Homosexual Marriage Still Linchpin Issue for Evangelicals

January 16, 2009 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

prop-8-prot.jpgLast month, the National Association of Evangelicals fired the Rev. Richard Cizik as its vice president for governmental affairs. 

As one of the Christian right’s top lobbyists in Washington, Cizik promoted the cultural conservative position on issues ranging from abortion to prayer in school. He’s been one of the most prominent figures in the religious right since its ascendance as a national political force three decades ago, and the reason for his firing from the umbrella organization representing some 45,000 churches portends much about the “culture wars.” 
prop-8-prot.jpgIn a post-election interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” Cizik stated his support for gay civil unions. “I’m shifting, I have to admit,” he said when asked about same-sex marriage. “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.” 
Cizik’s couching of his support for civil unions — a position shared by at least half of the American electorate, including an increasing number of evangelicals — within his opposition to gay marriage was not a sufficient hedge to save his skin. “He no longer represents the view of evangelicalism,” concluded Tom Minnery, a senior vice president of Focus on the Family. Try as Minnery might to make it sound as though evangelicals speak with one voice on a range of issues, serious fissures are beginning to emerge among this vital electoral constituency. 
This was hardly the first time that Cizik publicly departed from the views espoused by the evangelical conservative leadership. He is a proponent of the sort of comprehensive sex education opposed by abstinence-only advocates. More significantly, he has for years supported government intervention to alleviate the effects of man-made global warming, putting a religious gloss on environmentalism that he calls “creation care.” Cizik’s shift in emphasis away from social issues was met with fierce resistance from other evangelical leaders. In 2006, Focus on the Family head James Dobson unsuccessfully tried to have Cizik fired because of his green advocacy. 
As irritating as Cizik’s heresy on global warming and sex education might have been to conservative-movement-oriented Christians, it was not enough of a deviation to persuade the NAE to fire him. Ultimately, it was Cizik’s coming out in favor of gay civil unions that got him the boot. 
And herein lies the ominous lesson about Richard Cizik: The Christian right is not going to give up on the issue of homosexuality anytime soon, as much for strategic electoral considerations as sincerely felt religious ones. “[Cizik] seemed to be abandoning the one thing where evangelical activists felt they had actually made a difference this time around,” David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine and a member of the NAE’s Executive Board, told The Associated Press. In a country that has rejected much of its agenda, the Christian right sees the battle over gay marriage as the last issue where it can play a politically significant role.
The views of the American people are increasingly moving away from those of the Christian right on an array of policy issues. On abortion, which inspired the formation of the Moral Majority in the 1970s with the Roe v. Wade ruling and continues to inform evangelical voting patterns today, most Americans support keeping the practice legal with reasonable restrictions. Most Americans oppose mandatory school prayer and support the teaching of evolution. Most Americans believe in the separation of church and state. Even on homosexuality, the Christian right has lost. Americans overwhelmingly support allowing gays to serve openly in the military and laws that prevent gay people from getting fired because of their sexual orientation. 
Gay marriage, however, remains the issue where the views of Christian conservatives are most in line with those of the rest of the country. More than 30 states have passed statutes or constitutional amendments preventing gay marriage. Last November’s passage of Proposition 8 in liberal California, which revoked a state Supreme Court ruling permitting gay marriage, as well as a ban on gay adoption in Arkansas, has convinced Christian conservatives of not only the moral justness of their cause but its political salience as well. 
Attitudes about homosexuality have changed dramatically over the past 40 years, however, and if history is any guide, the widespread legal equalization of gay relationships is inevitable. This means that the position of the most prominent evangelical Christian groups on homosexuality will not be politically tenable for much longer, even among self-described conservatives. A majority of the delegates at the Republican National Convention supported some form of legal status for gay couples, whether that be civil unions or marriage, as do a majority of young evangelicals. 
Cizik, then, is hardly a renegade among evangelicals on the issue of gay rights; he’s more a prophet, a representative of what will become the emerging consensus. But with its prompt dismissal of Cizik, the NAE telegraphed its plans to entrench on the losing side of the proposition. Evangelical leaders may be right in thinking that their anti-gay rhetoric makes good politics now, but it’s poor strategy for the long term. 
Most people in politics, however, are concerned with the next election, not the one 15 years from now. For those eager to see a rapprochement in the cultural battle over homosexuality, the firing of Richard Cizik does not augur well. 
Source: Politico
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Entry filed under: Culture. Tags: , , , , , , .

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