Rev. Richard Cizik On God And Global Warming

Conservative Christian Richard Cizik preaches the message of environmentalism from a pro-life perspective. Cizik is the vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, a powerful lobbying organization that represents 45,000 churches.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. The evangelical base was pivotal in the election and reelection of George W. Bush, but it wasn't enough to get a McCain-Palin victory. So, in this post-election period, what influence does the evangelical community have in the Republican Party, and what will its goals be during the Obama administration? My guest, Richard Cizik, is the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. The organization represents about 45,000 churches from over 50 denominations with roughly 30 million constituents.

In 2006, Cizik was described in the L.A. Times as, quote, "a slightly younger, considerably less pugnacious and less reflexively Republican generation of conservative leaders bidding to dislodge familiar faces such as Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Richard Land," unquote. The environment and climate change have been priorities for Cizik, which has put him at odds with some older evangelical leaders and with some in the Republican Party.

Richard Cizik, welcome back to Fresh Air. I don't mean to put you on the spot here, and I realize this might be personal and you might not want to talk about it, but in interviews before the election it sounded like you might be tilting toward Obama. So, I'm going to ask you who you voted for, knowing that it's your right to not tell us. So...

Reverend RICHARD CIZIK (Chief Lobbyist, National Association of Evangelicals): Terry, let me then answer it this way. In the Virginia primary, I voted for Barack Obama.

GROSS: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. CIZIK: In other words, I would rather not say in the election general just whom it is that I did vote for, but that's an indication, but it doesn't say definitively. In other words, I don't want anybody to think, because I'm the lobbyist in chief for the National Association of Evangelicals, that because I voted one way or the other, I can't represent their concerns. So, I believe I can. I happen to think in the primary it was the best choice. People disagreed. Evangelicals did in this final election, general election, but I think all of us today believe we want this man to succeed, absolutely. If we don't think that, there's something wrong with us.

GROSS: How important is faith to you when you're voting?

Rev. CIZIK: I think it's very important, but it's not the factor, nor should it be. Though there are those who by identity politics and culture where they do that, and that's the most important factor. I say absolutely not. Character first, of which faith is a part. Of course, it helps determine one's values, but there are other factors such as the philosophy of government - two parties, two different philosophies and lastly, the issues. So, it's possible for me to disagree, for example, with a candidate on high profile issues, and still believe that, on the basis of character or philosophy, he's the better of the two candidates. So, in this case it would be possible, as evangelicals did, to disagree with Barack Obama on same-sex marriage and abortion and, yet, vote for him. We know they did, not because of those positions he stood, but in spite of those positions.

GROSS: So, how big a split do you see now within the evangelical movement over what direction the movement should head in, and what issues should be emphasized?

Rev. CIZIK: It's hard to know, Terry, because even the younger evangelicals, those that went for Obama, they clearly are pro-life. They're conservatives, but they also - well, 32 percent of evangelicals voted for Obama, younger evangelicals, that is. That's twice the number that voted for John Kerry four years ago. And this is a big increase in states like Colorado, Indiana and North Carolina. So, the younger evangelicals are probably the future with that broader palette. And they will determine the future of this huge movement that, well, by some surveys' estimates, if you include children and the rest, a hundred million people, one-third of all Americans.

GROSS: So, in that younger group that you're describing, is gay marriage not a priority issue?

Rev. CIZIK: It's not as high, no. In fact, if you look at some figures, these younger evangelicals, they disagree quite strongly with their elders on that subject.

GROSS: Do you think that that's in part because younger people are growing up in an environment where they know gay people? There are so many gay people who are out, and once you know gay people who are out, maybe it's not so threatening.

Rev. CIZIK: Absolutely. The influence of their generational peers is clear. Four in ten young evangelicals say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian. And so, much different than their elders, younger evangelicals they, well, 52 percent favor either same-sex marriage or civil unions. But it's not just on this issue, Terry. For example, fully two-thirds of younger evangelicals say they would still vote for a candidate even if the candidate disagreed with them on the issue of abortion. And that's in spite of the fact that younger evangelicals, they are decidedly pro-life. But they also rank other issues, economic issues, the environment, these other issues are very important to them. In fact, healthcare is just as important to the younger evangelicals as is abortion. And so they have a more pluralistic outlook than older white evangelicals, and they have a decidedly different posture with respect to the role of government here and abroad.

GROSS: Do you think that the evangelical base has lost any clout within the Republican party because the Republicans lost the presidential election?

Rev. CIZIK: Oh, it's inescapable, that loss of clout. You hear it in the party's leaders, who are questioning this. They know - that is, the leaders of the GOP - they know that they can't win without these 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.

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, remember Dick Armey once referred to one of our 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. And so, look, you have to have a vision. And you have to have a strategy, a strategy that works, and if your strategy isn't working, then rethink it. And so, to make its way forward, the Republican Party is going to have to, I think, come up with a vision that appeals to people, a strategy that, in fact, works. And its adherents, those who claim it as their own, have to employ tactics that don't destroy it in the meanwhile.

