The Jesus Factor [home]
homepresident and his faithevangelicalsdiscussion
interviews: richard cizik
photo of cizik

Richard Cizik is vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that represents 52 denominations and 45,000 churches. In this interview, he talks about evangelicals' increased social and political influence and how his organization has successfully been working with the White House on issues that matter to evangelicals, especially the president's faith-based initiative. He also talks about pietism, which he calls "the overriding political vision of evangelical Christians." He says that it means to evangelicals that "you cannot relegate faith to the private arena only. You simply can't do that. … And that challenges the fundamental assumptions about Western political values that religion is private. Politics is public. And never the twain shall meet." This interview was conducted on Nov. 12, 2003.

… Tell me about your efforts. Let's especially talk specifically about your office, the governmental office and what your agenda is.

… It's an attempt to be a voice for this broad segment of the American public that George Gallup says is one-third of Americans who claim to be born again. Or more precisely, the 20 percent of adult Americans who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Bible is authoritative. They've had a born-again experience, and try to change life because of those beliefs. So we try to be a voice for that segment of the American Protestant community.

George Bush and evangelicals probably agree on 75 percent of our issues.  Not all. It doesn't mean we're going to get everything we want. It does mean, however, that we have a president who I think as an evangelical Methodist understands the way we think.

Yet it's true, the movement is very diffuse. Identifying who its leaders are may depend on what part of the country you're in, or what denominations you're from. These are all variables. That's fair enough. The movement is very diffuse.

Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be evangelical? You mentioned a couple of the tenets right there in your description of it. Tell me specifically what it means.

I think that George Gallup's definition is probably pretty good. He says that evangelicals are those who, first of all, believe the Bible is authoritative. It's infallible. This is a theological distinction which separates evangelicals from, say, mainline Protestantism, which generally avers from that kind of designation of the Bible as the authoritative word of God.

… When you speak of the mainline Protestants and what their beliefs are about the Bible, is it basically the difference between believing that the Bible is an interesting set of stories that have major, major historical importance, versus a set of laws, a set of truth? …

That may be a layman's definition. But I think there's one way to understand the evangelical view of the Bible. It is viewed as the objective authoritative word of God, as opposed to the mainline Protestant view called neo-orthodoxy which holds, you see, that the Bible becomes the word of God in a kind of existential encounter with it.

So that's the distinction. It doesn't just become the word of God when you have an experience with God or an experience with the Word. It is objectively, authoritatively the word of God. That's what distinguishes evangelicals from, say, mainline Protestants.

Let's talk about the second tenet.

Evangelicals are also people of faith in the American Protestant community who believe that you must be born again. As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3, "You must be born again." And Nicodemus said, "Well, should I go back into my mother's womb?" And Jesus said, "No. But you have to be born of the water and the spirit." In other words, you have to have your heart changed by him, by Jesus.

Frankly, millions of Americans, unbeknownst to some people in New York and other elitist institutions, actually have had this kind of experience. Their hearts have been warmed, as John Wesley said, by Jesus Christ, who lives today and reigns over matters private and matters public. That's what evangelicals believe.

[What is a born-again experience? What does "born again" mean?]

Well, it's pretty hard to define. Every individual has their own definition, their own existential experience, so to speak. All [born again] means [is] that you submit yourself to the authority of Jesus Christ over all of your life. He becomes the most important thing to you. It's not obedience to some laws or the Old Testament Ten Commandments. It's obedience to what Jesus wants, as authoritatively stated in the Scriptures, and that changes one's life.

What are the other [tenets]?

The third aspect of evangelicals, which I think is very important, is that they attempt to share that faith they have with others in a broad manner of fashion through charitable activities, through witnessing their faith. [It's] very important to witness for Jesus Christ to others. But that witness can take many forms. Certainly one form, apart from charity efforts and the rest, is political involvement. We think that's simple obedience to the call of Jesus Christ -- to be an active citizen in one's society. There's no question about it. …

Let's talk about the leap into politics. What are the sort of issues that you would say are the most important issues that your association tries to tackle or cares about?

