When a public person you know and care for dies too soon, there is a temptation to elevate their historical significance, to cast them as an era’s representative figure in order to persuade easily distracted readers to pay closer attention to the life they lived.
I’m going to give in to that temptation in this column. In the life of Michael Cromartie, an evangelical-Christian impresario dead of cancer Aug. 28 at 67, you could see a larger generational story in archetype — the story of certain boomer-era evangelicals, heirs to an embattled and often self-segregated subculture, who tried to abandon anti-intellectualism and separatism and to establish a new religious center for a fragmenting and secularizing age.
Like many young evangelicals of the 1960s and 1970s, Cromartie began as a pacifist and radical, a Christian of the left, who opposed the Vietnam War and sojourned with the left-wing evangelical activist and author Jim Wallis.
Like many in his cohort, he was eventually drawn into a form of neoconservatism — a literal mugging, in which he was tied up in his hotel room and relieved of his watch and $33, played a role — that was rooted in anti-communism and opposition to abortion, but different in its fundamental values from the Republican Party that it entered and transformed. (Cromartie’s first key job was working for Chuck Colson and his prison ministry, the seedbed for later evangelical-led efforts at criminal-justice reform.)
And like many evangelicals, he ended up working in the peculiar outsider-insider world of conservative Washington, influencing the Republican Party’s counsels even as the wider establishment continued to regard his faith and movement as exotic, disreputable, possibly dangerous.
But more than most, Cromartie did not accept this suspicion and mistrust as permanent or necessary. His great work, which occupied much of the last two decades of his life, was a distinctive exercise in dialogue and encounter: Twice a year, he invited prominent journalists, members of one of America’s most secular professions, into extended conversation with religious leaders, theologians and historians, the best and brightest students and practitioners of varied faiths. These conferences, held in Maine and Miami and Key West, Fla., were purpose-driven junkets, intended to prove that religious believers and professional media elites did not have to be locked in a cycle of misunderstanding and mistrust.
And in the discussion sessions that Cromartie ran they weren’t. There were tense moments and hostile interactions here and there, but for the most part when you were inside his conferences (or helping to choose the speakers, as I did for a while), you could imagine that pluralism could actually work, that religious views could advance by persuasion without encouraging intolerance, that the religious and nonreligious could argue and listen in good faith, that conservative believers could be taken seriously by the media and extend greater trust and understanding in their turn.
This little Arcadia was an extension of its presiding genius’s personality. I was not Cromartie’s closest friend, and for a deeper appreciation of the man’s distinctive qualities I recommend the many tributes from journalists who were closer — particularly Carl Cannon’s eulogy in RealClearPolitics, which captures Cromartie in full.
But he was a personal inspiration to me from very early in my career. Nobody in Washington was kinder to me as a novice journalist, nobody gave me more hope that my own peculiar vocation was worthwhile rather than quixotic, and few men I met in my D.C. years modeled the Christian virtues of faith and hope and charity so ebulliently, without the air of defensive irony that many of us weave around our unfashionable morality and metaphysics.
The world is not a Cromartie conference, however, and the generational story that he was part of has not had a happy ending. When he began his conferences the evangelical right seemed to be in transition from a pugilistic old guard to a younger and less chauvinistic leadership. The administration of George W. Bush was trying to use an evangelical-Catholic alliance to ground the Republican Party in an ecumenical and morally serious conservative religiosity. The arc of evangelical engagement with the culture seemed like it might be bending upward, in the direction that Cromartie’s own efforts pushed.
But the Bush project failed, the secular backlash was intense, the sexual revolution routed moral traditionalists, and in the Republican Party ethno-nationalism replaced religious conservatism as the coalition’s strong cement.
Meanwhile, my own Catholicism was pulled back into its 1970s-era civil war, while Cromartie’s fellow evangelicals have slipped backward as well. As he was being killed by cancer over the last two years, his co-believers were embracing a defensive anxiety that helped justify support for Donald Trump, and that has elevated caricatures to prominence and influence — not dynamic orthodoxy but prosperity preaching and Christian nationalism, not Tim Keller and Russell Moore but Jerry Falwell Jr. and Paula White.
In this darkened atmosphere, pessimism about the future of pluralism is rampant among religious conservatives, and the hope of persuasion and dialogue has dimmed. In its place there is a renewed interest in separatism and retrenchment, and a turn toward exhortation and anathema — a combination that defines the recent conservative-evangelical Nashville Statement on homosexuality and gender identity, and that has generated counter-anathematization in its turn.
This sense of pessimism about Christianity’s relationship to liberalism, the fear that fragmentation may be irreversible and mutual incomprehension inevitable, are feelings that I often share.
But my present work depends on the belief that something less balkanized and polarized and desperate is still possible. And because of Michael Cromartie’s work and example, I can cling to this belief as something more than just the evidence of things not seen. In the small but important world where he made a difference, he will be sorely missed. May God grant him a safe lodging and a holy rest.