America's Unrepentant Former Evangelical Leader

Richard Cizik remembers it this way: he had just come home from a week in Australia and was about to jet off to Paris when he sat down on Dec. 2, 2008 for his post-election interview with NPR's Terry Gross. She opened by asking him who he voted for, and though he demurred, he offered a big hint. "In the Virginia primary, I voted for Barack Obama," he said.

A few minutes later, she asked the question that would cost Cizik his job: "Have you changed on gay marriage?"

"I'm shifting," Cizik answered, truthfully, "I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions."

As the Washington lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals for nearly 30 years, Cizik should have known better. Even as polls continued to show a younger generation of Christians who were more accepting than their parents of homosexuality and gay marriage, the men who were running the old-school religious right remained completely and unequivocally opposed—and the NAE, an association of tens of thousands of churches, had always been positioned squarely within that flank. But for some time Cizik had been distancing himself from the old-timers, promoting global warming and environmentalism as Christian causes and supporting government-funded contraception as a way to reduce teen pregnancy. Religious-right stalwarts had long been calling out Cizik as insufficiently orthodox, but until now the NAE had his back.

"I walked out of that interview so confident of myself that I was oblivious to the repercussions," he told me this week. "I got on a plane and flew to Paris, where I started getting e-mails about how everyone was upset with me." So he turned around and flew to Minneapolis, where he met NAE president Leith Anderson at an Outback Steakhouse. And that was that. Cizik resigned. "Our individuals and organizations felt there was a loss of credibility for him," Anderson said at the time.

After a year of keeping a low profile, Cizik is "making a comeback," as he puts it. This week he announces the formation of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a group devoted to developing Christian responses to global and political issues such as environmentalism, nuclear disarmament, human rights, and dialogue with the Muslim world. Cizik's partners in this effort are David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University who has written extensively on torture, and Steven D. Martin, a pastor and filmmaker. For years, Cizik has been saying that the evangelical right needs to reframe its politics, to walk away from divisive name calling and find common ground with opponents, even on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage. "We are evangelical in our roots and orientation, but we aren't going to work only with evangelicals," explains Gushee.

The partnership gives Cizik a platform from which to speak openly. In his old job, "I wasn't allowed to say what I was thinking if it didn't support every jot and tittle of NAE policy," he says. Now, "I don't have to worry about the kinds of accountability that I had before."

Critics will say that Cizik has gone soft or, worse, that he's allowed himself to be co-opted by the left: he's the token conservative evangelical with the progressive agenda who gets trotted out as evidence that conservative evangelicals no longer care about the issues that once mattered so much to them. (This broad point of view, though embraced by many in the left-wing press, is not supported by polls. Younger evangelicals are concerned with a broader range of issues than their parents, especially environmentalism and the developing world, but they are more conservative on abortion.) In any case, Cizik shrugs these criticisms off. "I am, at heart, a centrist evangelical. I am more pro-life than [Sojourners founder] Jim Wallis is, actually. I am what we should be—that is, post-ideological. We are to be about healing, not division. We are not to be subservient to ideology, but above it."

Cizik says he represents a tradition of evangelicalism going back to the beginning of the 20th century—to Francis Schaeffer and Carl Henry, evangelicals who were strictly orthodox, but advocated a broad engagement with the world. "I'm not some upstart who's trying to conjure up a new vision," he says. "This goes back a long way."

As for his year in hiding, Cizik does not seem to regret a thing. "I was sad," he says. "I understood. I apologized. I had a whole lot of emotions, and it takes a while to process those. I spent a fair amount of time being quiet." He reiterates his support for civil unions this way: "Is it possible to deny due process and equal protection to those people whose personal lifestyle I disagree with?" And then, our meeting over, he goes off to see his new friends at the Open Society Institute, the group funded by George Soros—who is, as everybody knows, a billionaire and a liberal.