Teaching reporters about Christianity
Q&A | Michael Cromartie, leader of the Faith Angle Forum, talks about his time with Chuck Colson and building relationships with America’s top journalists
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 4/07/15, 11:45 am
Michael Cromartie may be the most influential evangelical Christian in America that you’ve never heard of. He’s vice president at the Washington-based think tank the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he directs both the Evangelicals in Civic Life program and the Faith Angle Forum, which connects some of the country’s top mainstream journalists with experts on religion. Cromartie has been leading the Faith Angle Forum for more than 15 years, and during that time more than 200 journalists have been through it. That experience has made Cromartie the go-to guy when mainstream journalists have questions about religion, evangelicalism in particular. It’s turned Cromartie into an influential Washington matchmaker. Cromartie got his start in Washington by working for Chuck Colson not long after Colson got out of prison, soon after he began Prison Fellowship Ministries.
The Faith Angle Forum is part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. What does that organization do? What’s its genesis and history? The Ethics and Public Policy Center was founded in 1976 by a Christian ethicist named Ernest Lefever. Dr. Lefever’s concern at the time—and he was a member of a mainline denomination—was groups like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches had really bad foreign policy. He wanted to put together a think tank, and he did so with his friend the late Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Some people might remember Jeane Kirkpatrick as the ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan. She was appointed ambassador by President Reagan, and formerly a professor at Georgetown University, who was an expert on international relations and foreign policy and a devout Christian. She agreed with Dr. Lefever that somebody needed to [have] a full-time job of critiquing the really bad public policy statements coming out of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. That’s how the center began, as a think tank to look at church bodies and their public-policy pronouncements. I was hired in 1985 because Dr. Lefever saw the rise of conservative Christians in politics, which at the time was called the rise of the Christian right. He wanted an evangelical in that position to run conferences and put out books and anthologies on responsible Christian involvement in politics. He brought me in because of my own past working with Charles Colson and being in the evangelical world for some time.
What problem did you want to solve with the Faith Angle Forum? As director of the Evangelical Studies in Civics Life program at the center, I … began receiving a lot of phone calls from members of the press and the media asking questions about evangelicals in politics. What’s the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist? Why are they involved in politics? What are their concerns? Why now? Out of that, I began to get a lot of questions from really smart journalists that were really dumb.
I can’t resist hearing what some of those questions were. I can’t resist telling you. About 15 or 16 years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention one summer was having a very public dialogue at their annual convention about the role between men and women in marriage. What is the proper relationship between male headship and female submission? Of course, the secular media just heard about this and on the old program called Crossfire, they were debating, what are the Southern Baptists? Are they trying to oppress women? What’s this all about? I received a phone call out of the blue from a New York Times reporter, and she called me and she said, you’re director of the evangelical studies program there. I have a question for you. What is going on with the Southern Baptists? She said, what is this whole debate about, men and women in marriage? I said, well, the first thing is in the book Ephesians, chapter five, verses 26 and following … She said, stop right there. What was that book you just mentioned? Who is the author? Who is the publisher? Those three questions. I said, oh, I’m sorry. First of all, it’s not a book; it’s a letter. It was written by a man named the Apostle Paul. It’s in a book called the New Testament, which follows the Old Testament. I realized that she didn’t have any idea, no framework, probably had never opened a Bible. … I realized I had to start over from ground zero and say, well, they take very seriously a man named the Apostle Paul, who wrote a letter called Ephesians, and in Ephesians, he says the following. I came away realizing, wow, this smart person doesn’t know our world.
Is that how the Faith Angle Forum came into being? I went to the Pew Foundation and they gave me a grant for several years to host luncheons for journalists. We’d bring in Christian scholars and historians and theologians and Christian ethicists, and 25 or 30 journalists would show up for lunch in our big boardroom. After about two or three years of that, I went back to that foundation, and I said to the program officer, “We’re ready to renew our grant.” … He said something to me that a foundation executive had never said to me before or since, which is, “Think as if money were not an object. What would you do with it?” … What we came up with is this idea, instead of having luncheons for journalists in Washington, why don’t we go to a nice venue out of Washington, say like in South Florida, and invite the journalists there. Make it invitation-only to 20 select journalists from different media outlets, whether it’s The New York Times or National Public Radio or NBC Nightly News producers, The Washington Post editorial writers, TIME magazine, Newsweek, and invite them there and spend two days away. Get them out of their environment with some of the best academics and professors that we can find on any given topic. We began doing this 15 years ago, and it’s been a great success because we get some of the best speakers in the room with some of the best writers in America whose names you would recognize. I moderate the exchange between the presentations, and it’s really a rich dialogue.