We care about the moral life of America, first and foremost. We want to share our faith in a variety of ways that will, I think, regenerate American public life along the lines of our faith. I think that's what is our primary calling as evangelicals. That means that we'll, at times, impact this or that political issue. But generally speaking, we're very general in our concern for American life that would reflect the moral values of the Scriptures. I think that's what primarily guides us.

Let's talk specifically for a moment. When you say that, what does that mean?

This is a big question, even among scholars. They ask, "Well, what is the overriding vision, political vision, of evangelicals?" It's very hard to define. Yet I think there's one influence, arguably so, which overrides and dominates all other political visions of evangelicalism, and that vision is called pietism.

What is pietism? Well, it's that New Testament-oriented, anti-ritualist, congregational governance belief system which leads evangelicals to an emphasis on individual conversion, and, lastly, a social witness over all of life. That we are called by God to not just obey him and be obedient to him and personal conversion to Christ, but also to share that faith over all the social realm -- that is what distinguishes this movement politically more than anything else, I think.

What you just said is hard to understand, so I want to understand specifically what you mean. When you talk about the moral health or you talk about America in general, what are you talking about there? Are you talking about pro-life issues? Are you talking about gay marriage? I mean, we should just try to understand them in terms of what is going on contemporarily right now in our society.

In the 1980s, there was a great emphasis on the below-the-belt issues -- described as abortion, homosexuality and the rest, gay rights. These were issues which motivated evangelicals into the public arena.

There's been a lot of maturation and growing of the movement to other issues, not just those, for example, like prayer in schools -- which, frankly, is sort of a litmus test politicians use, which is quite outdated -- to today, when evangelicals believe that we have to be concerned, not just for our own civil rights, but for the rights of others. That has led to a new emphasis on international issues.

… Domestically, what would you say your association cares about the most right now?

Probably the faith-based initiative of this president. We believe there has to be equality of treatment toward religious social service providers in America. That is what America ought to be all about -- equality of treatment. What we believe equality of treatment means is not the preference for evangelical social service providers, but equality of treatment, so that they're treated the same as secular service providers -- equal competitors for federal dollars to be able to dispense services to the needy. That's what the faith-based initiative of this president is about. I think it's probably one of our top priorities.

So in other words, when you have a system that doesn't actually give money to any faith-based organizations in essence, it's discriminating against--

Oh, absolutely. For decades, religious service providers have been told, "You're religious. You don't qualify. You can't even compete," in spite of the fact that our institutions, our social service providers, have done the best job, according to many social scientists, in helping people. Helping the inmate who's back on the street. Helping the drunk or the derelict. Helping the unwed mother who needs help. Our social service providers have done the best job, the most effectively, at the least cost. Yet for decades, we've been told, "You don't qualify." That's simply not the American way. …

Let's talk about President Bush and how you were saying from the very beginning that you don't really have to lobby that hard, because you actually have someone in the White House who understands the issues and the desires of the evangelical community. Can you talk a little about that, how it's changed from the 1980s, and how much harder it was then.

… In the 1980s, evangelicals thought, "We'll do politics the same way we do religion. We'll just convert the opposition." But you can't do religion and politics the same way. [It] doesn't work that way. You have to start with the modern civic values which everybody can agree upon. You start there. You don't try to do politics the same way you do spiritual things.

It's not to say that spiritual values aren't important in changing people's attitudes. But it's not the place you have to start if you want to be successful in reaching out to other groups and passing legislation here in Washington.

But does that mean that you talk about things less directly? Or does it mean actually that the issues you emphasize changed?

It can be a change of, yes, issues. I don't think, for example, today that the school prayer amendment is a big priority for most evangelicals. The faith-based initiative, equality of treatment for everyone, I think is a big emphasis of evangelicals.

We've also shifted to international issues. What that has meant, practically speaking, is that on international religious freedom, we work with Tibetan Buddhists. On trafficking of women issues, we work with Gloria Steinem and all the feminist groups to pass legislation. That means on the issue of Sudan, where 2 million Christians have died in a civil war over 20 years, we can and must work with the Congressional Black Caucus to pass legislation.

