Dec 12, 2008

The relentlessly grim James Dobson has a spring in his step today and a song in his heart. The hopelessly dour Richard Land is sipping eggnog and humming the Hallelujah Chorus. Chuck Colson is doing a little end-zone victory dance.

No, it's not a sudden burst of the Christmas spirit infecting these hard-line Religious Right Scrooges. It's the news that Rich Cizik has been forced out as vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).

The NAE claims 50 denominations under its umbrella with an estimated 30 million members. Although conservative on most social issues, it has strived to maintain a separate identity from the snarling raptors of the Religious Right.

Cizik has been under withering fire from the ayatollah wing of evangelical Christianity for years. Cizik's concern for the environment – he's opposes global warming, gasp! – and his generally non-confrontational approach to social issues and political outreach were a thorn in the Religious Right's side.

Christianity Today notes that Cizik survived a March 2007 assault by Dobson, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and 23 other politically conservative evangelicals who issued an open letter calling for Cizik's resignation. (Dobson, Perkins and nearly all the signers represented organizations that aren't members of the NAE.)

But a Dec. 2 Cizik interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" was apparently the last straw. The veteran evangelical lobbyist told Terry Gross he supports civil unions for same-sex couples, thinks government should provide contraceptives as a means of reducing the need for abortion and mentioned that young evangelicals "have a more pluralistic outlook than older white evangelicals."

Cizik criticized vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin for her indifference to environmental concerns.

"As a Christian," he said, "we can't claim to love the creator and abuse the world we're in. To do so is like claiming to love Shakespeare and burn his plays."

Perhaps most damningly, Cizik criticized the Religious Right for hurting the Republican Party's election prospects. GOP candidates, he said, need evangelical votes "but they can't win the rest of the voters that they need at times because of the way evangelicals have behaved, within the political party."

Cizik noted that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey "once referred to one of our [evangelical] leaders as a bully and a thug. Well, those are harsh words, but that was a leader of the Republican Party referring to how he was getting pressure. Well, the tactics that have been employed have altogether backfired it seems to me. Everyone knows that."

Cizik didn't say so, but that "bully and thug" identified by Armey was none other than Dr. Dobson, leader of the Focus on the Family broadcasting empire.

What may have done Cizik in, however, may not have been any of these comments, but an even more controversial admission: he admitted voting for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in the presidential primary. (He wouldn't say whom he voted for in the general election.)

Conservative evangelicals may tolerate a little heresy on some things, but voting for a Democrat isn't one of them. Cizik apologized for the interview, but he was forced out anyway. I guess 28 years of faithful service doesn't mean much to the NAE leadership. When the Inquisition is in session, the worst thing you can do is get caught telling the truth.

What does all this mean?

Just this: the Religious Right still insists on lock-step conformity in both religion and politics. It is a voracious beast that will consume everyone who dares to challenge its rigid orthodoxy. The alleged moderation that the mainstream media claims to detect among politicized evangelical leaders is a figment of the media's imagination.

I wish Rich Cizik well. I'm sure he and I disagree on many, many religious and political issues, but he offered a refreshing voice of moderation in a polarized world.

Good luck to you, Rich. Shame on you, NAE.