Richard Cizik is one of the country’s most powerful and outspoken Christian evangelical leaders. He happens to be a Republican, and he has known the GOP’s presidential nominee for many years. “I thought John McCain was a principled person,” Cizik says. “But John McCain has backed off, not just on climate change but on torture and a sensible tax policy — in other words, he’s not the John McCain of 2000. … He seems to be waffling on issue after issue.
“It’s not illogical for someone to conclude that John McCain is going to be more like George Bush than John McCain is going to be like John McCain in 2000.”
Characterizing the GOP’s presidential nominee as an unprincipled waffler is strong stuff from the man who oversees governmental affairs and is the chief lobbyist of the 30-million-member Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Evangelicals. But Cizik — named this year by TIME magazine one of the world’s 100 most influential people — is no stranger to controversies that come from strong convictions.
Over the past several years, Cizik, whose organization represents 45,000 churches from 59 denominations, has emerged as a passionate leader in the Creation Care movement — efforts by Christian evangelicals to respond to the perils of global change.
Suffice to say, Cizik’s efforts have rocked much of his world — including the minds of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and a phalanx of other old-guard evangelicals like Tony Perkins, Paul Weyrich and Gary Bauer who tried last year, unsuccessfully, to get Cizik fired from his job of 26 years for sounding the global warming alarm.
Dobson and the others, you see, would prefer to keep the evangelical focus on what they call “the great moral issues of our time,” specifically abortion, man-woman-only marriage and “the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”
They have disparaged Cizik for having a “preoccupation” with global warming and other related issues, including poverty and overpopulation. In 2006 Dobson even head-butted Cizik in the press for supporting international regulations of emissions, calling his views “anti-capitalistic and [having] an underlying hatred for America.”
Cizik, who takes the long view of winning converts to the global warming battle though biblical truths and employing what he describes as a “winsome, non-argumentative spirit,” was in Colorado Springs last week for a two day speaking tour with an unlikely partner in crime, the populist commentator Jim Hightower (who has detailed Cizik’s work in his latest book, “Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go Against the Flow”).
The first night the two addressed a crowd of 500 congregants of the Vanguard Christian Church and the next spoke to a crowd of hundreds of Colorado College students and environmental activists. And yes, during his speech Cizik made a joking reference to “people” who say he should be fired. He also expressed hope that Colorado Springs — headquarters to Dobson’s ministry and media empire Focus on the Family — would become ground zero for a renewed “focus on the Earth.”
“We live in the same world, but some people see through different glasses,” Cizik said of critics. “We have to move them.”
In an extensive Colorado Independent interview shortly after his Colorado stop, Cizik spoke more specifically about his views of the presidential election,including his thoughts on McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin — who rejects the science of human induced climate change — as his running mate.
Cizik tells of an encounter he had with McCain a year ago, after the candidate had been the target of loathing from evangelical leaders — most notably from the very same James Dobson who has gone after Cizik. In McCain’s case, Dobson let it be known in no uncertain terms: “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances … he’s not in favor of traditional marriage and I pray that we don’t get stuck with him.”
McCain, says Cizik, wanted to know what to make of these declarations. Cizik’s response? Where else are people like Dobson really going to go? Ultimately, he says, the criticism may have given old-guard leaders like Dobson leverage over McCain’s vice presidential choice. And lo and behold, since Palin was picked, Dobson has been gushing over the ticket, indicating he will in all likelihood “pull the lever” for Palin, er, McCain.
“It is pretty obvious that the Palin nomination plays to identity politics and cultural war issues,” says Cizik. “Her selection is more than an acknowledgment that evangelicals are an important part of the Republican base, and everyone knows that John McCain is not that exciting to religious conservatives.”
Palin, Cizik says, has certainly excited the Republican base, and picking her was certainly a deft, if cynical, political move by McCain — at least in the short term. However, in the longer view, his running mate may do just as much to energize the opposition and prove a turn-off to independents.
“Not everyone in the evangelical movement is fawning over Sarah Palin,” Cizik says.
Let’s review the conflicting messages: Just as hurricanes like Katrina and Rita and Ike have laid devastating wakes, McCain has selected a doubter of human-caused global warming as a running mate. Palin’s record as a drill-baby-drill-for-oil advocate, including in Alaska’s National Wildlife Reserve; supporting shooting wolves from low-flying airplanes; and de-listing polar bears as an endangered species doesn’t exactly resonate among evangelical Christians who have embraced a commitment to caring for God’s creation.
And, sending perhaps the most important signal of all, McCain himself has chosen not to not to speak out on the issue of climate change, Cizik notes. His campaign instead has opted to play identity and culture-war politics.
“He’s playing that card, and many of us thought he didn’t need to do it — it just polarizes the country,” Cizik says. “The irony of it is that John McCain can’t speak with an evangelical voice of faith — let’s face it, it’s just not his thing — so I guess the substitute is this other [Palin]. I guess that’s pretty cynical, but maybe his actions are cynical.
“The consequences of going to identity and culture-war politics is that experience is denigrated, authority is questioned and ignorance is strength,” Cizik says.
That said, come Nov. 4 does Cizik plan to cast his vote for Barack Obama? He doesn’t know.
“Obama doesn’t have the experience all of us would like,” Cizik says. “I’m not in Washington to be an advocate for the Republican or the Democratic Party; that’s not my calling. I’m not an ideologue. I do wish Obama had 10 years experience in the Senate and Sarah Palin had [more experience].
“I am a Republican, but I’m not comfortable with giving the Republicans four more years. I don’t see John McCain differing enough from the incumbent, and yet Obama is a work in progress, pretty much, so we’d be taking some risk with him. It’s a conundrum.”
For more on evangelical Christian leaders on the intersection of politics, faith and the 2008 presidential campaigns, read Evangelical author rallies votes for Obama in Colorado Springs.