That's a very different kind of mentality than simply saying, "Well, we're right. Everyone else is wrong, and you've got to stomach it, no matter how much you dislike our agenda." It's starting not with our religious values, but with the common civic values, including human rights, that everybody should agree upon.

It's sort of like, the way that you go about things are different, but the outcome, the hope for the outcome is similar. Right? Is that true?

On each of these major pieces of legislation -- International Religious Freedom Act, Freedom of Trafficking Act, the Sudan Peace Act -- these have been major landmark pieces of legislation which have been reached by unanimous consent finally on Capitol Hill after years of labor and signed by the president unanimously, with Republicans and Democrats all agreeing, "We ought to do this together."

That's an entirely different attitude and an entirely different methodology for doing politics, and it is successful. The judgment on the methodology of the 1980s is, with a few exceptions, it was not successful. So make up your mind. Do you want to succeed? Do you want to make a statement, or do we want to make a difference? We think today, the younger generation of evangelicals, we want to make a difference.

Talk about how it is to have one of your own in the White House, and what that means in terms of this success, as well. I mean, you have an ally.

Yes, we do have an ally. I mean, we don't overstate that. George Bush and evangelicals probably agree on 75 percent of our issues -- not all. A majority, probably. It doesn't mean we're going to get everything we want, by any stretch of the imagination.

It does mean, however, that we have a president who, I think, as an evangelical Methodist, understands the way we think. In the Oval Office at the signing ceremonies for the Sudan Peace Act, he said, "I know if I don't follow up on this, I'll hear from you," which is to say we had to prod him and he has heard us and done what he could. …

Is it a comfort to your association and to you, having someone like George Bush in the White House?

Yes. I sleep better at night. I slept better at night during the recent war in Iraq, knowing that George Bush is in the White House.


I sleep better at night knowing he is a man who isn't afraid to say he prays, just like George Washington and many other presidents. Yes, it's a comfort. I think he is a man who has a proper humility, who doesn't let his faith or his religious beliefs improperly influence his role as commander in chief. But he's got a healthy balance, and I sleep better knowing it. Sure. No doubt about it.

Something I find very interesting is looking back at the presidents. Jimmy Carter was also an evangelical. So are they the same sort of man? Are they the same sort of leader? How do you sort of differentiate between the two?

Jimmy Carter was and remains an evangelical in good standing. He probably doesn't call himself that. But he is a Southern Baptist in good standing and a Christian, a born-again Christian, who's been active on many of these same issues. Give him credit. But [he is] a very different kind of political person than George Bush. But both [are] evangelicals. Absolutely.

I look at it this way. Historically, presidents have played all kinds of roles -- from Abraham Lincoln, who was the prophet speaking out against slavery, to FDR, who was a man who said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." He was playing the kind of the role of the pastor.

If Lincoln played the prophet and FDR played the pastor, this president has played the role of priest, too. He's comforted the nation in a time of tragedy. That's a role that's appropriate, too. He has a handle, I think, on the spirit of the American people, and doesn't overplay his hand, doesn't engage in sectarian religious talk. But [he] acknowledges that, yes, most Americans have a spiritual intuition about all life, and that's important. …

When you [talk about] pietism, what does that mean?

Pietism is that New Testament-oriented, anti-ritualist, congregational governance attitude of a faith community that emphasizes individual conversion, but also the redemptive role of Jesus Christ, our faith, in all social realms. That is what the influence of pietism is upon evangelicals. Some scholars think it, more than any other vision, has influenced our political views by our role in religion and politics, here in America.

It's a great statement, but I'm still grasping to understand what you really mean. What are the building blocks of that? What does it mean when you say something like that?

What we're talking about is an evangelical view that you can't compartmentalize religion and civil government. If Christ is redeemer, over not just the private, the church, but the public, the state, then the state itself can be redeemed in a positive sense. You cannot, to the evangelical, relegate faith to the private arena only. You simply can't do that. Right behavior coming from right beliefs are two sides of the same spiritual coin.

