The “forced” resignation of Richard Cizik has brought a great deal of attention to evangelical Christianity in America and most of it is very negative. We live in a time when spiritual interest is actually rising but respect for the church is in sharp decline. Most non-Christians associate our response to leaders like Rich Cizik with the gospel message itself, like it or not. We can say this is not the case but they see this very simply as Christians attacking Christians. To them we are all fundamentalists, whether we like it or not. And our standing in the culture is at an all-time low based on everything I have seen.
Statistics reveal that an unsettling exodus is also taking place in the American church. This is not a passing fad but a real, observable and much-studied trend. What makes young people leave our churches? And why is the name “evangelical” so unpopular these days? Surveys reveal that multitudes believe that organized religion is unattractive even though Jesus still appeals to many. I hear this all the time: “Isn’t the church nothing more than organized religion with a political motivation?” And, “Isn’t the church and religion judgmental and homophobic, unlike Jesus?” My generation tends to see all of this as defiance and rejection of the gospel, a rejection rooted in sin and open rebellion. I believe that “rejection” is always going on at the spiritual level but these very human responses are really the fruit of an entire generation really watching us and hearing us thus they are no longer interested in the good news because they hear nothing that good in our message. Thus this generation has no intention of repenting of sin or of believing that Jesus loves them when what they hear is rejection and all our political negatives couched in gospel terms. This is why the Richard Cizik story matters to all of us. It is a picture, albeit a very gritty and offensive public one, of how the under-35s see and hear the gospel in modern America.
Cizik was fired because the constituency of some in NAE found his remarks unacceptable, indeed offensive and unbiblical. Leith Anderson said it was because “he did not appropriately reflect the positions of the National Association of Evangelicals and its constituencies.” He added, “Our (NAE’s) position on marriage, abortion, and other biblical values is long, clear, and unchanged.”
The problem here is that Cizik never said otherwise. What he actually spoke about was “civil unions.” In a statement NAE issued after Cizik resigned Cizik himself added, “I categorically oppose ‘gay marriage’ and see now that my thoughts about ‘civil unions’ were misunderstood and misplaced. I am now and always have been committed to work to pass laws that protect and foster family life, and to work against government attempts to interfere with the integrity of the family, including same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions.” He added that he remained opposed to abortion and remains a serious “advocate for pro-life policies without exception.”
The NAE produced a 2004 document, For the Health of the Nation, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and then adds, “We also oppose innovations such as same-sex ‘marriage,’" and, “We also oppose the expansion of ‘rights talk’ to encompass so-called rights such as ‘same-sex marriage’ or ‘the right to die.’”
Cizik has been under fire, as I previously noted, since 2006. Why? Because of his views on the environment. Being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, earlier this year, raised his profile considerably. Leith Anderson even admits that Cizik had raised the profile of NAE by the attention he had received, good or bad.
Richard Land (photo at right), the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) equivalent to Cizik in Washington, responded to Cizik’s comments and the ensuing resignation by saying, “I was stunned when I heard it. I was momentarily speechless, and for me, that’s quite a feat.” Land added, “[As spokesmen], we’re not hired to express our personal opinions. Clearly, under Rich’s leadership in Washington, the NAE has increasingly taken positions that have been non-traditional for the NAE.” That is putting it mildly so long as one understands that the NAE represents a definite constituency of people and church leadership. But what is that constituency?
In short, the answer is that it is a mostly white, male and aging constituency. NAE long ago walked away from serious attempts at reconciliation with their black counterparts in the National Association of Black Evangelicals (NABE). This tragic story is important to keep in the background of these debates. One former NAE leader suggested to me that this was the precise time when God’s judgment on the NAE may have actually begun. I have to admit that I too wonder but then none of us knows the mind of the Lord on these kinds of providential events. I do know that NAE has refused to create a tent that openly embraces their Africa-American brothers and sisters. I also know that NAE has repeatedly refused to seriously deal with theological issues for decades. (This fear seems to be that these subjects would divide them so they left them on the side lines.) NAE has continually followed a course that is not friendly to the emerging generation (especially in how they pick leadership on their board) thus it is essentially a “men’s club” that is now losing influence in big chunks. In some ways having Rich Cizik around brought the NAE more press than it should have ever enjoyed given that its influence is so truly small. And it sure beat the press that NAE got with Ted Haggard!
Richard Land, an outspoken SBC conservative, was asked to comment about the earlier open letter sent to Cizik about his environmentalism and whether he should have resigned back in 2007. Land said, “That’s above my pay grade.” Some of you, like me, will smile at this response since you will recall that Barack Obama used the same words to the question Rick Warren posed to him about when “life begins.” Is there irony here or what?
