The Evangelical Ecumenist

Up until December 2008 Richard Cizik was the chief lobbyist in Washington for the evangelical movement. He was the head of public policy for a Christian association that represented nearly 45,000 churches and 25 million Americans, and he was the group’s national spokesperson.

Richard Cizik

Yes, Richard Cizik was the public face of evangelicalism in the United States until he went on the National Public Radio program Fresh Air and—much to his employer’s surprise—expressed his support for same-sex civil unions.

Nine days later he was asked to resign as vice president of the conservative National Association of Evangelicals, after 28 years with the organization.

“So here I am in charge of all the [evangelical Christian] lobbying on Capitol Hill, and lo and behold I go on the radio and give too much fresh air,” Cizik said during a visit to Middlebury College last week.

Now the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a nonprofit that he launched in January 2010, Cizik met with students in Professor James Calvin Davis’s Religion and American Politics class for a candid, hour-long conversation on Nov. 2, just days before the American election.

On politics in America today, Cizik said: “In evangelical right circles there is only one answer and that answer is: Republican. God is a Republican! Didn’t you know? Didn’t you get the memo? My answer is: ‘No, I didn’t get the memo. I never found it in the Bible either and I thought the Bible was supposed to be our authority.’”

On what today’s politicians need: “Politics requires a lot of prudence and knowing how to make judgments on difficult matters. Politics is all about the pursuit of values—personal, social, and transcendent.”

On what religion and politics have in common: “The key verse to consider is Matthew 22:21. ‘Render unto God the things that are God’s, and render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ So Jesus was saying, ‘Yes there is a role that Caesar has that you must respect. Conversely there are obligations that you have to God that you must respect.’ Politics is all about determining which is which. What is God’s and what is Caesar’s. It really is.”

Students in James Davis’s Religion and American Politics class

After his debacle on Fresh Air, Cizik (pronounced CY-zick) distanced himself from mainstream evangelicalism, not only on the subject of same-sex unions, but also with his comments about climate change (it’s real and humans caused it) and government support for contraception (he’s in favor of it).

In his role as president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, he travels extensively “to advance human well-being as an expression of our love for Jesus Christ, which is itself a grateful response for his love for us and for a good but suffering world.” On the same day that Cizik visited Professor Davis’s religion and politics class, he spoke at Middlebury’s Rohatyn Center for International Affairs and shared his view that environmentalism should be part of the evangelical movement in America.

(His belief that “it’s time we return to being people known for our love and care of the earth and our fellow human beings,” a philosophy he calls “creation care,” put him at odds with the National Association of Evangelicals and hastened his departure.)

In response to a question about the rise of secularism in America, Cizik said, “The rise of the nones [i.e., people who profess to have no religion] is the fastest growing segment of the population. From my standpoint as an evangelical, that’s just an enticement. So rather than view that negatively, the rise of the nones should be good news to evangelicals. Because quite frankly people who are unrooted are more receptive to evangelical messages than those who are firmly hitched.”

Calling himself an “evangelical ecumenist,” the Whitworth (Wash.) University graduate said, “I am willing to work with people of all faiths and no faith to achieve what is the common good for all of America. …I want everyone in society to flourish and to prosper and to enjoy the benefits of liberty and freedom and all that we have in this country.

In 2008 TIME magazine named Cizik to its top 100 list of the world’s most influential people.

“I am not threatened by diversity. In fact, the more diversity, the more liberty. So diversity and liberty go hand in hand together. But some people are threatened by it. I am not.”

For example, regarding a burning of the Koran in Florida by the pastor Terry Jones, Cizik told the Middlebury students: “What you do today against Muslims, you can only expect to have done to yourself later. So the religious freedom you accord to them, you in effect accord to yourselves. That’s why you should stand against Muslim bigotry.”

Richard Cizik’s visit to Middlebury College was sponsored by the Rohatyn Center for Global Studies, Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life, Franklin Environmental Center, Department of Religion, Program in Environmental Studies, Academic Enrichment Fund, Newman Club, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. 

 

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  1. I applaud Cizik’s courage in speaking up for everyone’s shared issues of climate, contraception, and social justice (although I understand he is anti-choice and, while supportive of civil unions, is against gay marriage). Good for him for taking the evangelical heat and using it to transmute fear into greater openness.

    However, I would encourage him to rethink the evangelical opportunity we “nones” present. No doubt some people with no religious affiliation are looking for one, and better Cizik reach them with his message before some bloated reactionary does. But I’ve known scores of fellow travelers who arrived at their unaffiliated religious status by opening many doors rather than just slamming one. We have spent years studying the theology of our

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    “home” religions to discern what we can’t accept and why not; we’ve studied religious history, canons, and beliefs to see how political and fallible–how human–are their origins.
    Rather than “unrooted” as Cizik suggests, many of us have sunk our roots into fertile territory: the development of compassion and connection with fellow humans and all beings of our planet. Does that require belief in a deity? Another recent visitor to Middlebury, from the Buddhist tradition (whose cosmology hums along just fine without a creator), answered that question. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked, “Are both people of faith and people without religion equally capable of cultivating hope, wisdom and compassion?” he answered, “Oh yes! There’s no question.”

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  2. Richard Cizik is a gift to Church and State. I am so glad you all had him on campus. His book New Evangelical Manifesto is quite good.

  3. I took Professor Davis’ “Introduction to Religious Ethics” class as a freshman in the fall of 2003. Having lived another decade now, how I wish I could go back and sit with his students for but an hour (props to Parini’s dissection of “erat hora”) in the comfort of Twilight Hall.

  4. I missed Richard Cizik’s event on Terry Gross’s show but am glad to know his stands on gay marriage, environmental events, and other topics. A small group of religious or political bigots should not determine public policy in this country, or what is the separation of church and state for or about? Why our ancestors left Europe!

  5. I thouroughly enjoyed reading the comments of Regina. I have a number of “nones” as friends and a daughter-in-law who is Hindu and am forever trying to widen my circle of acceptance. I’m sorry I missed the Dalai Lama but certainly appreciate his openess. My Catholic upbringing, which helped me through the war and a stressful life, will remain with me and the idea of heaven is comforting.

  6. The concept of rendering unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s is somewhat enigmatic. Some scholars believe that Jesus was speaking in code to ward off the suspicions of the Roman authoriries. If Jesus was saying that everything belongs to God and that we have received everything we are and have from Him, then we owe nothing to Caesar and should render all we are and have unto God alone.

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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