But that challenges the modern fundamental assumptions about Western political values that, "Well, religion is private. Politics is public. And never the twain shall meet." So by our very pietistic influence, evangelicals are challenging, I would say, the biases of Western political foundation. …

That is a very controversial statement.

Sure. It's very controversial. In 1994, Alan Brinkley, writing in the American Historical Review, said, "This view, this pietistic view of evangelicals," he says, "it's the most challenging thought to conservatism." Why? Because it challenges the idea that religion is for the private realm only, and the idea that you only take publicly accessible arguments into the political arena.

So this pietistic view and methodology challenged the secularists in ways that makes them go bonkers. Of course. But are we storming the ramparts to undo America's separation of church and state? Absolutely not. But that notion doesn't include the separation of values from public life. I hope not. If it does, we're really in trouble.

So your idea is, you can have both at the same time?

Yes. It's possible to have the separation of the institutions of church and state without separating -- wrongly so -- the religious values that Americans have from their civil government. There's no problem here, really. It can be entirely acceptable to believe in the separation of church and state without accepting this notion that, "Oh, well, religion's just private, has no public good."

Why, that's to say the guy on the street who has a problem with drugs can only be treated by somebody who's a secular behavioralist, as opposed to the Christian minister with the Salvation Army, or the Gospel Union Rescue Mission, who comes in and says, "Hey, I love you. Jesus loves you. Come in, and let's work on this problem you have."

You say this drives the secularists bonkers.

Oh, absolutely.

Why? Why would you perceive that it makes secularists just very concerned and worried?

Well, the secularist believes that we're undoing the American experiment -- that we are trampling upon the separation of church and state. The secularist wants to relegate religious belief to the margins of public life. The evangelical, with his pietistic influence, says, "Absolutely not. I'm going to bring those religious values right into the center of all of life, including politics."

To which the secular elitist says, "Whoa, Nellie. Stop," and then charges -- erroneously so -- that this is violative of the separation of church and state. Well, it's not at all. But that's what the charge has been.

So to you, as an evangelical, having the president be evangelical is sort of the greatest thing ever, because it's all about that union.

Oh, I would caution those who are worried about evangelical influence. But first of all, representing evangelicals in Washington, I'm not out to create a voting bloc per se. Even if I could, I'm not. Secondly, I'm not here in Washington to broker influence for Jesus Christ. That's not my role.

Why not?

We understand the distinctions between the civil and the religious realms. When we're in the religious realm, we believe importantly in being faithful and obedient to Jesus Christ and his call for righteousness and holiness, and a life in conformity to his values with what are his appropriate civic goals and values.

Those appropriate civic goals and values are those things that we as Americans, generally, regardless of religious belief, can adhere to and accept. We can make a distinction in our mind, as evangelicals, between the two. Of course.

I know you make a distinction, but it seems like they go hand in hand to me. I mean, it seems like you are brokering what you perceive as Jesus would want.

No, I'm not a lobbyist per se, brokering a voting bloc for Jesus Christ upon unbelieving America. No, not at all. I'm bringing those civic values [that], for example, Tibetan Buddhists and liberal Jewish community people had for international religious freedom on behalf of an international religious freedom.

I'm bringing my faith system, yes, to the trafficking argument -- modern-day slavery far exceeding any slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth century -- today with Gloria Steinem and feminist groups to pass legislation on subjects such as the Sudan Peace Act, working with the Congressional Black Caucus.

These are values which, in each case, all of us ought to be able to agree upon as Americans. So I'm not shoving my values down anyone's throat, in my opinion. I'm collaborating with others for commonly accepted values, which we all agree are important. That's a distinction from how we did politics in the 1980s. … In the 1980s, evangelicals were on the fringe; newcomers to politics, all excited about what they were going to do to change America.

Well, we've matured. We've become more mainstream. We've understood we have to challenge with others. Buddhists, feminists, gays -- yes, even gays -- on behalf of AIDS for Africa. Absolutely. And with the Congressional Black Caucus over the Sudan Peace Act. These are all ways in which we collaborate with others. In many instances, yes, taking leadership, but not in a self-serving, arrogant way, saying, "We're here, get used to it."