GROSS: I imagine you didn't agree with Sarah Palin on environmental issues. For example, her emphasis on drill, baby, drill, and also the fact that she said she wasn't sure if human behavior contributed to climate change. Now, climate change and the environment are issues you're trying to put much more toward the top of the evangelical agenda.

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah, I couldn't - you're right. I couldn't have disagreed with her more. Just a year ago, we found out from climate scientists that the melt in the Arctic had turned into a rout. It was happening so fast it was as if your hair turned gray overnight. Now, I have a receding hairline, but I don't have my hair turning gray overnight. Well, that's what happened with the environment. An area the size of Colorado was disappearing every week, and the Northwest Passage was staying wide open all September for the first time in history. And so, to look at this and not see what's happening, I think is, well, it was sort of the ignorance is strength idea. Well, not. It's not strength. Look, strength is knowing what's happening to the world around us, and moreover, as a Christian, we can't claim to love the Creator and abuse the world in which we live. To do so is like claiming to be a fan of Shakespeare and then burn his plays.

GROSS: So, is there a big debate in evangelical circles now about what the future of Sarah Palin should be in the Republican Party, whether she is the future or whether she is a problem?

Rev. CIZIK: Oh, I think there certainly is a certain amount of that debate going on, but I think people are sort of content to let Alaskans decide that. Before she becomes a national candidate again, she has to run for reelection, right?

GROSS: So, you're thinking maybe Alaskans will vote her out of office thus ending her political career?

Rev. CIZIK: Maybe, we don't know. But I don't think that you can humbly walk into the future and not understand that we don't know all the answers. And if you don't have a little bit of self-awareness about that, well, I don't think you can embody the Christian values of humility and justice and walking humbly with your Lord. There was something missing there that I just didn't see, and you're sensing it here. In other words, a certain humility about it all. I like that. I like - look forward to seeing that demonstrated in Barack Obama's policies.

The younger evangelicals have a different attitude, in fact, even toward the use of military. I happen to be among these evangelical young people, even though by age I might not qualify, right? And the idea that, well, you can have a sort of anti-science, anti-intellectualism and walk into the world with a big stick and hope to be able to win these wars. You can't win these kinds of wars we're fighting with a big stick. We know that.

GROSS: Let me ask you, you say you really identify with the concerns and priorities of younger evangelical voters, and one of those priorities is more of an acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage. A couple of years ago when you were on our show, I asked you if you were changing your mind on that. And two years ago, you said you were still opposed to gay marriage. But now, as you identify more and more with the younger voters and their priorities, have you changed on gay marriage?

Rev. CIZIK: I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think. We have this tension going on in our movement between what is church-building and what is nation-building. And I lean in this spectrum at times, maybe we should concentrate on building our values in our own movement. 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. Maybe we need to reevaluate this and look at it a little differently.

I'm always looking for ways to reframe issues, give the biblical point of view a different slant, if you will, and look it - we have to. The whole world, literally, the planet, is changing around us. And if you don't change the way you think and adapt, especially to things like climate change, scientists like Bob Doppelt, he says, well, if you don't adapt and change your thinking, you may ultimately be a loser because climate change, in his mind, he is a systems analyst, has the capacity to determine the winners and losers, and your life will never be the same, growing up during, I say, the great warming. Our grandparents grew up during the Great Depression. Our parents, well, they lived in the aftermath of that and became probably, the most, well, the greediest generation and our generation, this younger one, needs to be the greenest.

GROSS: Steven Waldman of Beliefnet raised this question that I want to put to you. Barack Obama supports the right to have an abortion, but he also advocates reducing the number of abortions when possible. Will you support him in abortion reduction, or do you see that as a diversion from the work of banning or restricting abortion?

Rev. CIZIK: I will support him. I will support Barack Obama in finding ways to reduce abortions, absolutely.

GROSS: Now, is that controversial within the evangelical movement?

Rev. CIZIK: For some, yes. I've already been called one of the devil's minions for taking this position, but it's an acknowledgement...

GROSS: Because it's seen as compromising?

Rev. CIZIK: Yes, it's seen as compromising. But that's, again, that winner-take-all mentality that you have to have it all. In politics, I've learned over many years, less is more. I think finding those who are in trouble, in crisis, helping them through this, and if need be, even supplying what government presently doesn't do, namely, contraception, is an answer to reducing, you see, unintended pregnancies.

GROSS: Wait, wait. I think I heard you say government supplying contraception?

Rev. CIZIK: Yes.

GROSS: That's got to be controversial among evangelicals.

Rev. CIZIK: Among some it would be, but I don't think so. We are not, as I have said previously, we're not Catholics who oppose contraception per se. And let's face it. What do you want? Do you want an unintended pregnancy that results in abortion, or do you want to meet a woman's needs in crisis, who frankly would, by better contraception avoid that choice, avoid that abortion that we all recognize as morally repugnant, at least it is to me.

GROSS: So what else is on your list of priorities now as the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals? What are you looking towards after January 20th?

