Evangelical Political Bullying: Jesus Says to Stop it Right Now

A couple of weeks ago, noted evangelical Richard Cizik posted on “My Journey Toward the ‘New Evangelicalism.’” Cizik was vice-president for governmental relations at the National Association of Evangelicals–and by “was” I mean  “is” in the past tense, as in “no longer is.”

In 2008, Cizik was interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and said some things that his boss at NAE and some influential evangelicals did not like. In Cizik’s words:

In a broad-ranging conversation about my work to educate my fellow evangelicals about the impacts of climate change, I told Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” that I could support “civil unions” for gays and lesbians and that government funding of contraception was morally acceptable as a way to avoid abortion.

OK, that’s pretty out there, you have to admit, for a veep at a politically engaged national evangelical group with serious Republican leanings–even one who had been with the organization for 28 years. It didn’t help that Cizik committed the even worse offense of saying he voted for Barak Obama in the Virginia primary in 2008 (and by implication in the presidential election).

What happened next? National evangelical leaders grouped together to demand his resignation; he was disinvited from speaking at Houghton College and serving on an advisory board at his alma mater, Denver Seminary; he was ostracized by friends and his church. Then in time he “got resigned” from NAE, which is a nice way of saying, “You’re fired but you can say you resigned if you want to. As long as we win and don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out.”

What seems to have hurt Cizik as much as anything is how alone one can feel when challenging the evangelical power structure:

For most evangelicals who dare to differ with their fellow evangelicals over issues of politics, there’s no one to come to their defense. Personal friendships or relationships are frayed, sometimes even broken.

Indeed. When the powerful are challenged, few of the masses will stick their necks out publicly. That is understandable, since there is much to lose–but it’s still discouraging.

Cizik’s situation is normal, not news–but it is a story that has to be told again and again.

In the world of evangelical Christianity, public figures have to walk on tiptoes. They are verboten to say what is on their mind and heart if what they say does not support the ideology of those in charge:  those with microphones, TV cameras, and deep pockets. It doesn’t matter how carefully they have thought about it or how much they have earned the right to speak of it–”don’t make them angry.”

I can’t imaging Jesus saying, “Yes. Bravo. Exactly. Use your political power to crush your brother and sister, because, as I never grow tired of telling you, the only way forward for the gospel is to gain as much political power as possible. Well done.”

Cizik feels the message being sent by his firing is: “We are controlled and intimidated by the Religious (that is, Political) Right and will do whatever it takes to avoid their criticism.”

Christians doing what they have to do to avoid criticism from the powerful elite.

Seriously? Do I have to draw you a map? Leaf through the Bible. The prophets and Jesus did the opposite. They put the powerful and elite religious leaders in their place. The ones armed with their Bibles and power base, who say they speak for God–those are the ones Jesus and the prophets told to sit down, stop talking, and learn a little humility.

These people shouldn’t call the shots. They should be called out for sub-Christian behavior.

What Cizik sees in the political sphere certainly translates into areas like academic freedom in evangelical schools–by which I mean not “the freedom do think anything you want” but the freedom to explore collegially, patiently, and thoughtfully, pressing issues without guaranteeing a predetermined conclusion, and have the support of your bosses and colleagues in doing so.

Part of the problem is that evangelicalism is so co-opted by ideology–be it political or theological–where dissenting voices are simply silenced, which is the mark of all fear-based regimes. This is what happens when you marry faith and politics: the former gets taken over by the latter.

And that just ain’t right. Ask anyone, today or in the long history of Christianity, who has ever been threatened–emotionally, economically, or physically–by those who claim they speak for God and have the political power to make it so. Political bullying causes pain. In the history of Christendom, this list is long and lamentable–and the evangelical journey is littered with its own casualties.

Cizik is looking for a new way of being evangelical in the political arena. Can faith transcend present political ideologies? Heck, forget “faith.” Can Christians with strongly opposing political views just get along now and then and try to remember that American politics is not an all out battle for “the Kingdom of Heaven?”

For that to happen, there has to be some ideological realignment in evangelicalism–which means nothing less than letting go of older battles and moving forward. This goes for politics and academics alike. The problem is that “older battles” define the movement. So, the question is whether the “new evangelicalism” Cizik wants can actually exist, or whether what he is working toward means leaving evangelicalism behind altogether.

…and whether any of this can be done without further politicking.

I think that last part is what Jesus is really interested in.

The Reverend Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. His article is adapted from his chapter contribution to A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good, edited by David Gushee and released by Chalice Press in August.

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  • http://www.servicemusic.org.uk/ David Lee

    If I (as a Brit) recall correctly, wasn’t Cizik also hounded a few years ago by the fundamentalist conservatives about his voicing of concerns about the very real possibility of anthropogenic climate change and its potentially major impacts? Or have I mis-remembered?