No, it's a humble attitude. A spirit-filled servant attitude, which is the way I think Christ would have us respond anyway. In the end, it's more successful. So do we want to make a statement, or do we want to make the difference? … Let's be clear about this. This attitude has ensured the passage of five landmark pieces of legislation. …

What are those five pieces of legislation?

In the 106th Congress, we passed the International Religious Freedom Act. In the 107th Congress, we passed the Freedom from Trafficking Act, and in the 108th Congress, the Sudan Peace Act, the Rape Prevention Elimination Act. Now we're working on the North Korea Security and Democracy Act. We're working on that now, and hopefully optimistic about its future. But in the last six years, five major pieces of legislation. I haven't even mentioned the Global AIDS Bill, which the evangelicals have taken leadership in passing.

Are you having more success with President Bush in the White House?

Oh, for sure. … The difference is that, in the Clinton administration, the president sort of understood who we are, but didn't have the heartbeat of evangelicals. Let's face it. He didn't have that. God bless him, I like him, but he didn't have that.

This president somehow -- and I think his staff -- have the heartbeat of evangelicals. So we don't need to be constantly calling up the White House, or whatever, lobbying them on behalf of our agenda. I think that we see eye to eye. They understand how we think.

But there's been another difference. Evangelicals have come to realize you can't save the world with politics. You can do good. You can maybe bring peace to Sudan. You can cut down on trafficking of young girls. You can work on persecution issues. You can attack AIDS in Africa. But you're not going to save the world with politics.

So there's been a kind of maturing, if you will, on the part of evangelicals about what you can accomplish that's helped as well. So we're not pushing the margins on what's acceptable. That being the case, it's easy for this administration to buy into our agenda. …

So you think he really actually understands the community? President Bush really has the heartbeat?

There was always this objection in prior administrations -- and I've been through seven, since coming to this town when Jimmy Carter was in office. There was all this idea -- "Oh, if we can only get a staff person in the White House who would carry our concerns to the president." Well, a private joke inside the Beltway nowadays is, "We don't need a staff person. We've got one in the Oval Office." What do you want, a staff person, or do you want the president who understands you? I'll take the president. …

When I look at the speeches when [Bush] was the governor of Texas, versus the speeches that he gives now, I notice he was much more direct to sort of claim his faith as the governor.

Freely so, yes. Yes.

His faith hasn't wavered, I'm assuming. So talk to me about the difference in how he has to present himself to the nation, and why.

The president is the president of all the people. He's president of not just the Protestants. He's president of the Catholics, and of the Muslims, and the orthodox and the unbelievers. So should this president cater to the evangelicals? I don't think so. Frankly, I don't think we can go to this administration and ask for favors. We don't.

But even if we could, we shouldn't simply because he's an evangelical. We have to make arguments based upon what is good for everybody. If it's not good for everybody, then you're wasting your time. …

Part of that is because evangelicals have matured; not only about our methodology in politics, but we've also come to understand you can't change America solely by politics. It won't happen. You have to change the hearts and minds of the public on issues like abortion. We're not going to statutorily prohibit abortion in America, I don't believe. Not for a long time.

Is patience important? Yes, as it was on slavery. Absolutely. Patience in the pro-life community has been rewarded, in effect, through eight wilderness years of Bill Clinton, a pro-choice president with the passage of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. There's a little bit of patience involved in this, and we'll have to show it.

Let's talk specifically about that for a minute. It's not that you don't advocate a pro-life agenda. It's that you don't think America's ready yet?

No. I'm a solid pro-life advocate, who worked on behalf of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, absolutely, and rejoiced when the president signed it here the other day. I'm just more realistic about what we can do through the legislative process to enact our agenda. I think it might be as influential, for example, to put sonograms in shopping malls, so that people see the origins of life and look at it, right there, on a sonogram, as it is to pass a bill in Washington.

So again, it's getting the hearts and the minds of America, instead of just sort of putting a law in that means X?

