Fresh Air Interview: Rev. Richard Cizik - 'Ousted Evangelical Reflects On Faith, Future' In December 2008, the Rev. Richard Cizik was forced to resign from his position in response to comments he made on Fresh Air in support of same-sex civil unions. He returns to the show to discuss how his life has changed -- and why he believes evangelicals need to change, too.
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Ousted Evangelical Reflects On Faith, Future

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Ousted Evangelical Reflects On Faith, Future

Ousted Evangelical Reflects On Faith, Future

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Of the many interviews I've done over the years, there's only one, that I know of, that resulted in my guest losing his job. That guest was Richard Cizik, who at the time of our interview was in his 10th year as vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, working as their chief lobbyist.

What he said that resulted in his forced resignation was that he supported gay civil unions. That interview was broadcast in December 2008.

I'm glad to say that Richard Cizik has returned to our show to talk about being forced out of the NAE and co-founding a new group, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. The group describes itself as an alternative to the past generations' old partisan and ideological culture wars. In this new interview that I recorded with Cizik, we also talked about his view of the Tea Party movement.

Cizik is one of the founders of the Christian environmental movement and has worked to bring evangelicals and scientists together to address climate change.

Richard Cizik, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I was so hoping you'd come back when you were ready, and I'm really sorry that you were punished for giving your opinions on our show. I'm assuming that all the reports I read are correct and you were forced to resign because of what you said on our show?

Reverend RICHARD CIZIK (Co-founder, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good): Yes, I was asked to resign because of what I said on FRESH AIR. I've said to people, Terry, that I gave too much fresh air. People usually laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. CIZIK: And if it's any encouragement, practically all of the evangelicals now know about your program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny. So listen, before we talk about your new organization and the issues that you're focusing on now, I'd like to talk a little bit about what happened when you were forced out of your position at the National Association of Evangelicals.

So according to the reports I read, you were forced out because of your comments about gay civil unions. So before I play back what you said, let me just put it in context.

Earlier in the interview, you had said that younger evangelicals disagree strongly with their elder evangelicals on gay marriage and that 52 percent of younger evangelicals favor either same-sex marriage or civil unions. This was in 2008 you said this.

And then later in the interview, you said that you identified with younger evangelicals. So I asked what I thought was the obvious follow-up.

(Soundbite of archival interview)

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 - it's 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.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Okay, Richard Cizik, that's what you said in 2008, and...

Rev. CIZIK: And I still agree with that.

GROSS: So did you expect to say that? Did you expect to say publicly that you supported civil unions, or did that just kind of come out?

Rev. CIZIK: It came out. It came out of the depths of the heart the mouth speaks - that's what the Bible says, and so it just came out. I hadn't planned on saying it, but I had been thinking about it a long time.

And that was because I was looking at constitutional arguments that are even now being weighed by the California Supreme Court and others. In other words, can we deny rights to others whose rights we don't especially share or, in fact, may disagree with strongly? And yet, yes I agree with what I said then. I happen to agree with it now.

And what's changed since then, even over the last year, according to a poll released just this week by Public Religion Research Institute, Terry, is that a majority of evangelicals generally, not just younger evangelicals, say that they agree either with same-sex marriage or civil unions.

That's a majority of white evangelicals in California. And evangelicals around the country are looking at this in new light and new ways and evaluating it in light of the Constitution and in light of our Christian values. And that's good. I maybe precipitated an argument I didn't intend to precipitate.

GROSS: So at the end of that quote, you said: I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think. And that I don't think seemed to leave a little door open.

Rev. CIZIK: A little openness, you know, a little opening there. And I was faulted for that, for example, by the NAE elders. They said, what do you mean you don't think?

I said, well, I'm still evaluating and I'm still thinking about this. And so while I haven't come to a conclusion on that, I am convinced that you can't deny rights to people based on their sexual orientation. It's wrong.

It's even wrong, I think, as Christians to take that position because we should support rights, human rights for all people even when they don't agree with us, for example. And for example in Uganda, we have to oppose laws that would penalize people.

