One of the more perceptive voices addressing Christianity and public policy is that of Calvin College’s Joel Carpenter (photo at left). Joel was once the director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton. He is someone that I listen to much the way the old E. F. Hutton commercials suggested people listened to Hutton's advice about the market. Carpenter is an astute observer of evangelicals and the NAE. He has also followed the Richard Cizik matter very closely.
Last week Carpenter observed: “I think the public affairs office (of NAE) has been the most vital and important thing that the NAE has been doing in recent years. Joel Carpenter actually contributed a chapter on the history of the NAE to the book Revive Us Again, a history of fundamentalism and evangelism in America. He suggests, as a historian of this 66-year old organization which was birthed in opposition to the World Council (WCC) and National Council of Churches (NCC), that “Cizik has made that office a lively conversation partner in Washington. He’s made it matter, and I don’t think it did before.”
Based on what I wrote in Part Three of this series I have to agree with Carpenter. NAE’s real problem is simple—it doesn’t matter any more but doesn't seem to know what to do about the problem. It represents an old-era attempt to get various conservative and fundamentalist groups together in a unity of essentials (which is a very short and non-creedal statement of faith) for the purpose of mission and public influence. While it made a serious contribution to the churches, at one point in the past, it is now debatable if NAE really matters even to its own members. Serious historians debate the reasons for this conclusion but most agree with it. NAE is irrelevant. In releasing Cizik the NAE will very likely become even more irrelevant. Younger Christian leaders are uninvolved in large numbers.They could care less about NAE.
One of the reasons NAE became less and less relevant has to do with the rise of the Religious Right thirty years ago. NAE existed to provide a place for ecumenism among conservative churches and ministries, those churches not aligned with the NCC and WCC. NAE fostered dialogue and interaction in a fairly healthy way. It also birthed and developed two major ministries: World Relief Commission (WRC) and the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). For many years NAE had a lovely headquarters building across the street from Christianity Today, very near my home in Carol Stream. Today it is no more. As an organization it exists only as a shadow of what it once was when it had a much larger budget and staff. The days of Billy Melvin’s leadership are missed and the association has been pushed back by the money and power of the Religious Right. I find this a great shame. NAE represented a working ecumenism of its various parts and included many of the smaller churches and groups that had no other place to go for this kind of cooperation. But NAE was overshadowed by the growing popularity of the conservative social/political movements of the 1980s and 1990s. The one place where ecumenism mattered to many American conservatives who sat out the WCC at a critical time in church history was NAE. (A better expression of this past history still exists in the World Evangelical Fellowship, a broadly representative group that still carries some profound influence in certain parts of the world.)
Michael Lindsay (photo on right), a sociologist at Rice University, notes that NAE had a fractured constituency but served an important role in Washington, D.C. until the more powerful organizations such as Focus on the Family, the Christian Broadcasting Network and Prison Fellowship came on the scene. Now the landscape has changed considerably. Evangelicals are more united but in a way that is built on a few issues not upon ecclesial communities that confess a common Christian faith. Says Lindsay, “Because there’s no central hierarchy in evangelicalism, the NAE has provided a convenient reference point for those outside of the community for a pulse on what evangelicals are thinking.” (NAE once had a publication that was actually called Pulse. It was quite valuable.) In the absence of such publications and churchly prominence Richard Cizik came to play a more important role since he was the public face of the NAE. Lindsay believes that “[Cizik’s role] has been fundamental for how evangelicals have been able to gain attention.”
NAE now consists of some 50 denominations with about 45,000 member churches. But my friend Larry Eskridge,the associate director of the ISAE, notes correctly that the rise of the Religious Right made it hard for the NAE to speak any longer for a whole subculture. Eskridge, speaking to Christianity Today, noted: “The NAE’s role for this diverse, Jell-O-like constituency was a lot easier 30 years ago when they could speak in Washington on bland ‘religious issues.’ But with the onset of the ‘culture wars’ as Falwell, Dobson and the rest emerged, the whole ballgame changed, and the ambiguous role of the NAE as being some overarching evangelical spokes-organization began to unravel.”
Before 1980 NAE spoke to issues such as the persecution of believers in many lands, pro-life concerns and quite generally to issues that were of common concern to all but the most liberal Christians. I attended NAE conventions in those days but by the late 1970s, and early 1980s, I began to see this shift taking place. The focus became more and more on the “big names” and the “culture wars” and the NAE could not keep up. It lost the generous orthodoxy of its strong, early leadership and became more marginalized in the mainstream. It eventually became a minor player in the public sphere. And with the breakdown of denominations the way NAE actually worked became increasingly irrelevant. It seems to have served a great purpose, for about thirty-five to forty years, and then it lost its way. Or, more likely, it was made irrelevant by the shift in conservative Christian focus upon the wider culture.
I fear that one of the sad ironies of the Rich Cizik incident was missed by many. While the very conservative voices were being raised against his statement on civil unions given on NPR he was also being attacked by advocates of gay marriage. Yes, you read that right.
The New York Times had a paid ad titled “No Mob Violence,” condemning attacks on people of faith following the Proposition 8 attacks. (You will recall that the Mormons suffered the most aggressive attacks on this issue.)
A pro-gay rights group in New York then placed a full-page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune with headline, “Lies in the name of the Lord.” This ad featured a cartoon figure of Pinocchio and a Bible inscribed with the words, “King Colson, Donohue and Cizik Version.” (Donohue is from the Catholic League and the three are referred to because they signed the earlier ad in The New York Times.)
So here is the bitter irony. Cizik is attacked by the far right for being morally soft on marriage and homosexuality while the radical homosexual groups are attacking Cizik as a hate monger from the right. Sometimes, at least when you stand in the public arena, you just can’t win for losing. Cizik is condemned on the right and the left. So much for serious and moderate civil dialogue in our culture.
Leith Anderson, in issuing NAE’s statement about the resignation of Rich Cizik, was asked if NAE would take any new direction after this episode. He answered this way:
"Of course, we’ll take some new direction on something I don’t know anything about yet. But is there some intended redefinition of who we are and what we’re going to do? I consider that NAE goes back to 1942. We have been on a similar path with the same beliefs for the entire history of NAE. What we are is primarily an organization of churches and church-related organizations. We are not primarily a political entity. So the backbone of NAE is our 50-plus denominations, and that’s a large part of who we are and what we do.”
This strikes me as a way of saying we will stay the course. I see this course as the death of NAE.
Amazingly, when Anderson was asked if the rise of the Religious Right made it more difficult for NAE to represent evangelicals his answer was astounding: “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about that.”
I would hope he is thinking about it lot right now. If NAE has any future in the larger ecumenical and missional purpose of the church it had best recover its real purpose of uniting churches in mission and seriously rethink what its role is in a post-denominational world and a post-partisan evangelicalism, if there is to be such a role for NAE at all. The world is changing and many Christians are dug in defending the way they have always said things. The eternal message of the gospel is not changing but the times are changing very rapidly and those who grasp this missio-cultural fact will be more likely to be the truly missional Christian leaders of the future. It is them I pray for and try to teach in every way I know how.