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In the large arena that was the world of Michael Cromartie, sitting next to him on his living room sofa in soft morning light, the front door letting in enough quiet to hear the birds sing, was more than rare. It was wrong.
It meant the world had tilted, the world where Mike’s eruptive, boyish laugh, his rapid-fire commentary on anything from op-eds in the morning’s Washington Post to NBA losses, was slipping. He worked at spoonfuls of yogurt the morning of our last visit, July 19 to be exact, the bones on a face thinned by cancer jutting as he chewed, the Post lying unopened on his lap. He coughed as we talked about kids, recent travels, health, and death. Politics and the world of modern evangelicalism, the things that absorbed Mike’s attention for 40-plus years, receded. “I’m not afraid to die,” he said, stating facts. “It will be glorious to meet my Savior. But for crying out loud, there’s so much work I still have to do.”
A hurtling career as Washington’s evangelical expert and chief networker on all things faith-based subsided over the summer into muted conversations at home, his wife Jenny alongside with steady kindness. A 15-month battle with aggressive stomach cancer that surfaced first in 2014 as gastric lymphoma, ended Aug. 28. He died at home after a brief hospitalization, with his wife Jenny and children Ethan, 30, Eric, 28, and Heather, 25, around him. He was 67.
While vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a Washington think tank, Mike also served as a Bush appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, rising to become its chairman and traveling the world on behalf of the persecuted. He founded the Faith Angle Forum, a conference series bringing leading journalists together to hear eminent religious thinkers on current topics.
On the coffee table was a booklet about the Forum. As we talked about how the series would carry on, grown now to include more than 200 journalists, Mike opened emails on his phone to read aloud. That morning New York Times columnist David Brooks, a regular Forum attendee and trusting friend, had written to remind him of its legacy. The tributes and postmortems were beginning, I realized. How fitting, because Mike would want to know what people were saying about him.
The Forum events grew out of a New York Times reporter’s call in the 1990s, asking Mike about a sex-and-culture debate raging among Southern Baptists. When Mike cited Ephesians to help the reporter understand the Baptist position, she interrupted: “What was that book you just mentioned? Who is the author? Who is the publisher?”
For evangelicals to be understood in public life, Mike realized, mainstream media needed remedial education, he said: “I began to get a lot of questions from really smart journalists that were really dumb.”
The two-day, twice-a-year events focused on current-event topics where Mike recruited top religious thinkers to lecture and take questions from leading journalists. The networks, cable news, and top newspapers and magazines were represented (and sometimes WORLD Magazine). Atheist commentator Christopher Hitchens was a devoted attendee, debating life and afterlife into the night with Carl Cannon of RealClearPolitics, plus others. Pastor and theologian Tim Keller led a session on the Protestant right in 2013 that drew lasting notice for his discussion on marriage. Mike was the lubricant keeping the weightiest and most divisive conversations lively and warm.
“It can’t be said of many people, but everyone Mike touched was influenced for the better,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson told Christianity Today. “His passing leaves a huge gap in American public life and in the lives of his friends.”
Mike’s backstory mattered too, casting in relief the large public persona. Young Life played a never-forgotten role in leading him to faith in Christ. An Army draft and time spent as a conscientious objector delayed his college entry. At Covenant College he embraced the work of Francis Schaeffer and John Stott, breeding a lifelong affinity for Reformed Presbyterianism and Anglican renewal.
“He was a one-man Google before Google existed, but he was remarkably faithful to his Reformed Protestant faith in a town where many wavered.” —Os Guinness
Mike also took a post-Watergate interest in Chuck Colson. In 1976 he attended a book signing in Chattanooga for the Nixon White House attorney, an ex-con, upon the release of Colson’s book Born Again. Others stood in line for the author’s autograph while Mike engaged Colson in conversation. The lifelong friendship that emerged is often recounted for Colson’s influence on Mike, but it was in large part the other way around. Colson learned the deep roots of intellectual Christianity while Mike served as his assistant during the first days of Prison Fellowship.
The years following work with Colson proved humbling, winnowing. Mike and Jenny lived around the corner from me and my husband Nat in Arlington, Va. In late afternoons he’d appear curbside, wanting to show off the stretch limo he’d be driving that night. He was dividing his time between grad school and writing a thesis while moonlighting as a chauffeur and NBA team mascot. Several times a week he took the train to Philly, where he changed from his limo tux into his furry costume. The doors on K Street in those days stayed shut, but Mike embraced his role as Hoops, the 76ers’ mascot. After a game Mike would fling open the locker room doors, eager to introduce a visitor to Bobby Jones and Dr. J, unmindful he was still dressed in overgrown animal fur.
Ernest Lefever at EPPC hired Mike in 1985 as director of evangelical studies, a looming subject area with the rise of the Christian right. Mike devoured every new book and conversation on the topic, and his Rolodex became sought-after for reporters and public officials. He shared it generously when it was in the service of good causes, recalled World Journalism Institute (WJI) founder Bob Case: “Mike had established relationships with all the influential Christian and honestly reflective non-Christian journalists. No one had a better reputation, and he was tireless in his willingness to mentor aspiring journalists.”
WJI students recalled messages from theologian Carl F.H. Henry, conversations with columnist Ross Douthat, and a discussion between Brooks and Atlantic journalist (now editor) Jeffrey Goldberg—all moderated by Mike and made possible through his unrelenting desire to connect people over public policy and Christian ideas, usually amid laughter.
Beneath the fun lurked a stiff theological core. Mike was an early advocate for the Manhattan Declaration on marriage and religious liberty; he stood by his own Episcopal congregation, The Falls Church, as it endured a lengthy court battle and lost its colonial-era property over fidelity to Biblical belief. In 2016 he spoke against evangelicals endorsing Donald Trump.
“He was a one-man Google before Google existed, but he was remarkably faithful to his Reformed Protestant faith in a town where many wavered. He always stood up for what he believed,” said Christian author and social critic Os Guinness. Guinness said he regarded Mike principally as a friend, and they met regularly over meals at Arlington’s Metro Diner. Guinness was with him in mid-August when Mike learned his cancer would soon take his life. “He wasn’t asking, ‘Why me?’ He was asking, ‘Why now?’” Guinness said of the news.
Mike the friend on the sofa and in the diner, in the end, was the outworking of the solid theological core. In a 2015 interview with WORLD’s Warren Smith he called “Christian sentimentality” the biggest problem facing the church:
“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.”
The thoroughgoing theology made the Cromarties’ dining room table a place for high-profiled thinkers and for high-school dropouts, made his boys’ basketball games more important than meeting with the president. It made Mike say with cancer, “I now answer every email. Every person counts, and it’s a privilege to make those connections.” As treatment and the disease progressed, he said, “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.”