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Progressive Revival

Lisa Sharon Harper is co-founder and executive director of New York Faith & Justice and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican…or Democrat.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is standing at a crossroad. It faces an opportunity to learn from the past and grow stronger or to protect the past from critique and forge an irrelevant future. 

On December 2, 2008, Rich Cizik, veteran NAE lobbyist and media spokesperson, confided on National Public Radio that his position on gay civil unions was shifting to fall more in line with younger evangelicals, who tend to rank the issue low on their list of concerns.  Eight days later, Cizik was shifted out of his position as NAE Director of Government Affairs.  According to a report in Christianity Today, Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, wrote to board members: “Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized, and affirmed our values, there is a loss of trust in [Cizik’s] credibility as a spokesperson among leaders and constituencies.”

With the choice of its next Director of Government Affairs, the NAE will decide its relevance in society and within the evangelical church for the next generations.  The role could remain that of a political spokesperson, beholden to constituents’ ideologies and politics or the organization could recognize its changing context and do a new dance. It could pick a prophetic leader in the vain of evangelical ancestors like William Wilberforce, Charles Finney, and Sojourner Truth–one with the capacity to call the church to live into its best self, while calling the nation to do the same.

But the NAE doesn’t trace its roots to those reformers.  Its website claims a history ingited by and enmeshed with the social conservative movement of the mid-twentieth century, which eventually aligned itselfwith the Republican Party when Ronald Reagan won the presidency.  It should be no surprise, then, that NAE members grumbled upon word of Cizik’s shift.  But, the organization’s stunted account of its lineage is problematic for two reasons:  1)  it renders the NAE irrelevant to the next generation of evangelicals and 2)  it ties the NAE to a failed social movement–one that failed largely because of the direction evangelicals took it.

The next generation of evangelicals increasingly traces its roots to the reform movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries and aligns itself with the words and person of Jesus who affirmed the dignity of all life–especially those on the margins of society.  Younger evangelicals call for a consistent ethic of life–one that fights for fewer abortions and no genocide, or slavery, or torture or extraordinary rendition, no unjust war, the abolition of the prison industrial complex, the end of poverty and gender and racial injustice, and the enactment of universal healthcare, and the protection of God’s creation, and the protection of God’s people from toxins dumped into their environment.  The NAE’s limited account of its evangelical roots – one intertwined with the social conservative movement alienates it from the next generations of evangelicals who are drawing their inspiration from the words of Jesus and the faith of our revivalist forebearers.

Second, “Conservatism is dead,” says Sam Tanenhaus in The New Republic (February 18, 2009). Tanenhaus argues “What passes for conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to its originator, Edmund Burke…”  According to Tanenhaus, the conservative movement commenced its slow death when it veered from Burke’s call to be enslaved to no ideology.  Instead, Burke said, take stock of societal changes and adjust for the good of the conservation of civil society and “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

But the NAE and many white evangelicals of the twentieth century aligned with the strain of the conservative movement that warred against Burke; making ideology its primary weapon in a counterrevolution committed to the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state.  This was the same strain that promoted racial segregation and mounted a coordinated defense against the civil rights movement: “We are only trying to preserve our way of life,” they said.

Since those days, evangelicals and the NAE have come a very long way.  No small debt of gratitude is owed to Rich Cizik for his ground-breaking work with the NAE.  Chief among his accomplishments is certainly the policy document, For the Health of the Nations: an Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.  In fact, the NAE will require that the next Director of Government Affairs use that document to communicate the values and principles of the organization to elected officials. 

Still, in light of Cizik’s swift ouster, the universal temptation to protect the past from critique,  and the NAE’s changing evangelical and political contexts, the NAE must move boldly and swiftly to face and reconcile with its history in grace and truth–all of it.  To find relevance in the 21st century the NAE must choose a Director of Government Affairs with capacity to embrace and lead the next wave of evangelicals into proclamation and practice of the whole gospel. 

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