We don’t just have two days of, what is American evangelicalism? We talk about varieties of Islam. When Gov. Mitt Romney was running for president, we had sessions on, what is Mormonism? What might it mean if we had a Mormon president? We’ve had sessions on the meaning of forgiveness. We’ve had sessions on bioethics, on religion and the future of the Middle East.
You were Chuck Colson’s first personal assistant. Colson worked for President Richard Nixon and served time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. He converted to Christianity, founded the ministry Prison Fellowship, and became a leader in evangelicalism. He died three years ago this May. How did you get that job? What was it like working for Chuck? Warren, I went to college at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and a friend of mine said, you want to come to Washington for a year through a group, the National Prayer Breakfast group, The Fellowship? … I got there, and he said, by the way, there’s this man who just got out of prison named Chuck Colson and he needs a research assistant, and you seem like an ideal guy to do that. Would you go out and meet with Mr. Colson? The next thing I knew, I was his research assistant. He needed somebody to travel with him. The book Born Again had just come out. He had done seven months in prison. He wrote Born Again. It immediately became a best-seller. We were traveling around the country speaking, talking about the book. I really didn’t network to get the position. I just kind of ended up in it, and it was a great blessing because I got to see a new, strong, thoughtful Christian in his early years minister to prisoners all across the country.
Everybody in Christendom was sending books to Chuck saying read this, read that. It was my job to sort through the wheat and the chaff and say, “This is a really serious person. You ought to read it.” When he would travel, I would try to link Chuck up with serious Christian scholars so that he could bounce what he was learning off of them. Any time we went to a town, I’d find the most important Christian professors in the area and say, “Hey, you want to have a meeting with Chuck Colson?”
You were a young man yourself. It had to have been a tremendous learning experience for you, too, right? I felt like those four years were kind of a graduate school program for me because I was constantly reading and keeping up. I wrote memos for Chuck on who was William Wilberforce, who were the Clapham Sect, how did they overturn slavery, how many years did it take? I did memos on prison reform and on restitution and alternatives to prisons. He would throw out topics, and I’d just go work on them. I had to be a quick study. My undergrad major was psychology, so I wasn’t quite ready for all of this. You know how it is when you get thrown into something and you’re working with a person like Charles Colson, you step up to the plate as best you can.
One of the things that I learned from you is that Chuck Colson was a pretty serious practical joker. Chuck worked really hard, had a strong work ethic, and the way he relieved stress was through his sense of humor. He loved practical jokes, and I was the victim of many practical jokes that he would play on me. Chuck was not the kind of guy who would say, “Let’s go do this to Mike.” He’d think about it days in advance and map it out and then catch you by surprise.
Can you give me an example? One time, a couple of days before a trip, he said, Mike, I don’t need you to go on this trip. Your colleague Gordon will be traveling with me on this trip. I said, that’s fine. Okay. I was a single, young man at the time living in Arlington, Va., and at quarter of 7 a.m. one morning, Chuck came barreling in the door, ran into my roommate’s room and found out it wasn’t me. Woke my roommate up. Then ran into my room and said, Mike, Mike, get up. We’ve got to go. We’re late. We’re late for the airport. I just leapt out of bed and started pulling my pants on and putting shirts on. “Chuck, I didn’t think I was going.” He said, oh, yeah, we’re late. We’ve got to go. Why aren’t you ready? Then, when he saw the utter petrified look on my face, that I had somehow thought I had forgotten, he just roared with laughter and went all the way out to the street where the other people were waiting in the car. He just fell over on the car just with laughter. He knew that I wasn’t supposed to be there, but he wanted me to think I was.
