I've been saying this in seminary and journalism classrooms for several decades, but let me say it again.
For a long time now, the First Amendment has been a kind of painful blind spot -- a blind spot with two sides. On one side there's the press and, on the other, there's the world of religion. The problem is that these two powerful forces in American life just don't get along.
Yes, there are lots of journalists who just don't "get" religion, who don't respect the First Amendment role (that whole "free exercise of religion" thing) that religion plays in public and private life. We talk about that problem a lot at this website.
However, there's another problem out there, another stone wall on which I have been beating my head for decades. You see, there are lots of religious leaders, and their followers, who just don't "get" journalism, who don't respect the First Amendment role that a free press plays in American life.
Some people can see one side of that two-sided blind spot and some people can see the other.
We just lost one of the rare people in Washington, D.C., who saw these problems on both sides of that blind spot with a clear, realistic and compassionate eye. That would be Michael Cromartie, who for years organized constructive, candid, face-to-face encounters between mainstream religious leaders and elite members of the Acela Zone press. News of Cromartie's death -- at age 67, after a battle with cancer -- spread in social media on Monday.
There will, I am sure, be detailed obituaries in major media. After all, Cromartie had contacts in most of those newsrooms. Right now, the best place to find tributes to his work with the Ethics and Public Policy Center is at Christianity Today. The headline: "Died: Michael Cromartie, the Church’s Ambassador to Washington."
Personally, I think it would have been more accurate to say "mainstream evangelicalism's ambassador" to Beltway-land, since that was the world in which Cromartie had the strongest influence. However, as an evangelical Anglican he worked with leaders and thinkers in a wide range of other pews, as well. Here is a major chunk of a CT tribute:
Cromartie brought Christian thought leaders and secular journalists under the same roof at the Faith Angle Forum, held every year since 1999. Through his work as EPPC vice president, he evoked theologians and philosophers as he advocated for thoughtful engagement in public policy and civil discourse.
In a political arena often dominated by competition, power grabs, and culture war debates, Cromartie stuck out by offering a friendlier, humbler approach. It’s this attitude that his colleagues remember most and cite as his greatest legacy.
“It can’t be said of many people, but everyone Mike touched was influenced for the better,” said Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “His passing leaves a huge gap in American public life and in the lives of his friends. ..."
People on the conservative side of things will, I am sure, note that Cromartie had strong ties to leaders on the left and in the center of the evangelical world. That's true, but that is also a statement of reality for anyone working in Washington over the long haul. Note these two voices in the CT piece -- the first a leader among young cultural, doctrinal conservatives and the latter a trusted member of the recent Democratic administration.
“Michael Cromartie was different from what most people think of when they think ‘evangelicals and politics.’ Thanks be to God,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who admired his humble character and effective engagement with journalists.
“After his cancer diagnosis, every time I saw Mike he would say, ‘Pray like a Pentecostal.’ We did,” Moore shared with CT. “Mike now is in the presence of the Lord of Pentecost. We will miss him here, and must pray for more like him.”
Michael Wear, a former White House faith adviser under Barack Obama, described Cromartie as “one of Christianity's principal ambassadors in Washington, [representing] Jesus with joyful confidence.”
“I've seen the effects of his life and work up close, and both the church and the nation are better off because of him,” said Wear. “Michael was a friend whose encouragement I did not deserve, and whose insight has shaped my work, my life, and my faith. In the days ahead, we should look to Michael's example to stoke our imagination for what a faithful public witness can look like in this moment.”
This tribute also includes a nice chunk of biographical material from a 2013 Timothy Dalrymple profile of Cromartie for Christianity Today.
Cromartie converted to Christianity as a teenager in the Vietnam War era, proclaimed himself a progressive pacifist, and joined a Christian commune. Shortly after joining Chuck Colson's then-new Prison Fellowship, however, he was literally mugged by reality when thieves invaded his hotel room in Denver in 1978 and left him bound and gagged. (Cromartie managed to convince the burglars to leave his new tie so he could still attend his meetings with dignity.) That experience and Colson's influence produced a paradigm shift, and Cromartie went on to work for the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he is now vice president and director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life project. ...
He has ... helped countless journalists, whose only map to evangelicalism reads HERE BE DRAGONS, chart a more finely drawn geography of the American Christian landscape. In fact, the concept for the forums took shape as Cromartie received one call after another from knowledgeable journalists who wanted to know whether all evangelicals hate sex, or whether he could provide contact information for the author and publisher of the Book of Ephesians.
That last line is a classic.
I think there is only so much that one can learn about Cromartie and what made him tick by reading facts and words of praise in a profile. If readers really want get a feel for his work, then please read the long transcript of "Myths of the Modern Megachurch," one of the Key West forums in which Cromartie introduced the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to a room of elite reporters. The respondent to Warren's remarks was David Brooks of The New York Times.
This event is not about Cromartie, but you can see his guiding hand in much of its contents. Michael was just doing that thing that he loved to do.
Memory eternal, to a man who loved both sides of the First Amendment.
NOTE: The EPPC staff are collecting Cromartie tributes at this site.