Yes. Yes. I think it means we have to persuade the public of our views. We have to bring other Americans around to our convictions. Hopefully convictions that are respective of everybody's religious freedoms, not just our own.

Is it all in the marketing, in a way? I don't mean to sound crass about that. But when you talk about going into a shopping mall, when you talk about these sort of softer approaches to including everybody-- … Is it a way of marketing this in a more palatable way for America?

Well, I think there's a generational change, too. Let's face it. Whether they like to hear it or not, the religious right leaders of yesteryear are not the leaders of today. I say that with all respect to the religious right leaders who championed causes, the pro-life cause, when others would not.

So with all due respect, I say, "Thank you. But your leadership has waned, because a new generation and a new style have come into influence, and frankly is more effective in the long run."…

Let's talk about the stereotypes. You said it really makes you angry.

Well, I bristle at the stereotype. The stereotype is that all evangelicals are religious right. It ain't so. Sorry, but it's not true. The evangelicals are a broad movement in this country -- 51-plus denominations, 41 million people, most of whom are sympathetic to the concerns and agenda of the religious right and respect the religious right leaders. But they don't exactly share the style, nor always the substance of that leadership. It's a misnomer, and probably ought to be buried. Doesn't do us any good, frankly, and simply typecasts the whole movement to the rest of the world in ways that are unfair to evangelicals.

Frankly, the bottom line for evangelicals ought to be, how do I witness my faith in Jesus Christ to other people? If we're stereotyped, doors are closed. It's true. If we're stereotyped as the people next door to you [who] certainly don't want to get to know, how does that help a witness for Christ? Doesn't help at all. …

Let's talk about 9/11. You were talking about Bush, and how, in addition to being president, he's also had to be priest. I think it was after 9/11, at least to the rest of the country, that he really emerged as a leader, and his presidency was really sort of clarified at that moment. Can you talk about that? ...

I think the way a president, who is an evangelical, should respond to evil is characterized by how this president, George Bush, did. For example, at the National Cathedral Service of Remembrance for those who died in the Twin Towers attack, I think the president responded wonderfully, acting in a certain sense as presidents always have: as both prophet, as Lincoln; as pastor, as FDR; and at times, as priest, as Ronald Reagan did in the Challenger accident, when he was president. This president has responded similarly as sort of a priest who's comforting the nation in the loss of the Columbia, and again in the attack on 9/11. That's an appropriate role for the president.

When you read the Bible -- and you understand this -- there is really a distinction between good and evil and that there is evil on this Earth. Talk to me about that sort of idea, and how it works into your framework.

Well, I think if there is absolute good -- and there is -- and God is absolute good, then you have to believe that there is also evil. The Bible teaches that there is an evil at work in the world, and the evil works are obvious. They are in death and destruction that we wreak upon others. That's what happened on 9/11. It was an evil act, done by evildoers. Yet, was the president vindictive? Not really. Was he revengeful in those days right after? No. I think he exhibited a calmness of spirit that comforted the nation. Would there be a response? Absolutely. But was it revenge? No. …

He used language like "evildoers" and "crusade," and those sort of words. Were you at all surprised?

Well, when you heard him say the word "crusade"-- I would have never used it, and I don't think he has since. I think it was a mistake, if you will, because I don't believe this is a conflict of civilizations per se. I think it's a conflict that's occurring within Islam itself.

But I don't interpret what's occurring today in the world in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or whatever, as a war between Christianity and Islam, and have been very clear in attempting to communicate that attitude and belief on the part of evangelicals to the rest of the world. It's different from what some others have said. …

What is it that's changing right now? Why is the evangelical community growing?

Why is it growing? Because we're evangelistic. We grow because we share our faith with others, and we're compelled to.

But you always did. Right?

Well, now we just get more publicity for doing it. I mean, we are a movement. We're not just a tradition. We aren't the Episcopal, Lutheran, or Presbyterian traditions. We are a movement of evangelicals across all denominational lines.

Frankly, what evangelicals are doing and thinking is a concern to our people. Some are deathly afraid of us -- wrongly so. But you know, we're making a difference. We're changing the world for Christ in places like Sudan, in places like Africa. That's of interest to politicians. Why?

