The "Forced" Resignation of Richard Cizik, Part Two

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

On Wednesday of this week Richard Cizik resigned as the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The preceding week had been filled with calls for his removal by constituent members of NAE who were deeply distressed that he was shifting his views on same-sex marriage. As I showed in Part One Richard Cizik has been under considerable fire for over two years. The statement that led to his resignation became, without any serious doubt, the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Leith Anderson, president of NAE, wrote to the board members of NAE the following: “Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized, and affirmed our values, there is a loss of trust in his credibility as a spokesman among leaders and constituencies.” I have no doubt that Leith Anderson spoke the truth here and nothing but the truth. The issue was not so much what Cizik said in the December 2 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, or what he meant by what he said or left unsaid, as it was a “loss of trust in his credibility.” This is precisely why I wrote what that I did in Part One so you could get a sense of the background on this matter. If Cizik’s most recent comments had been made without the context of a nearly two-year attempt to see him removed from leadership in NAE I seriously doubt that his recent comments would have resulted in his ouster. I will try to show you why.

Charles Colson, whom I profoundly admire and count as a friend, summed up the general mood about Cizik, at least among older evangelicals, when he said:

For better or worse, Rich became a great, polarizing figure. He was gradually, over a period of time, separating himself from the mainstream of evangelical belief and conviction. So I’m not surprised. I’m sorry for him, but I’m not disappointed for the evangelical movement.

In the now controversial interview on December 2 Cizik spoke mostly about the environment, the issue that he has been hammered about for more than two years now. In the midst of this dialogue Terry Gross asked him several questions that became the points upon which he was forced to resign (I will give this portion of the interview in full so the reader can read the statements in their total context. Remember, most of the interview was focused on the environment.)

You say you really identify with the concerns and priorities of younger evangelical voters, and one of those priorities is more of an acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage. A couple of years ago when you were on our show, I asked you if you were changing your mind on that, and two years ago you said you were still opposed to gay marriage. But now you identify more and more with younger voters and their priorities; have you changed on gay marriage?

Cizik: I’m shifting I have to admit. In other words I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don’t officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don’t think. We have this tension going on in our movement between what is church-building and what is nation-building. And I lean in this spectrum at times—maybe we should concentrate on building values in our own movement. We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights and the rest that we fail to understand the challenges and threats to marriage itself—heterosexual marriage. Maybe we need to re-evaluate this and look at it a little differently. I’m always looking for ways to reframe issues, give the biblical point of view a different slant, if you will, and look it, we have to. The whole world, literally, the planet is changing around us, and if you don’t change the way you think and adapt, especially to things like climate change, scientists like Bob Dopple he says well if you don’t adapt and change your thinking you may ultimately be a loser, because climate change in his mind—he’s a systems analyst—has the capacity to determine the winners and losers, and your life will never be the same, growing up during I say the great warming. Our grandparents grew up during the great depression, our parents, well they lived in the aftermath of that and became maybe the greediest generation, and our generation, this younger one, needs to be the greenest.

Stephen Waldman of Beliefnet raised this question that I want to put to you. Barack Obama supports the right to an abortion, but he also advocates reducing the number of abortions when possible. Will you support him in abortion reduction or do you see that as a diversion from the work of banning or restricting abortion?

Cizik: I will support him. I will support Barack Obama in finding ways to reduce the number of abortions, absolutely.

Gross: Now is that controversial within the evangelical movement?

Cizik: For some, yes. I’ve already been called one of the devil’s minions for taking this position because it seem compromising, but that’s again that winner take all mentality that you have to have it all. In politics I have learned over many years less is more. I think finding those who are in trouble, in crisis, helping them through this and if need be even supplying what government presently doesn’t do, namely contraception, is an answer to reducing unintended pregnancies.

Gross: Wait, wait. I think I heard you say government supplying contraception. That’s got to be controversial.

Cizik: Among some it would be, but I don’t think so. We are not, as I have said previously, we are not Catholics who oppose contraception per se. And let’s face it, what do you want? Do you want an unintended pregnancy that results in abortion or do you want to meet a woman’s needs in crisis, who frankly, would by better contraception avoid that choice, avoid that abortion that we all recognize is morally repugnant—at least it is to me.