GROSS: Yes, you're referring to - I think you're referring to - the anti-gay law that was before parliament in Uganda that would have been very harsh toward homosexuals, so harsh that some homosexuals would have been given the death penalty.

Rev. CIZIK: Executed, absolutely, and Christians have to speak out against that kind of law. I'm doing so right here and now and encourage others to do the same.

GROSS: So let's get back to the interview of 2008.

Rev. CIZIK: Back to that interview.

GROSS: Yes, that you were fired for - fired as a result of. In that interview, and this was in December of 2008, it was right after President Obama was elected, and I had asked you if you were willing to work with President Obama in finding ways to reduce abortions because you're opposed to abortion, and you said absolutely you were willing to work with him on that.

And then I asked if that was controversial in the evangelical movement, and you said it was and that some evangelicals saw this as compromising and that this was an example of the winner-take-all mentality. And then let me play what you said afterwards.

(Soundbite of archival interview)

Rev. CIZIK: 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. These are...

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 is morally repugnant, at least it is to me?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: So Richard Cizik, did that statement contribute to your forced resignation?

Rev. CIZIK: I think it was the sum total, according to the president of the NAE, who asked for my resignation. It was the sum total of everything. It was speaking out on behalf of creation care, climate change, a broader agenda, speaking out on a host of levels that just offended the old guard. And civil unions, well, that was just one part of it.

But in so many ways, this has been good for me. So I don't blame the NAE.

GROSS: How has it been good for you?

Rev. CIZIK: How has it been good? Well, it's enabled me to move on. I think I had a vision for the future, and you just helped precipitate it. How about that?

GROSS: So when you were told that it was time to go, may I ask how you were told?

Rev. CIZIK: Oh, most certainly. I had just come back from an event which I'm very proud of, being part of the Global Zero Statement that was released in Paris in December of '08, just came back from being out of the States for a few days after the interview where, well, there was a tempest in a teapot in various parts of the country over my interview.

People were calling the NAE, asking for my ouster. The religious right was gratified. They loved it. They took it, the things I had said, and ran with the ball, and I wasn't even here to defend myself.

And so I came back, got on a plane without much sleep, flew to Minnesota and met with the president. And it became apparent within a few minutes that this was a done deal. In other words, the executive committee had already met without my having participated in the conversation and decided I needed to go. And so I relented.

In other words, what could I do? I decided they were asking for my resignation, I was going to give it. And so I did. And I've learned some things from it.

GROSS: Like?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, among other things, most chiefly, we have an evangelical saying, it goes like this: When God closes one door, he opens another. Well, absolutely right, I found that.

I also know that he doesn't say anything about catching your fingers in the doorjamb as you leave. But what I would say to people who have been sacked, fired, RIF'd or whatever: Don't get your fingers caught in the doorjamb leaving. In other words, don't try to pull yourself back in.

And secondly, I've learned that it'll be hell in the hallways. In other words, closing one door, opening another, it'll be hell in the hallways. But God is bigger than those events that precipitate your departure from that job.

And so recognize it as an opportunity and see how God is going to help you in the future. And that's part of my character, learning how to deal with adversity, and a willingness to be exposed and vulnerable. And frankly, that's a part of what real leadership is, I happen to think. It's overcoming the fear of standing out. It's - you see, it's more than the fear of criticism.

GROSS: But the tricky thing for you, among other things, must have been - I mean, you were being exiled from an evangelical group, a group of believers, your community was exiling you. And so you probably had to ask yourself: Am I really standing up for the Christian thing to do, or are they really standing up for the Christian thing to do?

Rev. CIZIK: Oh, absolutely. I had to ask myself and be engaged in a kind of a self-examination that was honest and all the rest. And I concluded, after a thoughtful year of reflection, that, well, I stood up for what I believed was right, and I think it's right now.

GROSS: So there was a year before you co-founded your new organization?

Rev. CIZIK: It took a number of months to find others, but I have, people like scholar David Gushee; Steven Martin, our executive director. And these are all people who are leading a new movement of evangelicals just like me, and I'm really proud to have them, and we're called the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

And there's a reason why we say that, that is the common good, but we all believe that we are the future. That alienates some, irritates them, but frankly, we are the future of evangelicalism in America.