Because religion leads politics, not the reverse. Religion leads politics. What we do, as religious leaders, as people of faith, will influence politics. But it's not the reverse. What politicians do in town doesn't influence us frankly as much as the reverse, if that makes sense.

It makes sense in the sense that you are speaking to a potential constituent base, and that's a believing base. So it doesn't go the other way, it doesn't seem. I mean, a politician isn't going to convince somebody to do anything. It has to be the other way around -- is that what you're saying?

Yes, it's not just that a constituency has to influence a politician. But as a trend line, sociologists would say that what religious believers think is going to influence Washington more than the reverse. Then politicians are going to influence the rest of the nation.

Thus there has been, over the last 20 years, an enormous influence of evangelicals upon politics. But it's not purposefully, and only an influence there. It's simply a causal result of a movement which has growth, a movement which has greater influence today in all areas of American public life than we did 20 years ago. So it wouldn't be surprising that we would influence politics. …

Can you talk about George Bush coming [to Washington] before he was president, before he was a major leader?

Sure. I didn't know him that well. But I do remember one incident. … When George Herbert Walker Bush was president, his son was assigned, I think, to evangelicals, and there were concerns -- in fact, I had been part of raising the concerns -- about federal funding of pornographic art and, yes, the first meeting in the Oval Office of gay rights leaders.

I had raised some of these concerns. [I] was at a meeting on Capitol Hill, in which the son of the then-president, George Bush, came in to explain himself, explain his father, explain the administration. I'll never forget it, because Paul Wyrick, who was the chairman of the meeting, considered by some the maven of the religious right, said, "Well, Cizik, you're a diplomatic type. You do this."

So others spoke, of course. I wasn't the only one. But I was assigned, "Explain your concerns." And we did, and it was obvious. We didn't need to persuade George Bush of our concerns. He knew them. He handled it deftly, without disagreeing publicly with his father in an inappropriate way. … As the son of the president, he was saying, "I not only share your concerns, but I'll do what I can." That was all that was needed, and that was midway into the first Bush administration.

So you felt like you had an ally?

Oh, absolutely, yes.

From the very beginning?

Yes. I think it was purposeful on the part of the president to select his son to be a liaison to fix some of these issues with the conservatives, the evangelicals. He indicated by his encounter with us on multiple occasions that he understood us. He wasn't just a fixer who was trying to fix a political problem. He was somebody who understood us, and had a heart that was akin to our own.

So he left the meeting in which I had engaged with him on this issue. I'm sure he doesn't remember it. But I'll never forget it, by [his] having won over a room full of conservative activists. No doubt about it. …

Do you think, even in the late 1980s [when Bush was working for his father's re-election]-- I mean, obviously he wasn't a politician yet. But do you think this is the foundation of him starting to build this relationship with evangelicals?

No, no. I don't think so. I don't think he would have had any idea. Frankly, we would have had no idea, because if you were to ask me midway through the Bush administration at that meeting on Capitol Hill, in which George Bush came to smooth over some of the difficulties with conservative evangelicals, that this man would be president, I would have said "Never."


It just never struck me as a guy who was even interested to pursue the presidency. There was just a humility about him. I mean, a sort of understatedness that he was here as the president's son. Certainly not as a guy who was attempting to craft a future, a political future. I would have never thought that. …

In the State of the Union, [the president used the phrase] "wonder-working power." … Can you talk about that specific moment, and what it means?

The president, in his State of the Union, used terminology designed, I think, to indicate the evangelicals that "Hey, I'm one of you," so to speak, referring to the "wonder-working power." It accomplished his purposes. He sent a message, I think, to evangelicals, "Hey, I understand."

Ultimately, theologically, the wonder-working power is the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. Evangelicals know that. But he was sending a signal of identification, I think; whether intentional or not, I don't know. We perceived it as intentional. How could it appear otherwise? How could it appear in a presidential State of the Union message except by some intent to identify with a community that is the faithful? Was it wrong? I don't think so, in any way.

