The forced resignation of National Association of Evangelicals’ (NAE) vice president, Richard Cizik, over remarks supporting civil unions for gay and lesbian couples sent shockwaves through the evangelical world last week. Cizik’s abrupt ousting from the NAE after 28 years of service is one more sign of the struggle for the soul of an evolving American evangelicalism. Recent public opinion data points to the need for the current leaders to rethink their certainty about what constitutes “evangelical values”—especially if they care about not alienating the next generation.
Rich Cizik has been no stranger to controversy during his long tenure at the NAE. In early 2007, a group of Christian Right leaders called for his resignation because they claimed his work to broaden the evangelical agenda to include environmental issues diluted the traditional focus opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. At that time, the NAE board responded by reaffirming its confidence in Cizik and its commitment to a broader “biblically-balanced agenda.”
But this time, with Cizik publicly saying that his views had been shifting toward supporting civil unions, NAE president Leith Anderson asked for his resignation, declaring that “there was a loss of credibility for him clearly espousing our positions and values.” Other evangelical voices on the Christian Right were more forceful, asserting that Cizik himself had become un-evangelical. Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family declared, “He no longer represents the view of evangelicalism.” Charles Colson of the Prison Fellowship claimed that Cizik was “separating himself from the mainstream of evangelical belief and conviction.”
But as I have argued elsewhere, evangelicals are not monolithic, and the question of whether Cizik’s positions represent evangelical positions, values, views, or beliefs is an empirical one. A quick appraisal of four of Cizik’s alleged departures from the evangelical mainstream, in light of the data, shows him clearly within the mainstream on most questions, and on the more controversial question of civil unions, in sync with the majority of younger evangelicals:
1. The Environment
Alleged Departure: In 2007, when James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council were angling to get Cizik fired, they charged that Cizik’s emphasis on the environment threatened to “shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time,” (i.e., in their view, abortion and same-sex marriage).
Evangelical Beliefs: White evangelicals do not rank abortion or same-sex marriage in their top five most important voting issues [PRR 10/2008]. Like the rest of the country, white evangelicals think issues like the economy, heath care, terrorism, and the war in Iraq are more important in deciding their vote.
Two-thirds of evangelicals agree that “we have a moral obligation to care for God’s creation by supporting stricter environmental laws and regulations, even if it means some economic costs” [AVS 09/2006].
Finally, eight-in-ten white evangelicals (81%) also say people of faith should focus on all issues that are central to their values even if it makes them less effective in politics, rather than focusing on one or two issues in order to be more politically effective [PRR 11/2008].
2. Single-Issue Voting
Alleged Departure: Cizik opposed voting for candidates based on single issues, but argued that a candidate’s entire platform and character should be taken into account.
Evangelical Beliefs: Even though white evangelicals are strongly opposed to abortion, only 35% say they would not vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on the issue [PRR 11/2008]. Like the rest of the country, when evangelicals were asked what they mean when they “vote their values,” a plurality (44%) said they think primarily of the “honesty, integrity, and responsibility of the candidate.” Less than one-in-five (19%) said they primarily think about abortion and same-sex marriage when voting their values [AVS 09/2006].
3. Sarah Palin
Alleged Departure: Cizik called Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s position on the environment “ignorance,” and argued that not all evangelicals were “fawning over Sarah Palin.”
Evangelical Beliefs: A majority (54%) of white evangelicals say Palin’s selection did not affect their support for McCain. Her nomination increased support among fewer than one-third of white evangelicals (30%), while 14% said her selection made them less likely to support McCain [PRR 11/2008].
4. Same-Sex Unions
Alleged Decisive Departure: Finally, Cizik’s most serious infraction was to say that his views on the rights of gay and lesbian people were “shifting” and that he could “willingly say” that he supported civil unions, but not “redefining marriage.”
Evangelical Beliefs: On this critical point, whether Cizik’s views comport with evangelicals depends on which subgroup of evangelicals are used as the benchmark. It is certainly true that among older (35 and over) evangelicals—the group represented by Anderson, Minnery, and Colson—a majority (61%) favor no legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships. But among younger (18-34) white evangelicals, a majority favor either same-sex marriage (24%) or civil unions (28%) [PRR 10/2008].
This last point is the crux of the matter. In our recent polling among younger evangelicals, we found that while they share their parents’ views on abortion, there is a great and growing generational divide on issues concerning the rights of gay and lesbian people. One key difference is that younger evangelicals are more than twice as likely as older evangelicals to have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian [37% vs. 16%, PRR 10/2008]. Among these more cosmopolitan younger evangelicals, strong opposition to basic rights for their friends and family members increasingly seems counter to the very message of Christianity.
Evangelical leaders are only beginning to understand this new dynamic and to account for the damage that has been done to the image of Christianity by the politics of division that has been practiced by the Christian Right over the last few decades. In his recent book, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, David Kinnaman, the young president of the Barna Group, found that “Christianity has an image problem” among America’s youth (16- to 29-year-olds).
Kinnaman found that among young “outsiders” to Christianity, “the three most common perceptions of present-day Christianity were anti-homosexual [sic] (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent].” Kinnaman also found that even among young churchgoers, four out of five “say that Christianity is anti-homosexual [sic]; half describe it as judgmental, too involved in politics, hypocritical, and confusing.” Kinnaman’s conclusion: a majority of American youth believe that Christianity has become “Un-Christian,” not representing the message of Jesus.
On this issue at least, the evangelical community is clearly at a crossroads. There is no small irony in the fact that Cizik was forced to resign for espousing a position on rights for gay and lesbian people that actually represents the majority opinion among the next generation of evangelicals. The old guard can continue to assert loudly that the authentic evangelical way excludes rights for gay and lesbian people, but the evidence is mounting that they may increasingly find themselves treading that well-worn path alone.
AVS 09/2006. The American Values Survey. Conducted by Robert P. Jones, sponsored by the Center for American Values in Public Life at People for the American Way Foundation.
PRR 10/2008. The Faith and American Politics Survey. Conducted by Public Religion Research, sponsored by Faith in Public Life.
PRR 11/2008. Religion in the 2008 Election: Post-Election Survey. Conducted by Public Religion Research, sponsored by Faith in Public Life in partnership with Sojourners and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.