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 “