Cal Beisner (photo at right), whose views on environmentalism stand in considerable contrast to Cizik’s views, says Cizik does not represent evangelicals fairly on the issue of whether or not global warming is man-made. He adds, “If he speaks on abortion or homosexuality—which he rarely does anymore—no one knows if he’s accurately standing for evangelicals as a whole. As a spokesman for evangelicals, he has undercut his ability with decision makers.”
This comment by Cal Beisner is very revealing with regard to some of the real issues here. First, Cizik is not speaking out enough on the “hot-button” issues of conservatives. This is true. He is a poor spokesman for the religious right. Second, he does not represent evangelicals as a whole. (Who does and what is “evangelicalism" anyway?) Third, he lost his ability “with [the] decision makers.” That is, to my mind, the most damaging criticism of them all. Evangelicalism, throughout my lifetime, has become more and more about these “decision makers.” The under-35s could care less about this stuff and they find the language itself totally distasteful. Having grown up believing that religion and power are wrongly linked within the church they see and feel that something is very wrong in this way of thinking and speaking.
Cizik has committed the unpardonable sin in white evangelicalism—he has become an “evangelical maverick.” (These words were used by one leader who responded to this breaking story last week.) Michael Cromartie adds, very perceptively I believe, that “the arguments in the past several years have been extremely heated and emotional.” You bet they have. That, to my mind, is the real problem. A host of those involved in the religious right movement have turned up the rhetoric and waged their culture wars at all new levels of fear and bombast. This is why many Christians refuse to believe that Barack Obama can be a real Christian. This is why civil dialogue is gone in many conservative congregations. This is why Democrats come to me in churches regularly and tell me how hard it is to remain in an evangelical church even though they remain theologically evangelical in every significant way. These last thirty years of religious rhetoric and politics have done serious damage to the mission of Christ.
Cal Thomas (photo at left) recently contributed a very hopeful analysis of this problem to a Web extra edition of World magazine (November 6, 2008). He noted that when Barack Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, 2009, it will also be the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Religious Right. This movement, whose early history is still not adequately understood, was “a reincarnation of previous religious-social movements that sought moral improvement through legislation and court rulings. Those earlier movements—from abolition (successful) to Prohibition (unsuccessful)—had mixed results.”
Thomas rightly notes that social movements that relied on changing hearts more than on changing moral code were the ones that had the most success. Thirty years of trying to directly change culture by directly challenging government (through elections and various lobby groups) has failed. Thomas says, “I opt for trying something else.” I could not agree with him more.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that a liberal believes you change culture by directly using politics. He said a conservative believed that you changed politics by changing culture first and this was done by changing people. The problem is that religious conservatives got angry at the liberal social gains within our Post-War War II culture and decided to fight back. The result has been a thirty year culture war!
Suppose, Thomas suggests, that millions of evangelicals decided to practice the Jesus model and live the life that radical discipleship calls for. Suppose they “loved their enemies, prayed for those who persecuted them, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison and cared for widows and orphans?” And suppose they did these things not as actions for political ends but as an end in themselves. Suppose they actually loved those they feel so strongly about in the culture? And suppose they loved homosexuals, to use but one example, without trying to force them to change by the way they expressed this Christian love to them? (Again, read my words very carefully. I am not arguing that we should overlook immoral behavior at all. This is a matter for church correction and loving care.) Thomas says such a strategy would be “transformational.” I could not agree more.
Power is not made perfect in seeking power. Power to change our culture is not found in conservative Christian groups operating in Washington with an eye on changing the culture via partisanship, liberal or conservative. Power to change anything begins inside you and me. It grows inside the church and then it works its way out into the culture. If we want to feel good we should attack Cizik and spend more money on politics. If we want real change we could better spend our energy and money on helping the helpless and caring for those in deep need.
Our ineffective attempts at reforming this culture are obvious, at least to me. They are also obvious to most in the under-35 generation. Young Christian leaders, and this includes a few of us older men and women like Rick Warren to cite just one shining example, know that the battle is not with flesh and blood. They know that by choosing to work under the radar in helping people in Africa and urban America they are actually doing the real work of the “upside down” kingdom. Thomas concludes: “If conservative evangelicals choose obscurity and seek to glorify God, they will get much of what they hope for, but can never achieve, in and through politics.”
This is why the Rich Cizik story truly matters. It reveals that many older white leaders still care about the old way of doing kingdom business. I pray this way will die, sooner than later. I do not mean this in a personal way against any person involved in the religious right. I have known leaders in this world and love them as my brothers. But I remain profoundly disillusioned with their leadership and pray for a new, fresh move of God to blow through our churches restoring spiritual sanity and balance to both our words and actions.
I see a growing number of “mavericks” in the church and I am praying they become the leaders of a very different future. The past thirty years has been a long, dark night for many of us who believe that the church can do so much better in public if it is truly revived by the sweet and powerful wind of the Holy Spirit in private. Only then will our “good works” truly glorify God and thereby cause unbelievers to hear our gospel and repent of their sins.