to acceptance of homosexuality.

Evangelicals have strongly supported ballot referendums defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. Cizik's own NAE, in official statements in 2004, opposed "innovations such as same sex marriage," and decried homosexuality as a "a deviation from the Creator's plan for human sexuality." While affirming civil rights and equal protection of the law, "the NAE opposes legislation which would extend special consideration to such individuals based on their 'sexual orientation.' Such legislation inevitably is perceived as legitimatizing the practice of homosexuality and elevates that practice to a level of an accepted moral standard."

In his interview, Cizik suggested a new perspective for NAE on marriage. "Maybe we need to reevaluate this and look at it a little differently," he told NPR, offering that evangelicals should be "willing to give the biblical view a different slant" and focus on "building values in our own movement" rather than opposing same-sex unions." He added, comparing the issue to climate change, "If you don't change the way you think and adapt . . . you may ultimately be a loser."

Initially, the NAE publicized that Cizik had offered his "deep regret and apology" over the NPR comments. But criticism within NAE continued to build in the 9 days between the NPR broadcast and the resignation.

In 2006, a somewhat similar controversy about Cizik's high profile global warming activism persuaded the NAE board to declare that "global warming is not a consensus issue" and that NAE had no official stance. But in 2007, a public letter from James Dobson and other prominent conservatives urging Cizik's resignation was rejected by the NAE board. An unpublicized letter from some NAE board members expressing similar concerns about Cizik was ignored. Increasingly, the NAE has been dominated by fixtures of the evangelical left, mostly academics, who share Cizik's disdain for traditional evangelical conservatism. Without meaningful restraints from his board, Cizik aggressively advanced his climate change stance. His activism won wide publicity, including a profile in Vanity Fair, which approvingly pictured Cizik walking on water, in a full-page spread.

More so than Global Warming, Cizik's equivocations about marriage unsettled churchgoers in NAE's 60 denominations and hundreds of parachurch ministries, whose membership ostensibly totals some 30 million Americans. They include groups such as the Assemblies of God (Pentecostal), the Presbyterian Church in America, the Salvation Army, and the Anglican Mission in America, which left the Episcopal Church because of its liberal views on issues such as homosexuality.

Over 70 percent of white evangelicals voted for John McCain. When NPR asked Cizik about his presidential choice, he coyly admitted that he voted for Obama in Virginia's Democratic primary, without divulging his November vote. He enthused that 32 percent of young evangelicals had supported Obama, even though they disagreed with his abortion stance. Unlike many evangelicals, Cizik was unimpressed by Sarah Palin, especially her skepticism about global warming as uniquely manmade.

"I could not have disagreed with her more," Cizik told NPR. "Just a year ago we found out from climate scientists that the melt in the Arctic had turned into a route," and that an "area the size of Colorado is disappearing every week." He suggested Palin lacked a "certain humility" and may face defeat for reelection as Alaska's governor. He's more optimistic that Obama will embody humility.

Cizik, who recalled his critics having called him one of "Obama's minions," also said that he will support Obama's professed desire to reduce abortions, which Cizik reluctantly called "morally repugnant, at least it is to me." That Obama supports unlimited legal access to abortion should not discourage evangelical cooperation, he said. In another bid for controversy among his evangelical constituency, Cizik urged government distribution of contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. "We aren't Catholics who oppose contraception per se," he noted.

Calling President George W. Bush's evangelical beliefs a "mixed blessing," Cizik recalled that evangelicals had been proud of Bush's faith. But Cizik thinks Bush "didn't reflect that Jesus as we would have wanted him to, with a humility to communicate to the world just what kind of people we are." He asserted that evangelicals will increasingly emphasize a wider spectrum of issues beyond same-sex marriage and abortion, especially the environment. "Our parents were the greediest generation," he asserted. "The next generation needs to be the greenest."

Another future cause that Cizik described for NPR was "Ground Zero," a new initiative to eliminate nuclear weapons globally. In the face of potential nuclear terrorism, nuclear weapons are "no longer a deterrent," he asserted. So the "mere possession of nuclear weapons becomes morally problematic." He claimed the initiative is supported both by Obama and John McCain. Cizik said he shared the ostensible attitude of "younger evangelicals" who have a "different attitude" towards military force. "The idea that, well, you can have a sort of anti-science anti-intellectualism and walk into the world with a big stick and hope to be able to win these wars--You can't win these wars we're fighting with a big stick; we know that."

In announcing Cizik's resignation, Anderson noted that they had not been able to meet for over a week because of Cizik's "international travel," which evidently referred to a "Ground Zero" event in Paris. Now seemingly a martyr to evangelical intolerance of Cizik's progressive views, no doubt there are multiple job possibilities. Perhaps a role in the Obama Administration? Cizik could continue to showcase the new kind of evangelical no longer restrained by conservative causes.

Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.