As if the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) didn't already have enough PR problems coming into 2007, the 65-year-old organization finds itself this month wrestling with still another public embarrassment. The issue isn't nearly as unsavory as the sex scandal last fall that forced the resignation of NAE president Ted Haggard. But it does leave the NAE looking wobbly at a time when it desperately needs to show that it has a legitimate and steady place in American religious life.
The new NAE fuss has to do with disagreement over who has the right to speak for the organization on public issues. The debate is important because the NAE is big. It represents 45,000 congregations in 52 member denominations and several dozen other alliances. Major organizations like World Relief, National Religious Broadcasters, and the Evangelical Press Association all trace their origins to the NAE. When the NAE speaks, it claims to represent millions of people. Any group making such claims should know what it's talking about.
So when it comes to the national debate over global warming, does the NAE know what it's talking about? It all depends on who does the talking-and that's the problem.
At the core of the tussle is the NAE's vice president for government relations, Rich Cizik. Increasingly over the last few years, Cizik has grown in his certainty not just that global warming is real and a crucial issue for modern society, but that human activity can be documented as the source of that warming, and that urgent government action is required to avoid future disaster. But further, as the NAE's most prominent public spokesman, Cizik has made it way too easy for the public to conclude that his own views are also the views of the NAE-and that when he speaks on the subject, he is speaking "for millions of evangelical Christians."
So when, two weeks ago, both The Washington Post and the Associated Press gave substantial attention to announcements by Cizik and a few of his colleagues about the formation of a new coalition of "scientists and evangelicals" to urge government action against global warming, it was natural that the NAE was identified in the stories as a leader in the effort. "Scientists and evangelicals," said Eric Chivian of Harvard's Medical School, "have discovered that we share a deeply felt common concern and sense of urgency about threats to life on earth and that we must speak with one voice to protect it."
Did that "one voice" include the official voice of the NAE? According to AP, "both Chivian and Cizik . . . declined further comment." In other comments to the press, however, Cizik went out of his way to enhance the sense that the NAE itself was endorsing the new coalition.
Such a failure to clarify the matter is puzzling. Just a year ago, in early 2006, the NAE's board issued a formal statement saying it recognized "the ongoing debate regarding the causes and origins of global warming" but also understood "the lack of consensus among the evangelical community on this issue." So the board, while "affirming our love for the Creator and his creation," directed the NAE staff last January "to stand by and not exceed in any fashion our approved and adopted statements concerning the environment contained within the 'Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility' [a policy statement on public issues adopted by the NAE in 2004]."
The current confusion is disconcerting for two reasons.
First, because the NAE deserves better. Its forthright statements on other issues like religious freedom, the sanctity of life, the needy, violence, and human rights are all diluted and weakened when the NAE's statement on the stewardship of creation is so badly garbled.
Beyond that, it's sad-and frustrating-to see some NAE leaders adopt the same steamroller approach to this discussion that has so characterized the mainstream media and academia. The assumption by most of them is that the discussion is over and that it's time for action-expensive government action. Those of us who think otherwise should be prepared to be run over.