“It looked like Tony Soprano had whacked one of his own. People asked me, 'Rich, do you still have a job?'”
When I profiled Richard Cizik two years ago, that's how he described the growing tension between him and the National Association of Evangelicals. Reverend Cizik, the NAE's chief lobbyist, is the sort of provocative figure we often look for, someone trying to steer a traditional organization, in business or beyond, in a different direction.
The story, called "Moving Heaven and Earth," chronicled how Cizik had put his neck on the line by launching a high-profile eco-ministry to rally evangelicals against global warming. He and another minister convinced 86 evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren, to break with the old guard and publicly support tougher environmental laws to save the planet, a campaign that grabbed national headlines. The NAE resisted pressure to fire Cizik at the time, but they did rebuke him: they prohibited him from signing the Evangelical Climate Initiative that he'd helped create.
When Cizik spoke out again early this month, he didn't get off so easy. In an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, he described the post-election state of the evangelical movement and the influence of young evangelicals who have different attitudes than their elders. He admitted that he'd changed some of his views and now believed in same-sex civil unions. "We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights and the rest that we fail to understand the challenges and threats to marriage itself -- heterosexual marriage," he told host Terry Gross. "Maybe we need to reevaluate this and look at it a little differently."
Cizik is not at all what people expect of an evangelical leader. Rather than being dogmatic, he strikes a balance between conviction and spiritual introspection. He's open to considering ideas that challenge his beliefs, and he's unfailingly candid. But his most recent burst of candor was the last straw for the NAE. Two weeks ago, Cizik was forced to resign.
The controversy reminds me of something he said during the climate change dust-up that sounds painfully prescient today: “We are the future, and the old guard is reaching up to grasp its authority back, like in a horror movie where a hand comes out of the grave.”