In my final look at Richard Cizek’s resignation as vice-president of NAE I want to make some specific observations and issue a personal plea for a different kind of Christian presence in the public sphere.
Many Christian writers believe that Cizik should have resigned, some as far back as two years ago. Mark Tooley, a writer for the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD), believes that “Cizik has been very outspoken and in some ways ‘off the reservation’ for the last five or six years in terms of his global warming-activism, which the board of NAE had initially somewhat disavowed—but that had not discouraged him.” The terms Cizik’s critics use are often quite revealing. Tooley believes he is “off the reservation.” What an ironic expression. I doubt that Tooley meant this metaphor in the way I actually hear it. I know him to be an honorable and good man. But in his terms I suppose that I also live “off the reservation.” Frankly, I am quite pleased with this living arrangement for several reasons. The major one is that “the reservation” has become a major part of the problem in evangelicalism. Older evangelicals have begun to act more and more like their fundamentalist forefathers than I think they realize. Separatism is alive and well and can be found in a thousand types and forms. The highly politicized expression of public faith that has arisen over the past thirty years merely reveals this problem. Let me elaborate.
Christians can live and express their faith in every setting, even where they are persecuted as in China or Muslim lands. In some places this will send them to death or to prison. In others, such as in the West, there is the very real danger that Christians can begin to live in a social and religious ghetto. This is what most conservative Christians did for much of the middle of the twentieth century in America. This is why my own cultural form of church closed its eyes and ears to the plight of the African-American in their midst. The fatal attraction for many of these Christians was to see their faith in terms that were entirely private. The church, regardless of the role that the state has in a society, can never allow the state to think that it can usurp the role of God in the human conscience. Governments are under God’s rule and must be faithfully reminded of this by the church. This is why NAE actually has an office of governmental affairs. The history of this office, beginning with the fine work of Rev. Robert Duggan, is actually quite impressive. Before many of the constituent churches of the NAE saw the need to become involved in reminding the government of God’s sovereignty NAE was already there seeking to provide a Christian response to issues of government.
Human nature so abhors a vacuum that a totally secular society is never possible. Secularists deny this but then they are promoting their own brand of religion in place of the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. This is precisely why Christians must engage both public issues and civic leaders. Jesus is Lord! If we do not remind our leaders of this truth then idolatry will take its place at the center of our everyday life. Faithful Christians cannot allow this to happen without reminding people of the core truth of the kingdom of God.
The problem here is not with Christians engaging the public sphere but rather in how this has been done. Many conservative Christians would like to take us back to the old corpus Christianum, the civil religion of another era. In this approach the church is far too closely linked to the ruling powers and ceases to truly be the church in its prophetic task.
Take Islam as an example of my point here. Islam, without a doctrine of original sin, believes that the law of God and the law of the state are one. When they are not then it is the role of the mosque to stir up the people to make this a reality. This is the concept of sharia law.
Mosque and state are one under sharia. There is no distinction of function between them, thus we see Muslim clerics telling secular rulers, who are not truly secular rulers at all in our sense of the word, what they should do and how they should do it. This is the sacralization of politics. In this way of governing the will of God becomes a political goal. When this happens, Lesslie Newbigin (photo on left) reminds us, “demonic powers are unleashed.”
I believe the Religious Right is unleashing these same sacralizing tendencies and with it doing a great deal of harm to the gospel and the mission of Christ. This is not done in the way Islam does it, thus the differences are substantial and subtle, but the fundamental mistake is the same. Born-again Christians become prone to associate their views of God’s kingdom and Christian dogma with their views of economics, global warming, national health insurance, programs for the poor and national defense. Let me provide but one illustration.
Most of the same critics of Richard Cizik are the same folks who defended President Bush’s decision to go into Iraq. They see this as an “open and shut case” of national defense and just war. It is, quite frankly, nothing of the kind. These same Christians also tend to see anyone who disagrees with this stance as weak on national security and opposed to Christian teaching. The whole doctrine of pre-emption has not generated nearly enough concern among evangelicals for just this reason. “God bless America and God bless George W. Bush” have become virtually synonymous with the views of many conservative pastors and churches. I have long criticized more liberal churches for promoting socialism as a Christian stance but the opposite is true for conservatives when they say capitalism is biblically based. One does not need to resort to God and the Bible to make good arguments for better government.
I believe we can address an obviously moral issue, such as abortion to use the most important illustration, without making it into a “strictly” Christian issue. By associating abortion with the church (directly) we actually do a bad job of making an important case for the culture of life. And by connecting every other issue to a legislator’s record on abortion we tend to give the impression that nothing else matters to us. This gives all the wrong signals to the world about the authority of Christ over our lives and decisions.
Consider the Civil Rights movement in light of my point. Dr. King was an avowed Christian and thus drew deeply on Christian principles, biblical texts and moral arguments. But he never used one political party, or a list of governmental measures, to make his larger moral case. He appealed to all people by showing them that his cause was just and right. The movement succeeded because the public became convinced of the sheer justice of the Civil Rights cause. Evangelicals have failed to accomplish this, at least so far, with the pro-life issue or with the homosexual-marriage debate. We are seen as trying to force our will on the public and we are resented for this approach. ( I would add, justly so.)
Lesslie Newbigin writes that the “Religious Right uses the name of Jesus to cover the absolute claims of one national tradition.” He then argues that the rhetoric of the Religious Right “is only a further development of the ideologizing of politics that stems from the Enlightenment. . . . The Enlightenment gave birth to a new conception of politics, namely, that happiness can be provided by a political system and that the goal of politics is happiness” (cf. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, pages 115-17).