You’ve been in the evangelical world for a long time. What’s the same and what’s different, from your perspective? Are we making progress or are we walking backwards? Secular forces caused many heretofore non-involved American fundamentalist Protestants and evangelicals to become politically concerned and aware. That early engagement in politics oftentimes took on a tone that was harsh, embattled, angry, not as charitable as it could be. Over time, I’ve seen a maturation of the movement. It’s thought, we can’t just be a group of people whose motto is “ready, fire, and then aim,” but more it needs to think through foundational issues theologically. … In the last 10 years, the branding of … what it means to be a Christian in public life began to change in a good way. As much as some people in the media would like to try, we’re more and more seeing some of our leaders being seen as people of some compassion and concern for justice in all the right ways.
What do you think some of the biggest challenges facing the evangelical church are right now? When we’re not doctrinally and theologically rooted enough, we fall prey to something that’s called Christian sentimentality, which has the best of intentions of being empathetic and compassionate and understanding. But it does it to such an extent that it releases the floodgates of doctrinal parameters that ought to keep certain ethical boundaries in place. Sentimentality says, doctrine doesn’t matter. Sentimentality says, Paul may have said it, but he didn’t mean it, or, Jesus may have said it, but we live in different times. We’ve got to get over this. We’ve got to find a way to be both people of the Word who hold onto strong doctrinal theological convictions. At the same time, those doctrinal convictions have got to be rooted in the kind of people that Jesus calls us to be over and over again so that we’re known as people who love our neighbor, as people who are magnanimous at all costs, the first people to be there when a friend, whether they’re a believer or not, is in crisis. When there’s a crisis in the world, a tsunami hits, it’s these relief organizations motivated by Christian compassion that are the first ones on the ground. The more and more that can be lifted up, the better. Sentimentality can do us in if we think that feelings are more important than the truth.
I know you’ve got a pretty busy life, but when you get a little bit of spare time, a little bit of margin in your life, what do you do for fun? I read a lot. I read for work, and then when I’m not working, I read. My wife kids me I haven’t read a novel in 30 years. I know a lot of people love novels, and there are a lot of great novels out there. I feel a sense of urgency to catch up constantly. I guess I learned this when I worked with Colson. I was being self-taught and trying to keep up, catch up, so much more to learn. I’m constantly reading journals like WORLD Magazine but other magazines and journals, secular and Christian and then books. I’m trying to be better about actually beginning a book and finishing it.
What do you want people to say about you when you’re gone? I would love for people to say, “You know, this guy, even when we disagreed, cared about me. Even when he knew that I didn’t agree with him either theologically or politically, his charitable spirit and his love for me was so overwhelming that I at least took seriously what we disagreed about and actually sometimes changed my own views because of his decency.” … [From] the people who serve me coffee, to relatives I’m out of touch with, I’m consciously thinking of, what are the ways I can affirm that person, encourage that person? … That’s one of the things I like about the Faith Angle Forum. We invite a lot of people who don’t agree with us on anything, but we develop a relationship, and over time the conversation leads to deeper things and to other areas. I think it’s out of relationships that God changes lives. Those are some of the things I want to be heard at my funeral.
Within the last few years, you’ve had some health challenges. Tell me about those health challenges and how they changed your perspective. In the last year I’ve had a health scare in finding out that through a blood clot in my leg and through some blood tests that I’d actually had a form of lymphoma in my stomach, which created great concern. … Then, when the doctors said, the form of lymphoma you have was non-aggressive and lazy and could be there for a long time, I then found out that I had some cancer in my colon. Just less than two months ago I had surgery to have part of it removed. In the last year, I’ve had to think a lot about Psalm 90:12, which says, “Lord, teach us to number our days” and remember how few they are in a real, existential, subjective way. When you have to say to yourself, “Okay, is this now my time?” it affects your prayer life; it affects your reading of the psalms and of the New Testament, of the whole Scriptures. It affects the way I heard hymns in church and the way I sang them. Over the last many months, I found myself singing hymns and the words and the meaning bringing tears to my eyes because this is life and death stuff. The best news for me is that, coming out of the colon surgery, the doctor said the pathology report is good. It doesn’t look like you’ll need chemo. There’s no spread to the lymph nodes. I’m now living every day with a sense of urgency and gratitude, because now the verse of Psalm 90:12 is really meaningful. Your days are numbered. You may have gotten off now, but you don’t know how much more time you have. A friend of mine said to me, medical scare has a way of washing the windows of our souls.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Michael Cromartie on Listening In.