And we stand for a presence in public life that's, as we say, loving rather than angry, holistic rather than narrow, healing rather than divisive, and most importantly even of all, independent of sort of partisanship and ideology, rather than subservient to party or ideology.

And evangelicalism has, well, it's become so subservient to an ideology and to a political party that it needs, as I say, to be born again. Born again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. CIZIK: That sounds like something evangelicals would say about others, not themselves. And yet we all need to be and are being born again in a sense when we change our views, I think, in conformity with what Scripture and with God's will.

And so yes, the movement may be strong in so many other ways, but in this sense, and I'm not the only one who said this, it was cited by a writer by the name of Rodney Clapp. He said evangelicalism needs to be born again, and Cizik's firing is just a simple explanation of why - because the movement couldn't allow diversity.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. My guest is Richard Cizik, and for 10 years, he was the vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, a post he was forced out of in 2008 after saying on FRESH AIR that he supported gay civil unions.


GROSS: My guest is Richard Cizik, and for 10 years, he served as the vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, a position he was forced out of in 2008, after saying on FRESH AIR that he supported gay civil unions. He's now the co-founder of the new group the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which describes itself as an alternative to the past generations' old partisan and ideological culture wars.

Let me read something from the mission statement from your new group, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. It says: We aim to be an alternative to the past generations' old partisan and ideological culture wars, evangelicalism that damaged the evangelistic witness of the church in American culture and contributed to gridlock, rather than constructive problem solving.

From your point of view as an insider, how did the evangelical movement damage evangelical witness in American culture?

Rev. CIZIK: It damaged it because it became perceived by millions and millions of Americans as captive to a conservative ideology, not captive to Jesus or to the Gospel but captive to an ideology that has departed from, in so many ways, from historic evangelicalism.

And so the movement has always been susceptible to reactionary movements. It was born out of reaction to the liberal, 19th-century biblical criticism in biology in which evangelicals reacted against that and moved away.

And yet the new evangelicals, the new evangelicals of the early 20th century, they saw the fallacy of that kind of approach towards society. But, ah, after a number of decades, that kind of neo-evangelicalism that was founded by the National Association of Evangelicals, well, it's fallen back into the same kind of subservience to reactionary-ism.

And so evangelicalism is known today by what it's against, not what it's for. And we're trying to say: We're for these things. And among those is, you see, this command to first and foremost in everything, follow Jesus, not the Republican Party or Rush Limbaugh or anyone else, but to follow what the Gospel says.

GROSS: You mention the Republican Party and Rush Limbaugh. Do you think that some of the positions that evangelicals have been taking politically are to keep that alliance with the Republican Party and with powerful people with microphones like Rush Limbaugh?

Rev. CIZIK: Oh, of course. In other words, there are strong forces within evangelicalism against change. Alfred North Whitehead, excuse me for quoting him for those of you who don't like him, he said change is inevitable.

Well, it is, and yet these evangelicals aren't willing to change even with the times about anything, and they've wedded themselves to a conservative political ideology, and it's impacted their view on things such as climate change and all the rest.

GROSS: Okay, you mentioned climate change. In 2007, there was a letter signed by more than two dozen evangelical leaders, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, criticizing you for your environmentalism.

You are one of the leaders of the Christian environmental movement, and you want to work with scientists in trying to reverse climate change, and the evangelical leadership came down against you for that.

And I guess I'm wondering, since you've been talking about the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, if you think that part of the reason why the leadership of the evangelical community of the Christian right opposed you was because of the alliance with the Republican Party, which is so, among other things, pro-"drill, baby, drill."

Rev. CIZIK: Right. Well, that's part of it, absolutely. It wasn't just, though, that these evangelicals have been party to an allegiance of the Republican Party. It's - they have a whole litany, a whole brew of problems that include the fact that, well, environmentalists are disdained as leftists. Mainstream science is distrusted on account of evolution and Darwin.

Issues that the media think are important, for example, are perceived as just being hyped and therefore rejected as scaremongering. A lot of evangelicals adhere to a free-market economics that's distrustful of government regulation, hmm, government regulation vis-a-vis the Gulf of Mexico, dominion - oh, that kind of dominionism that they think allows them to do whatever we want with this Earth, and that's untrue.

