Richard Cizik has a way with words. And mainstream media from The New York Times to National Public Radio eat them up. But when the longtime vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals opened his mouth in an interview on NPR Dec. 2, his boss spit those words right back at him.
Cizik stepped down from his role at the NAE Dec. 11, ending a 28-year tenure that dramatically increased the organization's prominence but often left other evangelical leaders wincing in discomfort. A champion of global warming alarmism, Cizik often found himself out of step with the evangelical mainstream. On the radio program that would prove his downfall, he ventured further from that mainstream than ever before.
"I would willingly say that I believe in [same-sex] civil unions," he told NPR's Terry Gross on the popular program Fresh Air. "I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think."
Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, found such comments decidedly stale, a gross departure from the bold stands for truth for which the organization is known. He promptly asked Cizik to resign.
In a letter explaining that decision to NAE board members, Anderson wrote that Cizik "made statements that did not appropriately represent the values and convictions of NAE and our constituents. Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized and affirmed our values there is a loss of trust in his credibility as a spokesperson among leaders and constituents."
For many evangelicals outside the NAE, that loss of trust took place years ago. Cizik's ardent support for so-called "creation care" led him to champion green political causes that other high-profile evangelical groups fiercely opposed. In March 2007, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and two dozen other evangelical leaders called for Cizik's resignation. Anderson resisted back then, largely because the complaint stemmed from outside the circle of NAE constituents, a group consisting of some 45,000 churches.
This time around, complaints from NAE members matched those from outside the camp. Important constituents wanted Cizik out.
"If this had been the first time, they would have been more forgiving," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and longtime friend of Cizik. "But this was another in a long line of positions that had tested the leadership of the NAE."
Cromartie trusts that Cizik's apology is sincere: "He's been flirting with views that are progressive for some time now. And in a desire possibly to continue to impress the mainstream media that has become intrigued by him, he's gotten out ahead of what he believes. There's great social pressure when you go on certain programs to appear tolerant and liberal and empathetic to other views. That pressure is so great that in order to impress that constituency you say certain things that you later realize were not the views of the organization you represent. He was tempted and succumbed to the temptation and now would like to walk it backwards. I'm sure he regrets what he said."
Regret has rarely accompanied Cizik's past forays outside the evangelical mainstream. Several years ago, his Evangelical Climate Initiative, a document claiming scriptural authority behind calls for government caps on greenhouse gas emissions, landed him on the cover of The New York Times. And earlier this year, Time magazine named Cizik among its top 100 most influential people.
Such secular media outlets used Cizik's green positions to project a changing climate among evangelicals on the issue of global warming. In reality, Cizik represented a minority view. Cal Beisner, national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, a group dedicated to a balanced, biblical view on the environment among evangelicals and other religious conservatives, greeted Cizik's resignation with applause: "The lesson is clear: When we uncritically adopt the world's agendas as our own, as Rev. Cizik did with global warming, it's easy to see how confusion in one area can lead to others. Long before he expressed support for civil unions, Cizik had already begun calling man-made climate change one of the greatest moral issues of our day and pronouncing God's judgment on those who disagreed."
Cizik is the second major NAE leader to step down in recent years. The organization lost its former president Ted Haggard in 2006 after his secret trysts with a homosexual prostitute came to light.
Cromartie believes Cizik might have avoided his fate: "Rich should have gotten nervous when Al Gore came by to see him some years ago. When Al Gore wants to meet you, a light should go off that says 'I'm not being nuanced enough in my position.'"