Plainly there are three controversial subjects raised in Cizik’s answers. First, the issue of same-sex marriage. Second, the issue of civil unions between same-sex partners. Third, the issue of governmental provision of condoms to help in decreasing the number of abortions. As Cizik said, the third issue offends only a few in the evangelical camp since there is no established evangelical ethic position about condoms. What some would oppose, and do so fervently, is the role of government in such provision. But this is clearly not the “big" issue here.

The answers that got Cizik removed from NAE were same-sex marriage and civil-unions.

Leith Anderson, in expressing the NAE position, stated that “The role of an NAE spokesperson is primarily on behalf of what we have said, not on behalf of what we have not said. It’s also to represent our constituency, and our constituency does not favor civil unions.”

By the way, Cizik told Terry Gross that he voted for Barack Obama in the primaries but did not indicate who he voted for in the November election.

Following this interview NAE was flooded with emails, a large number from members of NAE member organizations. According to Sarah Pullman, reporting in Christianity Today, some writers cited his views on abortion and condom distribution but most focused on the gay union issue. Anderson reported that NAE favors decreasing the number of abortions but has not laid out a specific plan such as the distribution of condoms.

So it should be clear to all—Cizik was forced to resign because he said “I believe in civil unions” and because he then added “I don’t officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition. . . .” The protest of him was centered about his views on gays.

Make no mistake about this—“gay” politics is hot right now, red hot. With Proposition 8 passing in California, and more than thirty-five states formally forbidding gay marriage in various legal ways, the issue has been front and center for the past seven or eight years. As I have traveled about the United States, speaking in churches of all sorts, I can tell you this issue produces the single most obvious level of deep emotion of any issue I have seen in my lifetime inside the church. At one time the most emotional issue was removing prayer in the public schools. Then it was abortion in the 1970s and 1980s. Now it is gay marriage and related sexual identity issues. Of all these types of social/moral/cultural issues this one has plainly generated the most wide-scaled legal response, both pro and con. And it has generated the most unbalanced rhetoric of any such issue since segregation was openly challenged in the 1950s.

Gay marriage (and correspondingly for some, civil unions) is seen by my generation as “the issue” that will define our entire future as a nation. If the gays publicly win then the nation is finished. The church will be attacked, freedoms will be removed through the use of hate speech law and our ability to live the faith without persecution removed. Further, children and marriage will be irreparably damaged for generations to come. I do not think I am overstating the way this issue is seen and felt at all.

Many people fear homosexuals in general and openly loathe their behavior. Many even find people who are openly gay to be disgusting and despicable human beings. (Thankfully I do not think the number of such people is as large as the advocates of homosexual marriage want us to believe. Surveys and poll data support my observation in general. I do not deny that hatred and prejudice are real and harm some people profoundly.)

As with most of these kinds of "hot button" moral/cultural issues, but particularly with this one, it becomes almost impossible to have a civil dialogue about the issue without turning persons into enemies. I have seen this work in church contexts more than I care to admit. My own position on the issue itself is clear—I believe homosexual practice plainly violates the clear teaching of the Word of God and I have taught this in both friendly and not-so-friendly contexts for years. I do not believe ministers who are committed to homosexual practice should be ordained and I do not think unrepentant homosexuals should be welcomed into church membership. But Richard Cizik agrees with me so far as I can tell. So why was he removed for his few words on NPR.  Why, or why?

1. He endorsed the concept of civil unions. This is a broad category but generally it means the government grants legal protection and benefits to gay couples based on a union that is non-religious yet civilly established.

2. He expressed clear opposition to “redefining marriage from its traditional definition”—i.e., one man and one woman.

What this demonstrates to me is that we cannot have a reasonable dialogue about these issues without personal threats and massive political intrigue. What happened to the idea that the church was a “safe place” for sinners? What happened to welcoming and embracing sinners? What happened to explaining in calm and clear ways why the sin of homosexual practice is not the same as concern for civil rights and legal protection for a minority?

My very suggestions here will be read by a few as an endorsement of homosexual practice. I am doing nothing of the kind. But I am appalled at how quick some evangelicals are to remove the speck from their brother or sister’s eye without seeing the log in their own. Cizik actually addressed this in his further comments about marriage. I think his comment is brilliant and I rarely hear anyone say it so well: “We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights and the rest that we fail to understand the challenges and threats to marriage itself—heterosexual marriage.”