    • peteenns

      Same guy.

  • Neil Newman

    Thankful that in my short time as a Christian, that I have been called from the strict fundamentalist Ideals of “God and Country”, to focus simply on God. Thank You Pete for being one of the many positive influences in my transformation.

    • peteenns

      You’re welcome,Neil. I assume the check’s in the mail?

  • Don Johnson

    Any group gets to define who is in and who is not in the group. And that includes statements by official spokespeople. So I think the NAE could vote him out, but that says more about the relevance of the NAE than about him. Was what he said contrary to some stated NAE position?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Well said Pete,
    “……try to remember that American politics is not an all out battle for “the Kingdom of Heaven?”

    From just north of the border, this is a key point. We are not looking for any chosen nation to lead us to the promised land. The web site associated with this book (http://www.newevangelicalpartnership.org/) is interesting. It’s hard to tell yet, but one does wonder if they have heard of Sojourners and Jim Wallis’ decades of faithful work in most of the areas they highlight in the book.

  • Moriah

    Seems to me the solution is simple: drop the toxic religion in the first place and all of this unnecessary sticky tangle of bullshit immediately disappears with it. Simple solution to a complex problem that is only going to get worse. Remember the monkey who could not get his hand unstuck from the cookie jar because he refused to let go of the cookie? It’s that kind of problem. Let go of the cookie. Drop the toxic religion and all its axiomatic meta-lies about immutable absolutes, eternal punishments after you die (what sort of sick jerk tries to supercede the one great equalizer of us all anyway just to push for his puny little here/now moral “take” on existence???), and self-centered, hyper-authoritarian “my way only or else” unilateralist tyranny somehow equating to “love” (which is the same as saying ABUSE = “love”) and VOILA, all the problems here are solved — permanently.

    • http://cushmanschronicles.com Jeremy Cushman

      So we’re supposed to call people we don’t like “monkeys”? That’s your idea of “love”?
      Seems to me these sorts of problems will never be solved “permanently.” Instead, they just find new faces, circumstances, and situations to be recycled through; same problem.
      But you do have a point: the “my way only” attitude has to be adjusted before any progress – however temporal it might be – can be made. We as individuals need to figure out a way where we can set aside our own agenda for what works best for the whole nation (and not just our “right” political party).

    • j. t. campbell

      Moriah…your language is a tad strong; however, your “angst” is right on! For the most part I truly enjoyed your comment.

    • Jerry Lynch

      @Moriah. You got your scripture wrong. It was a peanut the monkey would not let go of and for that false testimony you are going to burn in hell, so there.
      On a lighter note, those who do not practice their religious ideals may make the idea of religion look like the culprit (and that indictment seems to go with a supposed basic tenet of “atheism” I often hear that states: “religion is a mental disorder”) but in every area of life people act poorly or badly. Look at what has been done in the name of politics. Are atheists excluded from all comments because there really isn’t an Ism to it? How can I weigh the efficacy of a non-existent stance? So often it seems the atheist presents their point as if pure of all corrupting thought by the rejection of “religious superstitions.” In and of itself, that is enough to secure the moral high ground in any debate. Those still inficted with faith can only be counted on to lack reason and sound judgment.

  • Bev Mitchell

    An outstanding audio piece is up today on Greg Boyd’s site at http://reknew.org/
    It is a replay of a discussion between Boyd and Jim Wallis from four years ago. Completely complimentary to this post. Moving, informative and inspiring. Ninety minutes very well spent.

  • Tom

    It’s kind of hard to be an a-political evangelical Christian when one political party voted God out of their platform and has endorsed abortion and homosexuality, which a majority of Americans and “Christians” don’t support.
    Unfortunately during this last election cycle, everything has become hyper-politicized. As a Christian, I can’t ignore the poor, the homeless, education, medical needs, etc, etc.. Forgive me if that pushes me into one political party.

    • http://creativefidelity.wordpress.com Dan F.

      There is another way Tom. Vote No. Don’t compromise your conscience to support a President or party that has made abortion on demand, drone strikes, indefinite detention, etc part and parcel of the way they rule.

      Don’t compromise your conscience to support a candidate who endorses torture, abortion ‘sometimes’, endless war, more drone strikes, etc.

      Your vote has the greatest impact on you: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/mark-shea/a-reader-asks-about-the-act-of-voting

    • pam

      I’m guessing you mean gay marriage, not homosexuality per se. Homosexuality as an orientation is only disputed by a tiny fringe minority. Gay marriage, on the other hand, has generally around 50% or so support.

  • Jon T

    “got resigned”, that made me LOL!

