Christian Right Has Its Own Gay Marriage Dust-up

Washington Matters

Christian Right Has Its Own Gay Marriage Dust-up

While Democrats, liberals and gay rights advocates savage one another over the propriety of Barack Obama inviting pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, Christian conservatives are waging their own heated but less high-profile battle as well. While the fighting is ostensibly over gay marriage, the real issue is trickier: When does tolerance and dialogue become a betrayal of fundamental values?

Betrayal is certainly what many Obama supporters feel despite the fact that Obama's position on gay rights has not changed one iota. Attacks on Warren have not been as broad within the evangelical community, in part because many conservative Christians are thrilled by the outrage of so many gays and liberals. But what may be lacking in terms of numbers is made up for by the vitriol. One critic wrote an open letter to Warren that expressed his "profound and abject revulsion" that he accepted the invitation from Obama, whom he flatly dismissed as "evil". Warren, too, has not shifted his opinion on gay marriage or other social issues that unify so many Christian conservatives.

But if Warren caused discomfort to just part of the evangelical community a far lesser known man managed to cause quite a bit more in the past month even though he has captured far less media attention. Richard Cizik was long the chief spokesman and lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and he lost his job for encouraging the same type of dialogue being embraced by Obama and Warren.

I've followed Cizik's career since I interviewed him several years ago for a story about how some Christian conservatives had embraced environmentalism. Cizik was at the forefront of trying to add what he called "creation care" to the other issues on which evangelicals expected their national organization to represent them, especially opposition to abortion and gay rights. He impressed me at the time as not just eloquent and knowledgeable, but as a first-rate organizer who displayed a strong instinct for how hard and how fast he could push. Or so I thought.

I recently heard Cizik on the NPR program Fresh Air and was impressed all over again by his ability to frame issues and size up his own movement. While evangelicals are clearly conservative, Cizik argued that the political priorities of many, especially younger ones, are shifting. Then he startled me a little by saying that he had changed his mind and had come to embrace gay civil unions (not marriage), in part because he feels the issue is distracting attention from far more threatening challenges to the institution of marriage. He also embraced the concept of putting less energy into trying to ban abortions and more into preventing pregnancy as a way to  reach the same goal. Opposition to gay rights and abortion have been a defining characteristic of politically active evangelicals for so long that I was surprised by his bluntness and wondered if it might cause him some trouble. And boy, did it. He resigned Dec. 11 and the fight is on over whether he should be replaced by a more traditionally conservative figure or someone with a similarly broad moral agenda.

So, did Cizik betray evangelical values, as many argue? I don't know. His critics can certainly argue that he embraced positions not shared by many of those he represents. But is that the only measure? What was lost in the furor over Cizik's statements was his broader concern -- that polarizing issues such as gay rights and abortion not be continuously fought out at the expense of other challenges and concerns. Cizik, like Obama and Warren, was a bridge builder who tried to focus on areas of agreement -- not the same old pressure points of modern politics that has kept this country tied up in knots for years. We can only hope that he lands in a place where his skills don't go to waste. The Obama administration, perhaps?

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