I have said this again and again and it generates either a complete yawn or an angry denunciation. Who is kidding whom here? Evangelicals divorce at a higher rate than the culture in general and few of our local churches, or denominations, have dealt with the sin of adultery in any clearly biblical way since before World War II. How many evangelical churches do you know that will discipline a person for adultery? The church I pastored for sixteen years faithfully practiced such discipline and the results of our practice were powerful and redemptive. I shared a deeply moving meal this week, of the sort that I believe I will enjoy in heaven someday, with a friend of thirty years. This man, now in his 50s, was a young man under my care as a young pastor. I led my congregation to discipline him for adultery. What followed was extremely trying and difficult. But about a year after the discipline he was soundly converted and has ever since been a growing, productive and fruit-bearing Christian man. He loves me with an unusually deep love and the bonds between us are almost unexplainable at times. There is mutual respect and deep love for Christ and we will remain close, I am quite sure, for all eternity. This all came from practicing "tough love" in a biblically faithful church context.

My question with the Ciziik episode is why will these conservative Christians who so loathe homosexual practice tolerate so easily heterosexual sin? Something is very wrong here and saying it, and seeing that it is clearly true, should deeply disturb us all. Cizik said it but it seems his critics completely missed it.

Cizik also said that he is “always looking for ways to reframe issues, to give the biblical point of view a different slant, if you will . . .” Whether you agree with him or not, or like him or not, this is at the heart of anything that deserves the name evangelical. We are a missional people and as missional people we are always looking for ways to “reframe” the truth that we see in Scripture. This is dangerous for sure but this is the point of view bequeathed to us by the Protestant Reformers. You can fault Cizik for how he said what he said, and remember he admitted that he could have said it very differently and much better, but you cannot fault him for trying to practice a truly evangelical principle.

I will say more later about Cizik’s view of same-sex marriage, which he ardently opposes, but for now please focus on the nub of this debate. Cizik was removed for one reason—he supports civil unions.

Now I know that Wikipedia can be faulted on many scores (in terms of scholarly precision and faithful reporting at points) but it can also be useful in many instances. In this case it is the latter that I believe we find when we search the term: "civil unions." Here is the Wikipedia definition given under the entry on civil unions:

A civil union is a legally recognized union similar to marriage. Beginning with Denmark in 1989, civil unions under one name or another have been established by law in many developed countries in order to provide same-sex couples with rights, benefits, and responsibilities similar (in some countries, identical) to opposite-sex civil marriage. In some jurisdictions, such as Quebec, New Zealand, and Uruguay, civil unions are also open to opposite-sex couples.

Most civil-union countries recognize foreign unions if those are essentially equivalent to their own; for example, the United Kingdom lists equivalent unions in Civil Partnership Act Schedule 20.

Many people are critical of civil unions because they say they represent separate status unequal to marriage ("marriage apartheid"). Others are critical because they say civil unions are separate but equal – because they allow same-sex marriage by using a different name.

As used in the United States, beginning with the state of Vermont in 2000, the term civil union has connoted a status equivalent to marriage for same-sex couples; domestic partnership, offered by some states, counties, cities, and employers since as early as 1985, has generally connoted a lesser status with fewer benefits. However, the legislatures of the West Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington have preferred the term domestic partnership for enactments similar or equivalent to civil union laws in East Coast states.

As you can readily see “civil unions” has a very broad definitional scope but in almost no case is it seen as (Christian) marriage. The very term “civil” means non-religious. For this reason alone civil unions are not gay marriage. Whether we like it or not civil unions already exist and are not likely to go away. It seems to me that the best place for a Christian to stand in this current cultural milieu and radical change is to protect marriage as an essentially religious union and civil unions as something different. It also seems to me that Cizik was making such a distinction.

But Cizik’s critics saw only “red” and charged after him with the determination to see him removed from his leadership position. My guess is that he will be better off outside the NAE, at least personally. But it also seems to me that the NAE failed to respond to a crisis with the kind of personal relational care that portrays to the world that we are not simply driven by the heated political rhetoric and debate that so marks the breakdown of civility in our time. I will say more about the NAE, and its history and present confusion, in my next post. In the meantime I hope that some readers will rethink how we can and should discuss this issue of marriage and civil unions. The least we can do is dial down the passionate speech level and the heated rhetorical confusion this creates. Surely I am not the only Christian leader in my generation who feels that we are the worse for our continual inability to conduct a serious conversation without the gloating and celebrating that has accompanied the removal of Brother Richard Cizik by the NAE.