  • Alex

    “Can Christians with strongly opposing political views just get along now and then and try to remember that American politics is not an all out battle for ‘the Kingdom of Heaven?’”

    But here’s the larger, underlying issue: the ones with the political and financial power to rule the Evangelical movement are dominionists. For them, it IS an all-out battle for the Kingdom of Heaven. They firmly believe that they are ordained by God do have dominion over secular government, and to turn it into a theocracy that enforces their understanding of Biblical law. And that, to me, is the most frightening aspect of all.

    While some of us are out there working to make the world a better place, to stand up to the Pharisees, there is a movement that has cornered one political party with the very clear intention of enforcing (what I see as a bastardized interpretation of) Scripture as secular law. Most pertinent statement of the entire article:

    “Leaf through the Bible. The prophets and Jesus did the opposite. They put the powerful and elite religious leaders in their place. The ones armed with their Bibles and power base, who say they speak for God–those are the ones Jesus and the prophets told to sit down, stop talking, and learn a little humility.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      For them, it IS an all-out battle for the Kingdom of Heaven. They firmly believe that they are ordained by God do have dominion over secular government, and to turn it into a theocracy that enforces their understanding of Biblical law.

      See The Handmaid’s Tale by M. Atwood. Or its RL inspirations in Calvin’s Geneva, Massachusetts Bay Colony, today’s Iran and Talibanistan.

  • http://mmckinniss.wordpress.com Mike

    The bullying of folks like Cizik is a sad tale. Thank you for bringing it to light, Pete.

    The issue of power among Christians is an important one. We ought not go the route of the extreme Anabaptist way and disengage. We should welcome opportunities of influence. But it is imperative we learn to operate there well – to serve rather than be served.

    The whole thing reminds me of John 11 and the resurrection of Lazarus. The religious and political leaders were none too pleased with that incident, mostly because they recognized a threat to their own power.


    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      “The only goal of Power is POWER.”
      – Comrade O’Brian, Inner Party, Airstrip One, Oceania, Nineteen Eighty-Four

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    The church has a responsibility to exercise church discipline and to repudiate heresy. Christianity was never intended to be all things to all people. And we would expect the NAE to play a key role in defining the term “evangelical.” The question is, what truths are essential to the faith and which are secondary? I would think that homosexuality touches on the very core of Christian morality, but our view of climate change is theologically inconsequential.

  • SFG

    I think it is important to note that Richard Cizik did NOT go against any of the written statements of the NAE. He did not say that he was in favor of legalizing gay marriage, only that he favored “civil unions” which enabled gay couples to have some equal rights under the law.

    Richard (who is a friend of mine) faithfully served the NAE for 28 years and when he made these mildly controversial comments (comments that I, a Conservative Baptist, agree with) he was kicked to the curb. I view this as politically bullying at its worst, and is an example of the Evangelical Movement selling its birthright for a bowl of stew

    • peteenns

      Always good to have an insider’s perspective. Thanks, SFG. And well put.

  • ash

    I’ve been an uneasy lurker here for a while, by turns drawn in and put off by various posts. I am in some ways one of the usual suspects from Dr. Enns recent ecclesiological past, one of the confessionally Reformed folks, but I am also pursuing a graduate degree in religious history and culture from a pretty good university, not a seminary or religiously affiliated institution. And yes, I am looking forward to unemployment. I don’t know where Dr. Enns is in terms of Reformed ideas in general and Reformed ideas on politics in particular, but I find the two kingdoms approach (has some similarity to, but different from Augustine’s two cities) to culture and politics very helpful and profitable.

    This is more or less embraced at my father-in-law’s PCA church, where he, an anti-Obamacare CPA, and another member, a pro-Obamacare MD love and respect one another as brothers in Christ. They vigorously disagree on the issue, but they really don’t let it affect their life together as members of the Church. They are able to do this because of a de-facto if not de-jure two kingdoms approach to cult and culture.

    Unfortunately, as per usual with broad evangelicalism, there’s just not much interest in and/or ability to? draw on the rich resources of Christian tradition, history, and doctrine in order to negotiate its inevitable interaction with the larger culture. I know there are those who think the two-kingdoms approach too radical, but it sounds like the NAE folks could use at least a few doses of it to mitigate their political and ideological hazing of erstwhile brothers and sisters.

  • Greg

    I was going to comment on this story, but I noticed that the Mormons are advertising on your page, so perhaps getting those ads removed should be your first priority.

  • Hunter

    The only way for Enns and Cizik to succeed in their agenda is to obfuscate and confuse clear moral issues. There is a reason people who believe the Bible is true tend to be conservative. Cizik and Enns are like Wormtongue. They give ungodly counsel and attempt to twist clear truths by championing pop morality like climate change and gay rights over abortion and traditional family values. The only way they succeed is by convincing Christians the mass murder of the unborn is morally equatable to the threat of global warming (ABSURD) and that Democrats haven’t made a pact with hell to vote party line on every pro-life or family values issue.