It's our commitment, you see, born out of a Gospel faith that God owns this land, and we owe him exactly what he said, which is to care and protect it. And so, when things like the Gulf of Mexico happen, I think those of us who have been speaking out have a reason to say, in a certain sense, well, we told you so. If you're going to oppose any kind of government regulation on "drill, baby, drill," this is what you get.

GROSS: I'm curious what you think about this. The issue of gay marriage, which has been such, it's been on top of the agenda for years for the Christian right, and I've often wondered: Is that purely for their perception of moral reasons or is for political reasons, too? Because there was a period when fear of gay marriage was used as a wedge issue. It was a political issue to turn out the vote, to get people to vote for people who oppose gay marriage.

So do you think it was purely, like, a moral thing for the Christian right, or do you think it was a political organizing tool?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, it was both. And there are those on the right who still believe that any acknowledgement of rights by gays, lesbians and others is wrong, and they're going to oppose that.

The latest survey research, as I indicated, from Public Religion Research Institute, indicates that 38 percent fall into that category. But what's interesting is that 60 percent or thereabouts believe that we're going to acknowledge these rights. And so there's a great shift going on.

I don't regard this as moral compromise, by the way, to acknowledge others' rights in society, absolutely not. That's not moral compromise. That's simply living in a democracy. Hello?

GROSS: So if so, why not say that you support gay marriage? Because civil unions aren't really equal to marriage, because they're just recognized in states, they're not recognized nationally. So all the national benefits of marriage, people in civil unions don't get.

Rev. CIZIK: So is it - yeah, and so there's a logic to the argument that says, well, if you're going to grant civil unions, why can't you grant gay marriage? And I concede that argument. It's a fair one. I'm just not there yet.

GROSS: Maybe someday?

Rev. CIZIK: Of course.

GROSS: Okay.

Rev. CIZIK: I'm not of those who think, though, that this, if it happens, is going to be the loss - the decline of Western civilization. That's certainly not the case.

GROSS: Right.

Rev. CIZIK: Evangelicals have lived in a variety of circumstances around the world, and do today, in which we face really serious issues. There are real dangers out there. That's the point of the new partnership that we're talking about.

There are real dangers out there. There's ethnic conflict, failed states. Frankly, what happens inside states is as important as what happens between them. There's catastrophic terrorism that occurs. There's massive abuse of human rights around the world and breakdown of global economic systems.

And so, there are huge issues that face us on this planet, and I don't believe that that's one of them.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Richard Cizik, the former chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. He was forced to resign in December 2008, after a FRESH AIR interview in which he said he supported gay civil unions.

Early this year, he co-founded a new organization called the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which describes itself as an alternative to the past generation's old partisan and ideological culture wars.

Now, the evangelical vote was considered a key vote in the Republican Party to turn out during the Bush-Cheney era, and now I think we're hearing much more about the Tea Party movement than about the religious right. And I wonder if you think the religious right has been upstaged a little bit by the Tea Party movement?

Rev. CIZIK: Oh, of course,

GROSS: Yeah?

Rev. CIZIK: Oh, of course, yeah. And the Tea Party movement is irreligious, significantly so. It's got lots of problems. I wouldn't join it if I were an evangelical, urge others not to or at least to be suspicious of it, because it doesn't bring with it in my estimation the whole biblical concept of our responsibility and the rest to God, and so I'm not a Tea Party fan.

GROSS: So, the Tea Party seems to not emphasize the Bible, but to emphasize a kind of fundamentalist reading of the Constitution.

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah. Yeah. In other words, it's a kind of secular constitutionalism, albeit a false one in my opinion. I have been for many, many years an advocate of sort of strict constructionism and have supported conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, in some cases made a big mistake in doing so. Well, you have to repent at times, move forward, and so I happen to think that it's a kind of - that is the Tea movement is a regressive movement.