I wondered myself whether this was George Bush or whether it was the speechwriter. Mike Gerson is a skillful speechwriter, a graduate of Wheaton College, an evangelical himself. So one has to always wonder, how much is it the speechwriter, and how much is it the president? We'll never know. …

What do you think the likelihood [of Bush winning re-election] is? You should know a little bit about that. You think he pretty much has the vote wrapped up? Or do you think--

The evangelical vote? Well, the issue isn't really whether or not evangelicals will decidedly support George W. Bush in this election. The real issue is how many will turn out to support him. In the last election, he didn't get at least 4 million votes that Bob Dole got.

Why not? Well, they didn't turn out. To win in 2004, he'll have to get a bigger turnout -- not just a plurality; that's a given -- but a turnout that will make the difference. That's why he's listening to evangelicals. …

When I started looking into what it means to be evangelical, I was sort of surprised -- this is just probably being nave and not knowing enough about it -- that more evangelicals weren't sort of liberal Democrats, in the sense that they were all out for government policies to help the poor.

Why not? Yes.

I mean, I was curious. I thought about what I think Jesus stands for. I thought, "Well, that lines up more on paper with the Democratic ideals." But why isn't that the case?

Because we're also realistic about what government can do. … Because the Republican Party understands the role of faith in changing society. … It not only appeals to evangelicals, but it's openly solicitous of their ideas and their opinions. The Democratic Party just does not do that. I do not get any phone calls from Democratic Party leaders, nor their candidates, to inquire as to what evangelicals think. … [E]vangelicals aren't -- myths notwithstanding -- the GOP of prayer. I mean, we're not. But the Democrats don't even reach out.

[But it seems] most evangelicals are Republican if you look at the polls.

Let's put it this way. The Democratic candidates in recent years have gotten about between 30 percent and 40 percent of the evangelical vote. So they're not without at least a foothold on the Democratic leanings of evangelicals. But Republicans have reached out and said, "We'll identify with you on key values issues" -- the pro-life issue for one -- and that's been the difference. Whereas the Democratic Party doesn't even allow you in the party practically -- they certainly won't give a speaker a platform role at a convention if he or she is pro-life. So there's been it seems almost a purposeful distancing from evangelicals, which I don't understand as someone who grew up a Democrat. …

Let's talk about old churches versus new.

People have wondered, why are conservative churches growing? In fact, there was a book by that name. Why are conservative churches growing?

The answer is, they offer moral certitudes in a world without any certainties, it seems. They offer moral absolutes to people who are looking for moral guidance, and a way to live in a crazy, mixed up world. Then they combine it with contemporary music and worship. It's appealing, and they're growing. There's a mega-church formed every two weeks in America. Meanwhile, mainline Protestantism, sometimes called the sidelines, is dying.

You said the average age of a pastor was 59 in the mainline--

No, I think the average age of parishioner in a mainline Protestant church is probably in its 50s, and it's probably in the high 30s or 40s in an evangelical church. So you have a future baby boom that's only going to enhance the growth of evangelicalism in America.

So the highly regarded, esteemed church historian, Dr. Martin Marty, said at an NAE Convention -- that's our association -- the National Evangelical Association meeting this spring, "You've won." A surprising admission from a man who has written a column for The Christian Century, which is the mainline Protestant magazine.

"You, the evangelicals, have won." Well, what's he acknowledging? He's simply acknowledging that evangelicals are now the center of gravity for American Protestantism.

That must feel good.

Well, I caution people against triumphalism, because hey, our churches are aging, too. Our congregations have challenges unlike never before, in confronting a culture that is not just secular, but post-modern, where all truth is relative. So we have our own challenges.

So there's no cause for triumphalism. But it is true that when you offer people moral guidance, the Scriptures, unadulterated, spot on, as they say, people respond, because they want that. It's not just a felt need. You know, it's a real need. …

home · introduction · president and his faith · america's evangelicals · interviews
discussion · producer's chat · links & readings · press reaction · tapes & transcripts
credits · teacher's guide · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted april 29, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright © brooks kraft/corbis
web site copyright WGBH educational foundation