    • peteenns

      Thank you, hunter….mainly for illustrating our point.

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    “Fear based regime”. That is perfect. There are so many people who I would like to follow around quoting “Perfect love casts out fear” at over and over.

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  • Luke Allison

    This is a little strange to me, Dr. Enns, since one of the NAE’s board members, Joel Hunter, is President Obama’s spiritual adviser.

    If you look at their list of board members, it seems to be a pretty diverse group. I wonder if we’re getting the complete story here?

    • peteenns

      Joel is a good man. Have you read the Cizik’s original post?

  • Marketer

    Every person is entitled to their opinion and position. As Patrick Henry stated: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. ”
    That same freedom does not apply when the speaker publicly speaks on behalf of the organization they represent. We do not restrict that but the organization has a right and responsibility to assure that the positions of the organization are consistently stated. A rogue spokesperson can damage the organization and the leadership must act to restrain such damage causing speech.
    Now resigned, he has full rights to speak as he chooses to whoever will listen.

  • Jedd Medefind

    There’s much here that merits evangelical soul-searching, but it’s also worth noting that conservative evangelicals don’t have the market cornered on efforts to squeeze out those who don’t walk their party line. Think of pro-lifers in Democrat circles…or scientists who doubt that climate change is driven by pollution…or an actor questioning gay marriage. I daresay that all such individuals would (and do) feel the wrath of the dogma police at least as much as counter-cultural evangelicals. From communists to aggressive multi-culturalists, the Left deals with its dissidents every bit as unkindly as the Right.
    If we are to reflect the heart of Christ, Christians in every sub-culture of the church, both conservative and liberal, must grasp the truth of Augustine’s dictum: Unity in the essentials. Tolerance in the non-essentials. Love overall.

  • rvs

    The NEA–like many Christian organizations–often lacks the type of epistemological humility they need if–indeed–their desire to share Christ is not going to be undercut by the profound irony that sweet Moriah notes above. I’ve seen–on a regular basis–this type of bullying that Peter mentions, and it is not of God, obviously. Nil. Nein. But how might the bully come to realize this? (Many evangelicals are suspicious of psychoanalysis, after all). The worst kind of despair is despair that experiences itself not as despair but rather as progress, triumph, righteousness. Maybe we need a project of theological psychoanalysis, if the bullies are to comprehend their own shrinking spirits–shrinking like that Tragedian in The Great Divorce.

  • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com Don Bryant

    The more influence one wants to have, the greater the dangers!! That is the way it has to be, not just the way it is. People who move toward maximum influence have responsibilities that people who do not who stay beneath the radar for either safety purposes or because they have no motivation to influence larger numbers of people. We expect people “at the top” to steward the troubled waters of public opinion in a way that takes into account, not their freedom, but their influence. This doesn’t mean that they do not stir the pot. It means that they can’t cry when the pot stirs back. This is not just true in Evangelicalism. This is just how it works – politics, the arts, culture, etc. I am always amazed at how fragile people “at the top” are. They seem to expect Matthew 18 to mean that all criticism is to be in private even if they are operating at the public level. In other words, I can write books, be interviewed, speak across the airwaves, etc., but all return criticism has to be personal, careful, and under the radar. I know it gets hard and brutal. I am a Pastor. Being criticized in blunt ways goes with the territory. How I handle that criticism is part of my ministry. I have some responsibility to manage it. I can make it worse, and sometimes I do need to do that. But I should not make it worse unless it is a good thing to do. Like Jesus did. Somethings he let go and somethings he didn’t. He made it worse. His opponents didn’t make it worse. He did. He meant to. And then he went through what he had to go through when he made it worse. Self-preservation can’t be part of that deal, not if you want to influence the public. So, no kidding about taking the career track that leads you to the public life. Once it happens to you, don’t be surprised at the stuff. You’ll be responsible for handling dynamics and forces you didn’t even know was there. When you corner and threaten people, at least as they see it, all bets are off. Trying to change people is not for cowards. It’s life threatening.

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  • jesusjamey

    Jesus was, is and will be bullied but will continue to prevail.

    Life unfolds as a story. Conflict produces drama and we are drawn to scenes like Charles Atlas on the beach, determining his future after the bully kicked sand in his face. We like that.

    Thank you Jesus.

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  • Scott Canion

    The NAE’s 2004 manifesto “For the Health of the Nation” couldn’t make it any clearer that they consider the pursuit of political power to be biblical civic engagement for Christians. It can be downloaded here. http://www.nae.net/government-relations/for-the-health-of-the-nation