GROSS: Is this a loss of power for the Christian right because the Tea Party seems to be taking up more of the public space and the public image?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, the Tea Party movement - it may be a loss of power, absolutely. The Tea Party, moreover, is libertarian. That's why a lot of evangelicals on the right don't identify with it. I'm not there. I'm not a libertarian, per se, and so that's one of my problems with the Tea Party movement.

But the religious right may oppose the Tea Party movement to some degree over loss of power, that's true. But we shouldn't be about this because of our interest in simply owning and holding political power.

GROSS: So is there a place where the Christian right and the Tea Party come together? I can't tell how aligned they are. I can't tell how many people in the Tea Party also identify as evangelicals.

Rev. CIZIK: There's a certain adherence to traditional value in the sense that I think most Tea Party movement people say they believe in God and the Constitution and that's a kind of litmus test for them, the Constitution, but I don't see how this marriage occurs. Because, fundamentally, the Tea Party is libertarian, evangelical right or not, and I think ultimately, it won't work, in other words, the merger of evangelical right and the Tea Party movement, because there are these internal contradictions.

GROSS: Such as?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, that you can't have government action to restrict abortion, for example, and be libertarian toward the power and role of government. I mean isn't that an internal contradiction?

GROSS: I see what you're saying.

Rev. CIZIK: And that's why libertarians are common in the Tea Party movement, and why evangelical right leaders are not libertarians.

GROSS: Right.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Cizik. And for 10 years he was the vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. He was forced out of that position after some of the things he said on FRESH AIR in 2008, including that he supported gay civil unions. He's now the co-founder of the group the Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

So, after you were forced out of the National Association for Evangelicals, and you went through a period of having to figure out so now what, what was it like trying to find like-minded evangelicals who wanted to head in a different direction and emphasize a different agenda, a broader agenda?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, it was hard at first. But not entirely, I need say, because there were those leaders who immediately stepped forward. They went up on the Web and said we agree in the broader agenda. And so, we commend Richard for his courage and the rest and we stand with him and with this new evangelicalism. So there were those who signed the statement.

But amongst those whom I had worked for and with for so many years, actually up to 30 years almost, there was not a similar kind of attitude, I hasten to add. Not because I blame anybody. I don't blame anybody, but there were those who weren't willing to say even to me why this happened or even to talk about it. They never did and never have and still to this day have not.

GROSS: So there is a lot of people from your past that you're still not in touch with.

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah, that's true. I've tried to reach out. That's my spirit. And if they want to call me and say whatever they want to say, I'm always open to that. I'm just saying that there wasn't an outpouring of those with whom I had worked who said we're with you, Richard. That didn't happen. But that's why I've created the new organization.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Cizik and he's the co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. For 10 years he served as vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, a position he was forced out of in 2008 after saying on FRESH AIR that he supported gay civil unions.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Cizik. And for 10 years he was the vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. He was forced out of that position after some of the things he said on FRESH AIR in 2008, including that he supported gay civil unions. He's now the co-founder of the group the Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

Are you still lobbying? At the National Association for Evangelicals you were the chief lobbyist.

Rev. CIZIK: Yes. So I still do that. On behalf of--

GROSS: Yes. So are you lobbying some of the same people for different issues?

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah. Different, broader issues, but some of the same too. In other words, we have a climate bill that's before the Congress. We have limited days before they go on recess, and so we've got to do this. We've got upcoming issues, the ratification to the proposed START Treaty and the rest. There are all these issues, so I do that as well. That's my skill area. I hope to continue it the rest of my life.

And so, I have this vision and I'm trying to share it with others, and there is a strategy. So this isn't a hallucination. And the tactics, though, are really important. And just coincidentally, your show and what happened to me allowed me to show look, I'm not what other people say about me. Because if I had responded to those critics with anger or the rest, then I would have been living up to what they said about me, that I was, you know, impulsive or that I was headstrong. Maybe I am still a little bit of that. I'm not ruthless.

But my point is this, when others criticize you, you owe it to yourself and to your God to at times just keep your mouth shut, which I did for a year. In other words...

GROSS: Was it hard? Was that hard?

Rev. CIZIK: No. I actually needed it. God gave me respite. It allowed me to spend a lot of private time and think through what really is important to me and to others around me. And so, it was a valuable time, which I look back with...

