Richard Cizik worked for the National Association of Evangelicals from 1980 until 2008, spending years as that association’s vice president for governmental affairs. That made him the top representative in Washington for some 40 evangelical denominations and more than 45,000 evangelical churches.
Cizik resigned from that post in December of 2008. He didn’t jump, he was pushed. After 28 years of distinguished service, the NAE shit-canned him because of an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in which he expressed qualified support for something like the idea of maybe something like civil unions for same-sex couples. And because he mentioned that he had voted for Barack Obama in the primary. In the Democratic primary.
This was intolerable for the National Association of Evangelicals, which was still recovering from the 2006 scandal in which the organization’s then-president, Ted Haggard, had also been forced to resign. First Haggard got caught using drugs with a male prostitute, then Cizik was revealed to be — gasp! — a registered Democrat. Horrified board members and constituents of the NAE didn’t seem sure which was worse.
For the NAE and its members, Cizik was disqualified — not just to serve on the association’s staff, but as a member of the evangelical tribe. To be fair, this conclusion wasn’t quite as direct as “Democrats cannot be evangelicals.” There’s an extra step to it. Evangelicals must support the criminalization of abortion, Democrats do not support criminalizing abortion, therefore Democrats cannot be evangelicals. By voting for Obama, Cizik had voted for abortion rights, and this was conclusively prohibited for anyone seeking membership in the evangelical tribe.
Cizik’s “wobbly” opposition to any legal recognition of same-sex marriage didn’t help his case either. He might have survived that, though — reclassified as “controversial,” perhaps, but still an accepted evangelical — if he had followed that with a categorical denunciation of abortion as murder. That sometimes works. You’re sometimes allowed to vary slightly from some of the other required official stances as long as you make up for it with a particularly strong condemnation of abortion.
None of this will seem strange to anyone familiar with white evangelical Christianity in America. That strand of Christianity is well known for its vocal, unwavering opposition to abortion and to same-sex marriage. And no one has been louder or more emphatic than those evangelicals themselves that these are defining, non-negotiable aspects of evangelical identity.
All of which is why, again, I call shenanigans on the new effort by the NAE to redefine how they classify, count and measure who is and who is not an “evangelical.” Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research — the capable Southern Baptist survey and data outfit that helped develop and employ this new measure — summarizes this new “definition” of evangelical:
In this NAE-approved research-based definition, an Evangelical is someone who strongly agrees with these four statements:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Again, this seems to be based on the earlier “quadrilateral” developed by the British religious historian David Bebbington, although this new quartet departs from Bebbington’s model in some rather unhelpful, theologically clumsy, ways.
We’ll get into that next. For now, let’s just consider the case of Rich Cizik. He did not deny or violate any of the four statements there in the NAE’s new definition, but his continued affirmation of all of them was — to the NAE itself — irrelevant to whether or not he was, in their eyes, a legitimate evangelical. Their own standard — demonstrated by their own words and actions — had nothing at all to do with any of those four statements. It was, rather, all about abortion politics and same-sex marriage.
This is how evangelicals themselves really define the boundaries of evangelicalism. Any person who affirms all four of those statements while also affirming a legal right to abortion and civil rights for LGBT people will not be accepted as a legitimate member of evangelical Christianity. And many people who have not, do not, and could not affirm any of those four statements are accepted as honorary or de facto members of the tribe simply because they also happen to stridently oppose legal abortion and same-sex marriage.