[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.