Monday, December 15, 2008

Rich Cizik and the State of Christian Governmental Affairs

Rich Cizik, the former Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, has been asked to resign. Cizik, who made a name for himself by promoting increased evangelical concern for environmental causes (and rightly so) came under fire for his support of Barack Obama, and statements made in an NPR interview in favor of gay civil unions.

The liberal Christian blogosphere is spinning this as a sort of witch hunt, with James Dobson burning poor Rich at the stake. The Christian right, in turn, is calling this a victory for family values. It's neither. Rather, it's a loss for level-headed evangelical thinking on environmental issues.

First off, let me state that I agree with the NAE's decision regarding Cizik for two reasons:

1) On a purely professional level, the man was flaunting his job responsibilities. If the Vice President of a corporation went on the air to wax philosophical about the role of his company within the new economy, he'd be handed his walking papers, pronto. A live interview on National Public Radio is a highly inappropriate venue for pulling policy opinions out of your ass.

2) He has put his organization in a bind. By saying who he voted for, Cizik jeopardizes NAE's tax-exempt status, its donor base, and unification within the membership. Evangelicals are, to put it mildly, divided over the merits of Barack Obama as president.

It is also worth mentioning that the NAE has crafted a policy paper on civic engagement. Mr. Cizik was given enormous latitude in crafting the document, with the NAE defending him from conservative criticism. Advocating (albeit ambiguously, which again, see #1) civil unions in a national forum constitutes a breach of trust. Cizik's actions have proven the harshest criticisms to be prophetic.

As for Cizik himself, he has lost any respect I had for him. I took him at his word when he said he wanted to broaden the evangelical political discussion, even though the lexicon has simply become code for "I'm a Democrat, and you should be too."

Cizik's public comments are following a familiar trajectory. Begin by making reasonable arguments about stewardship of God's creation, and call on Christians to advocate for the poor, all the while maintaining "traditional" positions on gay marriage and abortion. Then, when nobody is watching (Christians don't listen to NPR, right?), casually do an about face on those issues as well. Then, declare that the Democrats have gotten all these issues right.

This bit of disingenuous semantic chicanery has been rightly exposed for what it is. Folks like Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, and Tony Campolo have pulled the wool over the eyes of evangelicals long enough.

The problem is, many thought Cizik was cut of a different cloth. Whereas the above-mentioned are, and pretty much always have been, political Democrats, Cizik claimed to be a conservative. Thus, in trying to bend the NAE toward liberal policies, he has taken his pro-environment, anti-poverty agenda with him.

Consider this response from Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council:

This is the risk of walking through the green door of environmentalism and global warming — you risk being blinded by the green light and losing your sense of direction.

Unhinged as that all is, it most certainly reflects a certain gut reaction shared by the NAEs millions-strong membership. By copping the rhetoric of the spiritual left, Cizik has facilitated the lazy intellectual connection between "going green" and becoming a pro-choice, pacifist, Obama-loving liberal.

Cizik has done an enormous disservice to moderate and right-leaning evangelicals who embrace a holistic approach to civic engagement. He should be ashamed of himself.

For the NAE, this should be a time of evaluation. Politics is a game of shorthand and semantics, and (as Cizik has shown) authenticity can be hard to come by. An organization that claims some 30+ million Christians cannot claim to be of one mind on any political issue.

Given all that this organization has endured, perhaps it is time to step away from the political sphere, leaving advocacy to the will and conscience of its individual members.


Blogger Adam Omelianchuk said...

While I agree that Cizik's dismissal is a loss for center-right evangelicals, I am not sure how exactly those positions (liberal, centrist, conservative) are defined without reference to a voting record. If Cizik's intent was to be more broad-minded politically, it had to be inclusive of those that might not vote Republican, would it not?

Frankly, I am a little taken aback at how much outrage there is over Cizik's affirmation of civil unions. That was exactly the position of both Biden and Palin in the VP debates. It is also my position seeing how we live in a country that is NOT found on the Bible, but on principles that value autonomy. Approaching the political scene that way seems reasonable enough, but according to the evangelical taxonomy that makes you a liberal.

I think if we are going to use labels like "liberal" or "conservative" we need to define them theologically, rather than politically. I'm not sure what Cizik's theology is, but many liberal environmentalists do see conservative evangelicals as co-belligerents.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

"If Cizik's intent was to be more broad-minded politically, it had to be inclusive of those that might not vote Republican, would it not? "

Absolutely, but how he represents the NAE ought to be negotiated with the NAE.

His organization has taken steps to call religious political conservatives on the carpet for neglecting certain issues in favor of hot button issues. And yet, there he is, on the radio, talkin' hot crossed buttons.

If he honestly didn't know better, then he really isn't the guy to be leading any sort of political movement anyway. But this was, transparently I think, simply another salvo in his battle against conservative evangelicals.

If that's the game he wants to play, I'm glad to see him go.

I do concur that we need to better delineate political and theological conservatism. This is another reason why I find untenable the very existence of NAE's office of governmental affairs.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sure that Cizik is relieved not to have to be associated with the likes of you.

3:58 PM  

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