Rich Cizik has been a pioneer in the "new evangelical" movement and a real hero, especially to the next generation of young believers. Rich has helped lead the way to putting "creation care" and climate change on the mainstream agenda of the evangelical movement. His pilgrimage to a deep passion for the planet that God made for us has been, in his own language, a "conversion" and an "epiphany." Because of that, he has become a powerful spokesperson for many in the Christian world who are having that same conversion.
The agenda of the evangelical world is deeper and wider because of Rich Cizik. In addition to the environment and climate change, Cizik has also led on the fundamental moral and biblical issues of global poverty and commitments like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), human trafficking, religious liberty, genocide in Darfur, and foreign policy issues like torture and even nuclear weapons. The NAE's critically important statement, "For the Health of the Nation", bears powerful witness to the wider agenda that is the shape of the new evangelical movement in America, and certainly around the world-especially for the next generation.
But Rich Cizik resigned this week, at the request of the NAE, because of things he said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross. The controversy of some of Rich's statements, in particular his "shifting" feelings about gay civil unions, admitting that he voted for Barack Obama in the primaries, and implying that he did so in the general election, caused so much controversy in some quarters of the NAE's constituency that the Executive Committee felt they had no choice but to suggest resignation, which Rich quickly but sadly accepted.
Rich Cizik still supports the Christian tradition of marriage between a man and a woman, which he reiterated after the interview, and that his strong pro-life commitments certainly included abortion, even though in the interview he said that pro-life commitments should include more than just abortion. He pointed out in the interview that younger evangelicals don't have all the same views on gay and lesbian rights as their parents do, that more of them have friendships with gay people, and that more are sympathetic to their equal protection under the law and issues like civil unions. Cizik admitting that he identified with those shifts created the firestorm.
All of this is very sad for many reasons. Rich has served the NAE, the evangelical movement, the wider church, and the wider world in such a dynamic, creative, and courageous way for 28 years, and for that service to end over the words of an interview is sad indeed. Already, leaders from many faith traditions, including many national evangelical leaders, have expressed great dismay at the loss of Rich Cizik in such a key role. And the Religious Right is already using Cizik's resignation to attempt to roll back the wider social justice and environmental agenda of the NAE. In a particularly bizarre statement, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said:
This is the risk of walking through the green door of environmentalism and global warming -- you risk being blinded by the green light and losing your sense of direction.
But NAE President Leith Anderson made clear that the NAE had no intention of retreating from the commitments of "For the Health of the Nation" and, while he defended the need for the resignation of Rich Cizik, said that it "saddened him" and was "personally painful."
I personally trust Leith Anderson's and the NAE Executive Committee's commitment to the wider evangelical agenda beyond just abortion and gay marriage, but also feel deeply saddened by these events. And I encourage the NAE's leadership to stay on the path they have chosen and resist the efforts of those who would again seek to narrow the evangelical agenda in unbiblical ways and make it again subservient to a conservative political agenda.
As for Rich Cizik, he will continue to be a leader in the new faith coalition that is emerging now, and that will replace the Religious Right, without becoming a Religious Left. Pioneers sometimes get into trouble and even pay a price for their explorations into new territories. But in the new moral center that is now visible, Rich's prophetic voice and leadership will continue to be heard and felt.