Richard Cizik, the longtime Washington lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals—the largest evangelical umbrella organization in the country, representing roughly 45,0000 churches—resigned Thursday after igniting a firestorm in the evangelical world by vowing support for gay civil unions in an interview with National Public Radio.
Cizik has faced years of criticism from the Christian right over his advocacy for combating global warming, with many conservative evangelical leaders questioning the validity of global-warming claims and mankind's role in the process. Many of those leaders saw Cizik's so-called "creation care" activism as a sign of him trying to liberalize a traditionally conservative agenda and distracting from such fights as stopping abortion and gay marriage.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, one of the Christian right's most powerful voices, tried to have Cizik fired in 2006 over his environmental work, but the National Association of Evangelicals' board of directors stood by him, according to a source close to the organization.
With Cizik's resignation, Dobson and his allies finally claimed victory. "This sends the message that you can't leave the reservations on basic issues of where your constituency lies," says Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. "A number of left-leaning evangelicals had started believing their own press, saying that evangelicals were not concerned with issues of marriage and family. The NAE found out this week that their members do care about those issues."
In an interview with National Public Radio host Terry Gross that aired on December 2, Cizik responded to question about gay marriage by saying, "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."
Even evangelical figures who'd supported Cizik's environmental activism were troubled by the comments. "I don't know what was going on in his head," says Christianity Today Editor David Neff, an NAE board member and a Cizik ally on environmental issues. "When I heard that interview, I said to myself 'Good grief—what are you talking about?' That was not the Richard I knew."
According to a statement posted on the NAE's website Cizik acknowledged that he misspoke during the NPR interview. "Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized, and affirmed our values there is a loss of trust in his credibility as a spokesperson among leaders and constituents," NAE President Leith Anderson said in a letter to the organization's board of directors."
Cizik's arrival at the NAE 28 years ago coincided with the rise of the modern Christian right, which Jerry Falwell launched with his Moral Majority in 1979. "What Rich has had to do is maintain the bipartisan nature of the NAE at a time when evangelicals shifted very heavily toward the Republican Party," says Christianity Today's Neff. ".... It creates a precarious situation for anyone doing that kind of work, when you have two thirds of the evangelical movement voting with the Republican Party."
In the 1990s, when conservative evangelicals found themselves locked out of the White House after 12 years of Republican rule, Cizik was among a handful of Washington evangelical advocates who worked to forge common ground with Bill Clinton's administration on foreign policy issues like human trafficking and religious freedom. He was an important player in the effort to pass 1998's International Religious Freedom Act, which Clinton signed into law.
As he worked to establish ties with Republicans and Democrats, Cizik criticized the Christian right's more blunt-force tactics, alleging that they actually impeded the movement from advancing its agenda in Washington. "Not everyone feels western civilization is going to rise and fall on a marriage amendment," Cizik told U.S. News in 2005, pushing back against Christian right leaders who were focused on passing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "My fear is we're bringing on criticism that we're modern-day ayatollahs."
Since then, Christian right leaders have grown more vocal in alleging that Cizik has failed to represent the conservative agenda of most American evangelicals, who accounted for about a quarter of the electorate on Election Day last month.
But John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, expects the "branching out" work that Cizik helped spearhead for the evangelical movement to continue, even if Cizik leaves the political arena. "There are a lot of forces working at broadening the evangelical agenda, particularly evangelicals under 30, Green says. "In the long term, there will be people who become more prominent from this younger evangelical generation."
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