Michael Cromartie, a conservative Christian scholar whose willingness to engage across the political and spiritual aisle helped make him an unofficial spokesman for evangelicals and an indispensable resource for journalists, died Aug. 28 at his home in Arlington, Virginia. He was 67.
The Ethics & Public Policy Center, where Cromartie was vice president, said he had cancer.
Cromartie was a six-year member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2004, and a singular figure at the intersection of politics and religion. For three decades, he was a go-to source for journalists trying to make sense of the rise of the “moral majority” and the roots of evangelicals’ support — and opposition — to presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump.
He edited more than a dozen books on religion and politics, appeared on broadcast news and radio programs, and was interviewed by mainstream, conservative and liberal publications. He offered context on some Christians’ opposition to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race and the supposed biblical grounds for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. (A bellicose passage in the book of Romans, he told PolitiFact earlier this month, does not exactly mean “bombs away.”)
“Mike Cromartie did more to ensure that American political journalism is imbued with religious tolerance, biblical literacy, historical insight, and an ecumenical spirit than any person alive,” Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics, wrote in a tribute to Cromartie. “No one is a close second.”
Cromartie, a former progressive who eventually came to describe himself as a “Christian in the evangelical, reformed, Anglican tradition,” was part of a wave of evangelical Christians who believed that engagement in politics and public life was a central tenet of the faith.
But while he described himself as right-of-center, he saw his role less as advocating for a particular position than as pressing for civil dialogue and increased understanding, particularly with journalists who were unfamiliar with evangelical Christianity or religion in general.
“I kept getting more and more calls from very smart writers who knew nothing about faith and religious beliefs,” he told the Weekly Standard in 2010. At one point, he said, he was interviewed by a New York Times reporter who asked him who wrote and published the New Testament book of Ephesians, as though it had recently made its way to print.
Cromartie responded in 1999 by creating the Faith Angle Forum, a multiday retreat, held in Maine and later in Miami, that brings journalists and writers together with religious leaders and scholars.
Held twice each year, the gathering was described by journalist John Micklethwait and columnist Adrian Wooldridge as “one of the most pleasant as well as one of the most instructive experiences in journalism.”
Discussions featured writers such as David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, Ross Douthat and Christopher Hitchens (the late author of “God Is Not Great”) alongside megachurch pastor Rick Warren, theologian Peter Berger, Rabbi David Saperstein and Focus on the Family chief Jim Daly.
Cromartie recalled that while conversations grew testy at times, civility eventually reigned, aided in part by the beachside settings. When, in 2005, one participant asked Warren to identify which people in the room would be damned for eternity, Cromartie gently interrupted.
“Questions about eternal destination,” he said, according to Christianity Today, “are best handled over the cocktail hour soon to follow.”
Michael Lewis Cromartie was born in Charlotte on July 13, 1950, and raised in Atlanta. His father worked in real estate and was later a regional highway-system official, and his mother was the first president of the Democratic Women of North Carolina, a political organization she helped found in 1961. They divorced when Cromartie was a teenager.
Cromartie was a progressive pacifist in his youth, living at a Christian commune in North Carolina as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. While studying psychology at Covenant College in Georgia, he distributed Jim Wallis’ social justice-oriented Sojourners magazine, and went to work for Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry organization after graduating in 1976.
While traveling with Colson to Denver two years later, Cromartie’s political beliefs began to change.
“Irving Kristol says that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. That was quite literally true for me,” he told the religion publication Patheos in 2010. “I was actually bound and gagged in a hotel room at midnight. They hit the wrong guy. I was living a simple Christian lifestyle; they took my watch and my vitamins and my $33.”
The robbery, and subsequent studies of Great Society welfare programs and totalitarian regimes around the world, led Cromartie on the path to conservatism.
He briefly performed as Hoops, a short-lived, birdlike mascot for the Philadelphia 76ers (Cromartie had played basketball himself in college) while studying for a master’s degree in justice at American University. He graduated in 1982 and three years later joined the Ethics & Public Policy Center, which had been founded by Ernest Lefever a decade earlier to apply the “Judeo-Christian moral tradition” to U.S. public policy.
Cromartie also was a senior adviser to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a senior fellow with the Trinity Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based leadership organization.
Survivors include his wife, Jennifer; three children, Ethan, Eric and Heather; a sister; and a brother, painter James Cromartie.
In recent years, Cromartie seemed increasingly frustrated by the adversarial tone of political discourse, and he urged his Washington interlocutors to remember that politics was not the most important part of life.
“It’s too easy in this town to get so stirred up ideologically that we forget our prior commitments,” he said in 2010. “The dead are not raised by politics. There are some things that transcend politics that are more urgent than winning political victories. It’s always very important, when Christian politicians reach across the aisle, that if their opponent gets sick in the hospital then they should be the first people there to see them.”