Krista's Journal: Continuing to Speak in the Face of Criticism

April 12, 2007

Richard Cizik's way of thinking strikes a contrast with some of the higher-profile images of Evangelical Christianity in American culture in recent times. But a year ago, it was not at all clear how much influence he might have in shaping new directions for this vast movement, or how his forthrightness might fare. Though he has been vice president for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) for 11 years, he remained, until recently, principally an insider, a behind-the-scenes operator. When we spoke last year, for example, he was far less famous than his more conservative colleague, then-president of the NAE, Ted Haggard, who resigned after a sexual scandal in November. Cizik himself has said very little publicly since he himself became a lightning rod. But at the news that we would be rebroadcasting our interview with him, he wrote this: "The controversy over my 'speaking out' on these issues, while at times painful, nonetheless prompted a very constructive and widespread conversation in our movement that is a longtime coming. … The end result is that millions of evangelicals have risen out of their pews to say 'amen' to a broad agenda of concerns in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Your program was about the 'evolution of evangelicalism' and this trend has taken off in a way not even I could have imagined." The members of the board of the NAE rejected conservative Christian calls for Cizik's removal. They adopted an Evangelical Declaration Against Torture — something Richard Cizik had championed. The organization has also unanimously reaffirmed the 2004 policy document that Cizik helped to draft, "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." And Cizik himself has become ever more vocal and active on climate change and environmental degradation. He helped coordinate an unpublicized retreat between Evangelicals and leading scientists such as E.O. Wilson, which issued a joint "Urgent Call to Action" to scientific, political, and religious leaders. I'm reminded of my recent conversation with Cal DeWitt, an Evangelical scientist who has been on the front lines of environmental conservation for three decades — and was one of the people who helped introduce Richard Cizik and others to the science of climate change. DeWitt asserts that the non-hierarchical nature of Evangelical Christianity, along with its regard for "conversion," can make Evangelicals nimble when it comes to engaging new causes. Evangelical Christians, DeWitt says, can "turn on a dime" if they come to see something as a requirement of biblical faith they have neglected. This happened with global hunger in the 1960s; it is happening now with climate change and arguably a host of other issues. The word "evolution" seems all the more apt when I rediscover this kind of connection Richard Cizik draws in our conversation between core values for which Evangelical Christianity is well known and contemporary crises of our society: "Cut the poverty rate by 10 percent and you'll cut the abortions by 30 percent." Or this: "One out of six bear children with birth defects. One out of six in America — in the greatest country, I believe, in the history of mankind — are born with forms of mental retardation and other disabilities associated with mercury that comes from air pollution? What in the world is going on? Is that not a sanctity of life issue? Of course it is!" Richard Cizik is not abandoning issues of "personal morality," such as gay rights and abortion, that have helped to shape the contemporary Evangelical movement. But he is seeing those issues in their largest possible context, and this kind of vision opens doors for dialogue and action with very different others. He is intriguing precisely because he does not represent a departure from Evangelical Christian theology and faith, but an organic development — a broadened and more complex view that has arisen from the experience of political power and exposure to global realities.

Voices on the Radio

is vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals and editor of Washington Insight.