This type of thinking seeks to bring heaven down to earth. But as Newbigin insists, “it always results in bringing hell up from below.” The fullness of the kingdom of God will not come in this age. We must understand this or we will always fall for idealistic and Utopian fallacies. But the Christian church must go on continually reminding earthly powers of their direct responsibility to God. And the church must never identify itself with the kingdom of God directly. The church serves the kingdom by never relinquishing its role to speak truth to power. Concludes Newbigin: “The church witnesses to that true end for which all creation and all human beings exist, the truth by which all alleged values are to be judged.”
I am forced to conclude that there should never be a total identification of the church and the political order. But there should never be a total separation of the two either. The church serves the kingdom. Christians serve the kingdom in various spheres of divine sovereignty. There is clearly wide room for disagreement about how the faith can and should inform public policy. Cizik was seeking to speak to this issue, albeit in ways that can and should be challenged. But removing him under duress was an act of will, an act of sheer power. It was a revolt of a few against someone who got “off the reservation.” And woe to the person who challenges those who believe that they know God’s view on every issue related to the important public debates we are having today about global warming, civil marriage and birth control.
This issue of marriage is actually another indicator of what has gone wrong in the church. We have been willing partners with the civil authorities about marriage for several hundred years. In most countries there are two parts to a marriage ceremony, a civil part and a separate religious part. The first is required by civil law and the second is for those who want it because of their faith. America is a rarity among nations in the West in that ministers are “civil servants” when it comes to performing wedding ceremonies. This is all changing now as the culture and Christianity are being rapidly disconnected. What happens when the state changes marriage laws? What will ministers then do?
The church shaped the culture of America very powerfully. The church is still the means by which God brings his kingdom into the most obvious visible expression within the culture. What has happened over the last forty years is that a good part of the church has become more and more like the secular culture around it and less and less like the church of Jesus Christ as seen in Holy Scripture. Then in 1979 a group of conservative Christians formally decided to adopt a specific strategy to change all this by directly using political will and power. The results are now clear. (I first began to challenge this marriage of church and politics in a sermon preached on July 4, 1976, so I’ve been challenging these developments for quite a while.) The church is clearly losing the culture war through spiritual apathy, anti-intellectualism and theological ignorance, not through losing elections, though now this is happening too.
How then does the church promote the kingdom in terms of marriage in our culture?
My good friend Michael Craven, who is the chairman of the ACT 3 board and the president of the Center for Christ and Culture, answers this in a recent article by saying that we must first make sure that we live our personal lives under the authority of the king. He adds, “It means that we fight as a community for every marriage within the body that is in crisis.” Amen!
But for thirty years we have been fighting with unbelievers when our real battle is within the church. Unless the church regains its soul we will have nothing to give, as a servant community, to the culture. We have very likely already reached this point. This is what I believe happened under the leadership of countless well-meaning conservative spokesmen and spokeswomen who believed that they were doing God’s good work through a broad spectrum of efforts that developed under the influence of the Religious Right. Michael Craven concludes, “A compromised church cannot produce a chaste and moral culture that upholds and honors marriage, much less advance the kingdom.”
Muslims look at us and say, “Look what Christianity has produced in the West.” We answer by saying that this is the result of secular forces, not because of the church. But the church looks more secular than Christian in both our theology and methodology. We market the gospel way the world markets its message, we promote our cause the way lobby groups promote their cause, and we argue the way the world argues. We have run from our weakness like the plague and in the process lost our power. Like Samson shorn of his hair we have no real power left. The emperor has no clothes but in this case the emperor is still leading the church.
The proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” with regard to the resignation of Richard Cizik, was his advocacy (albeit a tame advocacy if you read his words carefully) of civil unions. I could wish that he would have spoken about this a bit differently but forcing him to resign was not a good solution, it was a typical political reaction. It reflects the sad place where we have arrived in many evangelical churches and denominations, thus the pressure was put upon NAE to act against Cizik.
Writers like Mark Tooley (photo on left), who have been criticizing Rich Cizik and the NAE for some time now, rejoiced in his resignation. And Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women for America, considered Cizik’s views to be “not anywhere close to biblical orthodoxy, traditional Christian theology, nor the bulk of evangelicals who ground their faith in the Bible.” I read this quote and said, “What on earth are you talking about?” The bulk of evangelicals, according to every serious survey I’ve seen, have no clue what the major teachings of the Bible are at all. And the vast majority of evangelicals are not living their lives based upon anything remotely like the gospel. Wright even suggested this might be the reason why Cizik shared his views on NPR, a forum to which most of his “constituents” do not listen. Really? There is a commentary in itself.
So we have another Religious Right leader admitting that the problem is out there, with something like the venue of NPR. I wonder if this will now become a new litmus test. I laughed out loud at this comment, especially since I listen to NPR quite avidly. I find that 98% of what passes for Christian radio is so weak and insipid that it either bores me or exasperates me. I much prefer to keep my dial on NPR since the conservative political talk shows are also beyond anything remotely reasonable these days. (Michael Medved, a politically and religiously conservative Jewish commentator, is my lone exception here. There are other good programs I am sure but so far as the programs I can get in Chicago during the time when I am in my car Medved is about it. But NPR remains my favorite radio programming for news and thoughtful dialogue.)
I end this commentary on Rich Cizik’s “forced” resignation with a prayer.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.