Rev. CIZIK: Let me say that one of the bigger war and peace issues that I'm struggling with and attempting to find a role on is that of the threat of nuclear terrorism. A new report just came out this week saying that it's greater and realer than we ever thought before. I'm actually going to Paris to be part of the unveiling of a new movement called Global Zero, which is an attempt to understand that, whereas before the possession of nuclear weapons was a deterrent, it no longer is. In a world in which you have non-state actors who can potentially wield weapons of mass destruction, the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction becomes morally problematic in ways unheard of before, if this makes any sense. And so therefore, this movement called Global Zero supported by both John McCain and Barack Obama will come forward, I think, in the next week and months ahead to communicate a strategy to begin to address this threat of nuclear terrorism.

That's one thing I want to be a part of. I think it's very important for evangelicals. After all, most would not make any connection, but I've been with the NAE so long that I was on staff back when I actually proposed a letter to then-President Ronald Reagan which became the evil empire speech to the association back in 1983. And while few remember it, that speech, known for challenging the Soviet Union, included a line from the president advocating the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Most would not remember that. And yet, it was true. It almost became a reality at Reykjavik in conversations that president had with the president of the former Soviet Union. So, I happen to think this is one of the premier issues, along with climate change, that will impact the rest of life here on earth.

GROSS: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I think I've heard you say that you want to find and you want your group, the National Association of Evangelicals, to find some common ground with Obama and work with him. Is that going to be hard to convince a lot of your members to do?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, for those to whom all compromise is simply submitting, you see, to political correctness or whatever - for them, it's going to be very hard, but for most evangelicals, I don't think so. After all, we believe, you see, that God is alive and real, and he lifts up some and puts down others. And ultimately, we have to say God has put this man in this position. It's our responsibility to pray for him, to support him, work with him in whatever ways we can. It will require, for some, bridging outward, that's Robert Putnam's term, bridging outward to collaborate with Barack Obama, to do what is right by so many different people who need the kinds of policies he's espousing. And that will be hard, but should we do it? Yes. And will we hold him accountable when he runs against what we happen to think is right and good and proper and all the rest? We will do that, but we'll do it in a nice way. And we're not going to be, I think, objectionable in the way that some people have in the past that, as I said, led one Republican leader tcall one of our numbers a bully and a thug. That's not who we are.

GROSS: Let me just ask you a pointed question. Are you waiting for some of the evangelical leaders who have opposed you on issues like your concern about the environment and climate change, are you waiting for them to retire and leave the stage? And I guess I'm thinking most specifically here about James Dobson.

Rev. CIZIK: I'm not waiting. I would want Jim Dobson to join us because this is about creation care. It's what the Bible teaches. It's godly, it is right. So I'm not waiting for him to leave the scene at all. I want him to join us. In other words, I'm always looking, Terry, for allies, not adversaries. Always allies. This is important. It's strategically important for Christians to care for this earth, just as it's important for Christians to care for the family. These are equals. They're both part of God's concern, they're both part of his heart. And so no, I'm not waiting.

GROSS: I appreciate what you're saying, but at the same time I think the odds of you winning over James Dobson on this are probably slim. So do you think what's going to change in the long run...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. CIZIK: With God, all things are possible.

GROSS: ...is that he and some of the other people who oppose your work on putting environmental issues near the top of the agenda, do you think that what's going to change is that they will retire and there will be a new guard?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, inevitably that occurs. Even some of the names on the letter that opposed me back just a few years ago are gone. But that doesn't change the fact that we all will pay a price for not changing. The Earth is reaping the consequences of our actions when we don't reexamine our habits of consumption, right? The poor around the world, well, they're reaping the consequences of our failing to meet our obligations. This is not something that can wait for any of us to retire. Some may be wanting me to, but the Gospel paints a vision of society that is relationally and environmentally sustainable. What do I mean by that, relationally sustainable? It's a message of hope that we all get along, not just get along, but work together for a cause which is bigger than ourselves.

GROSS: Since we're in the final weeks of the Bush administration, I'd like to ask you your thoughts as that administration comes to an end. What do you think were his achievements? What are your greatest disappointments?

Rev. CIZIK: Greatest achievement, surely the effort called the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. This is felt in real ways through sub-Saharan Africa in ways that we in the West don't even understand. They love us as Americans because of what George W. Bush did on that. I think, on the other hand, this man of faith failed to understand, in my estimation, religion in the Middle East, and it led to a war that's been unnecessarily long. It may have been right to take out, as it were, Saddam Hussein, but the way this war was waged, I think, in so many ways, everyone would have to admit was ill-planned, ill-conceived and the rest. And so, look, one has to have mixed emotions about the Bush administration.

GROSS: And what are the ways that you think he has helped and/or hurt the evangelical community?

Rev. CIZIK: I suppose George W. Bush's faith was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we evangelicals took pride in the fact that this man became president who openly said that he was a person of faith, for whom even Jesus, he said, was his favorite philosopher and yet, didn't in so many ways reflect that Jesus as we would have wanted him to have, with a humility and a fashion to the rest of the world that communicated just what kind of people we are. I don't think that real picture ever came through.

GROSS: Richard Cizik, thank you so much for talking with us.

Rev. CIZIK: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Richard Cizik is the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

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