GROSS: Did you have a safety cushion, the financial safety cushion to take that time?

Rev. CIZIK: No, I did not have that. No, I did not have that.

GROSS: So what did you do about that? How did you earn a living during that period?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, quite frankly, I've been a fellow of the Open Society Institute, and there were those who called me up and said, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? And I said well, I'm going to do what I've been doing. I want to create an organization and these are the issues. And they said well, why don't you apply for a fellowship? And so, these wonderful people at the Open Society Institute evaluated me along with a lot of other candidates, decided to endow me with a fellowship for the past year, so I've not been without means.

And it's allowed me to put together conversations with Muslim leaders in places as far away as Casablanca, where we created a Casablanca Institute to build dialogue with other parts of the world. It's allowed me time to build conversations with those who don't see evangelicals as a positive influence upon American society. And so, it's going to be hell in the hallways. It always is when you're thrust into a new circumstance without a job or the like, and yet, God is sovereign. He takes care.

GROSS: It's funny it's the Open Society Institute that funded you.

Rev. CIZIK: Isn't that ironic?

GROSS: Because that's George Soros's...

Rev. CIZIK: Absolutely. There's a...

GROSS: ...George Soros's grant-giving organization. And George Soros has been so demonized by the right.

Rev. CIZIK: Isn't that ironic? In the Old Testament, there was an unbelieving, in other words, a non-Jew king by the name of Cyrus, who was responsible for the rebuilding of the temple. And so, my friends across the pond in Great Britain, they once said to me, Richard, Soros is your King Cyrus. And I accepted the fellowship and it's been a wonderful year dialoguing with people who don't share my views, and yet, I think we have so much in common, more in common than we have apart, than we have that divides us.

GROSS: And who are you referring to there? Are you referring to the Muslim-Christian conversations?

Rev. CIZIK: My friends at the Open...

GROSS: Oh, you mean at the Open Society.

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah, my friends at the Open Society, we have much more in common...

GROSS: Right.

Rev. CIZIK: ...than we have that divides us.

GROSS: So one of the things you've been doing is Muslim-Christian dialogues.

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah. And I've also been responsible for a wonderful document out of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on a new imperative for U.S. foreign policy called Engaging Religious Communities Abroad.

GROSS: Yeah, tell us what that's all about.

Rev. CIZIK: Well, for two years, 30 scholars associated with the Chicago Council were led by a colleague of mine, a co-chair, Scott Appleby at Notre Dame University - wonderful scholar on fundamentalism - the two of us along with the project director, Tom Wright, we've put together this document, Engaging Religious Communities Abroad, and it's a wonderful plan.

It's the strategy in the face of a world in which religion is not confined to the private sphere anymore and that there are these changing patterns of religion and identity that are impacting local and national societies and politics all around the world. And so, we're saying that not only is the salience of religion increasing, but that we're going to have to reach out as a country and engage with these people and see their involvement.

GROSS: And how are you recommending that we do that? For instance, you're recommending that the United States create a new position, a distinguished American-Muslim ambassador...

Rev. CIZIK: Well, there is one...

GROSS: ...for special...

Rev. CIZIK: ...already appointed. And so, that was begun actually, under President Bush and a new appointee under this president. And so, there are these strategic challenges that require us to engage with religious communities abroad on the basis that secularism is the worst approach. In other words, the old idea that we've had in certain circles that as societies evolve and become more modern, they would become more secular is frankly the opposite of what's happened.

And so, in the year 1900, for example, 67 percent of the world was part of the four main religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. And by 2050, 80 percent of the world will be comprised of these four main religions. And so, these religions around the world, especially in times such as ours now, periods of economic and political stress, they play a role where governments lack capacity.

GROSS: Now, one of the things that you say is that in some parts of the world, like the Middle East, China, Russia, India, people are particularly sensitive to the U.S. government's emphasis on religious freedom and see that as a form of imperialism.

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah, I do. I've said that.

