Former Evangelical Leader Opens Up About How He Was Shunned After Saying He Supported Civil Unions

In 2008, Richard Cizik, the vice-president for governmental relations at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), made a mistake.

He told the truth.

Richard Cizik (Scott J. Ferrell – Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, he said this about his attitude toward gay marriage:

“I’m shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions. I don’t officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don’t think.”

What?! He supported civil unions and didn’t think marriage should be redefined? That’s hesitation!

So, in loving Christian fashion, the NAE forced him to resign.

Two years later, Cizik went back on Gross’ show and said he stood by his initial comments.

Now, Cizik has opened up more than ever before. In an article at Religion & Politics — adapted from a contribution he made to the book A New Evangelical Manifesto — Cizik talks about what really happened after he made the mistake of saying that he didn’t totally oppose gay people in a loving relationship:

This event devastated me and my family. We were shocked that such a drastic action had been taken. “Please have your office cleared out within a few days” — these were my instructions. That wasn’t an easy thing to do. I had worked for the [NAE] since 1980, and this was 2008. So, for twenty-eight years I had faithfully represented the organization, the last ten as vice president. I loved it and the people I had worked with.

The impacts were felt personally and professionally. It prompted the president of Houghton College to write and cancel my graduation speech. It prompted Denver Seminary, where I had graduated, to drop me from the Advisory Board of the Grounds Institute of Public Ethics. It prompted the head of a family ministry, Marriage Savers, which I had served as a board member, to call me and tell me, “We’re dropping you from the board of directors.”

Sadly, it prompted friends and colleagues to shun me and no longer inquire about my health and well-being. Even our friends from church, where we had attended faithfully for a decade, didn’t understand.

Despite all the backlash from fellow Christians, Cizik doesn’t regret what he said. In fact, he argues, younger Christians are on his side. And the NAE is just heading toward obsolescence:

… Did [the NAE] really do the right thing? What message did it send?

Inescapably, the message is this: “We are controlled and intimidated by the Religious (that is, Political) Right and will do whatever it takes to avoid their criticism.”

… No matter the heresy, or bad judgment, organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals will choose to walk away from a controversy before they will confront the major figures of the Religious Right.

So true.

Cizik doesn’t come out in full support of gay marriage in the piece… but he doesn’t have to. That’s not the point. He’s just trying to point out how political the evangelical Christian world has become and how problematic that is for their survival. “… [T]he evangelical world is unable to tolerate dissent,” he writes.

When you can’t properly deal with people who agree with you on the major issues but disagree on the minor ones, your movement isn’t going to go anywhere but down.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • cipher

    It was also about his advocacy of the environmental movement and his acceptance of the reality of human-influenced global warming.

    I’m always floored by how SHOCKED these people are when their peer groups turn on them for saying something mildly controversial. They work alongside them for decades, and they never really see them for who and what they truly are.

    And still, he won’t question the theology. Utterly clueless.

  • JWH

    I could understand the NAE giving him his walking papers.  If your organization’s official position is X, and one of your VPs publicly takes a position of “Not X,” then you really can’t have that VP representing you in public anymore.  

    But the rest … the social isolation and all that?  That’s just plain intolerance.  

  • htomc42

    We’re constantly told how belonging to a religious organization is great for having an expanded social circle of friends and associates.  Now, we see just how paper-thin those ‘relationships’ really are.    Just like the smarmy smiles that so many of them wear, it’s as phony as a 3-dollar bill.

  • baden26

    “When you can’t properly deal with people who agree with you on the major issues but disagree on the minor ones, your movement isn’t going to go anywhere but down.”

    Truer words have rarely been spoken, something our own atheist movement really needs to take to heart.

  • timberwraith

    Nearly all social/political movements eventually start to destabilize, splinter, and/or change into something different. Such is the nature of the universe we live in, yes?  Sometimes that change leads to a loss of forward movement. Sometimes the movement strengthens.

    It would appear that movement atheism has been struggling with a few of its own growing pains lately.

  • Ibis3

     I don’t think human rights is a minor issue.

  • Tainda

    Why was he shocked?

    Even though most of his views are backwards I applaud him for standing up for this little bit.  Change won’t happen in a landslide, it will be one rock bouncing slowly down the hill.

  • smrnda

    I’m not familiar with this organization, but the guy isn’t saying anything that goes against Christians teachings that homosexuality is wrong or sinful – just that he supports a second-class marriage substitute for homosexuals being offered and recognized by the government. I’m guessing that hit shows that the real goal isn’t peaceful coexistence but control of other people’s sex lives, and now that he’s willing to live and let live to an extent, he’s no longer one of them.

    His story of being shunned isn’t very shocking. Christians shun people once they start dropping the intolerance. If he’d committed a crime I’m sure they’d be more friendly to him.

  • Patterrssonn

    It is to Baden.

  • Karen L

     When you can’t properly deal with people who agree with you on the major
    issues but disagree on the minor ones, your movement isn’t going to go
    anywhere but down.

    And doesn’t that give us pause in regard to people completely losing it over Atheism+?

  • TiltedHorizon

    Twenty-eight of dedication and he is given the boot because he listened to his conscience. Insult.

    Then to have the backlash from friend, neighbors, colleagues, basically ostracized from his community. Injury

    Richard Cizik learned a hard lesson, solidarity can create rigidity of mind, now he is on the receiving end of an ideology he spend 28 years enforcing. 

  • metaphid

    Oh, how totally lacking in sympathy I am. So the reverend was a key member of these obnoxious groups for many, many years and somehow managed to remain unaware of their intolerant and vengance-laden ways until he had the audacity to express an opinion that crossed their “thou shalt NOT” line? That’s a damned shame. Really. Hoist on one’s own petard. Such a tragedy.

  • rlrose63

    I have to agree with you 100%.  I have no sympathy for this man if he was unable to see his cohorts for the intolerant, judgmental asshats they are, even if he deigns to grant same-sex couples a morsel of dignity and rights.  Oh boo hoo.  If he is still among their ranks, he deserves all he gets.  It reeks of the wanna-be cool kid who hangs around the jocks despite the abuse they heap on him.

  • The Other Weirdo

     Nobody “completely lost it over A+”. There were discussions, sometimes spirited. Nobody in the wider atheist community was segregated or kicked out. People mostly reacted to the “you’re with us or you’re against us” postings that were flying around.

  • MG

    A shame that he still believes in the simplistic nonsense about the “traditional definition of marriage”, which limits his support to civil unions, but you have to start questioning somewhere.

  • Richard Wade

    My initial reaction is to sympathize with him as a human to a human. Beyond the loss of his job and the ending of several long-standing professional relationships,  personal shunning is very painful. 

    But my sympathy is very limited in this case. For 28 years he worked for and faithfully represented an institution that markets hatred of people who have done them no harm at all. Even his fellow church members have demonstrated by their treatment of him that it’s an institution that defines itself far more by who and what it hates than by who and what it loves. If you don’t hate who and what you’re supposed to hate, and if you don’t hate them enough, then you’re out.

    So like others here, I’m surprised that he’s surprised.

    If he’s now involved with a group that is more constructive, or at least less destructive, that’s good.  But as for the painful experience he had when he didn’t toe the hate cult’s party line, he got just a tip-of-the-tongue taste of the bitter pain that he and his former group have been giving to LGBT people for decades.

    He had it coming.

  • Megan

    Unfortunately, incidents like this are extremely common in the Christian faith. Regardless of your views, being unjustly shunned from a community that seemed supportive for 28 years is painful. I sympathize with him.