An outspoken and polarizing voice in conservative Christian politics resigned effective Thursday from the National Association of Evangelicals after a radio interview in which he voiced support for same-sex civil unions and said he is “shifting” on gay marriage.
The Rev. Richard Cizik’s comments — made on a Dec. 2 “Fresh Air” broadcast on National Public Radio — triggered an uproar that led to his stepping down as NAE vice president of governmental affairs.
A fixture in Washington for nearly three decades, Cizik has played a key role in bringing evangelical Christian concerns to the political table. But in recent years, he earned enemies in the movement for pushing to broaden the evangelical agenda. His strongest focus was on “creation care,” arguing that evangelicals have a biblical responsibility to the environment that includes combatting global warming.
The Rev. Leith Anderson, a Minneapolis-area pastor who serves as NAE president, said Thursday the group is not backing away from its environmental stances. Cizik’s resignation was necessary, he said, because some of his answers in the radio interview did not reflect NAE values and convictions.
“Any organizations that speak to controversial issues are going to have critics,” Anderson said. “What was different this time was our individuals and organizations felt there was a loss of credibility for him clearly espousing our positions and values. When you lose that, it’s very difficult to re-establish.”
Cizik did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. The NAE said in a statement that Cizik had expressed regret, apologized and “affirmed our values.”
The NAE is an umbrella group for tens of thousands of churches and organizations.
Anderson said a “combination of things” Cizik said in the interview led to his downfall, including this comment on gay marriage: “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.”
Coming off the passage last month of amendments barring gay marriage in three states, some evangelicals took that as a slap in the face, said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine and a member of the NAE executive committee.
“He seemed to be abandoning the one thing where evangelical activists felt they had actually made a difference this time around,” Neff said.
Asked by Terry Gross in a Dec. 2 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air whether he had changed his position on same-sex marriage, Cizik responded:
“I’m shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions. . . . 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 reevaluate this and look at it a little differently.”
The remark, anathema to most evangelical Christians, who believe that the Bible permits marriage only between a man and a woman, caused an uproar in the group and in other evangelical organizations.
“I was stunned when I heard it. I was momentarily speechless, and for me, that’s quite a feat,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The SBC is not a member of the NAE, but Land and Cizik share similar roles as spokesmen for organizations in Washington, D.C.
“[As spokesmen], we’re not hired to express our personal opinions,” Land said. “Clearly, under Rich’s leadership in Washington, the NAE has increasingly taken positions that have been nontraditional positions for the NAE.”
Anderson said the NAE is not an advocate for civil unions.
“The role of an NAE spokesperson is primarily on behalf of what we have said, not on behalf of what we have not said,” Anderson told Christanity Today. “It’s also to represent our constituency, and our constituency does not favor civil unions.”
News of the interview initially traveled slowly, but Anderson said the NAE received a large number of e-mail complaints from members of the organization.
Over its 66-year history, the NAE has launched several of the evangelical movement’s largest parachurch organizations, including National Religious Broadcasters and World Relief (the latter is still officially the relief arm of the NAE, but has its own governing board). While those former branches have become independent ministries, the NAE has notably maintained its public affairs presence, said Joel Carpenter, director of Calvin College’s Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. At the NAE’s 1983 convention in Orlando, President Ronald Reagan delivered one of his most famous speeches, referring to Soviet Communism as “the Evil Empire.”
“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,” said Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. “In many ways, Rich Cizik has played that role. I think that has been fundamental for how evangelicals have been able to gain attention.”
The organization has been under Anderson’s leadership since Ted Haggard resigned as president in late 2006 following allegations of hiring a male prostitute and using methamphetamine.
The NAE is now associated with more than 50 denominations with about 45,000 churches. However, Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, said that the rise of the Religious Right since the 1980s has made it harder for the NAE to speak for a whole subculture.
“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,” Eskridge said. “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.”