GROSS: Could you explain what you mean?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, they look upon our advocacy on behalf of religious freedom as our intervention and they resent that. And so we have to really be careful in engaging overseas that we understand how these pivotal players in these religious communities view us and not attempt to manipulate them, but to understand their importance. We just can't view religion through the lens of counterterrorism policy. We have to understand that religions play pivotal roles on all these issues of development, poverty, disease and the like, even climate change, and we need to engage with these leaders. And they're the pivotal players you see, from peace building to stewardship in the environment. And what we've said by a kind of secular approach in the past in my opinion is these religious leaders and policies or organizations overseas don't matter.

GROSS: So do you think President Obama has been responsive to religious leaders? And I am wondering if you've personally met with him at all.

Rev. CIZIK: Yeah, that's part of the Cairo speech. That's the Cairo speech that the president gave in initiating a whole new way of approach. He isn't solely responsible for this development in the sense that Madeleine Albright, in the previous Clinton administration, she understood it and wrote about it in a book, "The Mighty and the Almighty."

In other words, there's a gradual progressive understanding of the role of religious faith, and Obama has put it together. And he's asked frankly for the various department heads to all come together in a forthcoming report to him about what we are and are not doing in the way of civilian engagement, in places as far-flung as South Asia and Afghanistan where it's really important, because we're not going to win these wars of the 21st century by military power. It won't happen, can't be done.

GROSS: You've changed some of your views. You've allowed your views to change. And I think change is very hard, especially when you lobbied for those views.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, you were before the government saying this is what you need to do and here's why. So I think change is hard because it means if you believed one thing and then you change your view to something else, that maybe you were wrong when you believed the thing before. So, it makes it really hard to change, because what does that mean about the view you held before you changed?

So can you talk about whether it was hard for you to change your views on things like gay civil unions and climate change?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, in both cases I had epiphanies. I just came to the conclusion based upon a lot of evidence over the course of years that these were the right decisions to make. In the case of climate change, based on science; I don't have a conflict, internal religious conflict with science per se. And so, I came to that conclusion on climate change after presentation of the arguments and the evidence. And I happen to believe those arguments and evidence for climate change, global climate change, are real and very important and the impacts are going to be enormous on the planet.

I also came to the conclusion based upon my gut sense, that is, on civil unions. Gut sense that we can't deprive people of their rights in society, even if we happen to disagree with them. And so, it was an evolution of sorts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. CIZIK: Not saying, it was everything. But I did change my mind. And I say look, if you've not changed your mind about something ever, pinch yourself. You may be dead.

GROSS: How come you have no disagreements with science when so many of your fellow evangelicals do?

Rev. CIZIK: Well, I just happen to believe that science is given us by God. That science enables us to see what the creation is telling us about itself but can't.

GROSS: And what about that...

Rev. CIZIK: In other words, science helps us to understand what's happening to the world and the flora and fauna that can't speak to us directly, but we can through science understand what's happening and thus act in order to protect it. So, I consider my fellow scientists, like Dr. Chivian, with whom I've collaborated, and with others, E.O. Wilson, I consider these people fellow laborers in the work even of the Gospel. They might not regard it that way, but that's what I view it as, fellow laborers on behalf of the mandate to protect creation.

Now, I know they agree with that. They believe we are co-laborers. And this is the challenge for evangelicals, to reach beyond themselves, out of their corner-dwelling habits. And a lot of the leaders in American evangelicalism are still corner dwellers, talking to each other in a corner as opposed to talking to others. And so, we need to get out, bridge outward, as Robert Putnam has said, bridge outward in order to talk with others and find ways of common ground in order to protect the creation, for one, and the planet from nuclear terrorism on the other. And is this is what God has called us to do and it's the right thing to do.

GROSS: Richard Cizik, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's very - I'm so glad you came back on our show. Thank you so much.

Rev. CIZIK: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Richard Cizik is the co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He's featured in the new documentary "Count Down to Zero," about the risks of nuclear weapons.

You can find a link to my 2008 interview with Richard Cizik, the interview that resulted in his forced resignation from his position as chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, on our website,

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation of the Dutch musician, composer, and bandleader Willem Breuker, who died last week. This is FRESH AIR.

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