I met Michael Cromartie about thirty years ago. I was a fledgling instructor of religion at the University of North Carolina. One day, out of the blue, he called and invited me to a small conference at the Ethics & Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, DC. The conference aimed to bring together architects of the Christian Right, stalwarts of the secular establishment determined to discredit the Christian Right, and a few historians and journalists to write about the event. Here Mike (as he wanted everyone to call him) displayed a rare gift for assembling warring partisans, who, by lunch, were schmoozing about their kids and grandkids, and by dinner were thinking that the other side might just have a point or two to go home and think about.
In January 2017 Mike received the Mark O. Hatfield Leadership Award from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities for “uncommon leadership” in the Christian values of higher education. The award was a wonderfully appropriate recognition of his contribution to the understanding of religion and public life in America today. Under his guidance, the EPPC set the gold standard, especially for clarifying Christianity’s role in modern society. He managed to challenge both liberal trendiness and conservative traditionalism while retaining the respect of both sides—no small achievement.
Many people, myself included, long admired Mike’s uncompromising Christian presence. He did not wear his faith on his sleeve, but everyone knew exactly where he stood. After many years in the academic trenches, I have come to believe that the local church is the only institution that I can trust to do the right thing, not always immediately, but in the long run. Mike was one of the few people able to further the local church’s work in the highest reaches of the journalistic and public policy worlds.
Mike’s long-standing friendship meant a great deal to me personally. He made clear that he cared, really cared, about people with a great warm heart of genuine sympathy as well as empathy. His sense of humor and knowledge of just about every joke (lame and otherwise) known to human kind were not only legendary but also said something about his utter lack of pretentiousness. That attitude was—and remains—sorely needed in a world as sadly torn as this one.
The courage Mike displayed in the face of grave health challenges was an inspiration to others facing the same kind of trials. His death on August 28, at the age of 67, was not unexpected. Every time I saw him in the past couple of years, I walked away strengthened by his example of steadfastness in the face of adversity. Many sayings have become trite from over-use, yet sometimes they serve the situation perfectly. And so here I repeat a wise saying widely attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” The quotation is apocryphal, some say, but no matter the source, it applies to Mike, who exemplified the gospel by the resolution and the faithfulness of his life. He used words, for sure, precisely and adeptly, but the way he lived towered above all else.
For all of these reasons and more, I counted Mike a dear friend and, more important, a role model. A true servant he was, to journalism and the world of public policy, and even more so to the uncountable people whose lives he blessed with his wit, his deep knowledge of Christianity, his astute perceptions of how American public culture really works, and his unfailing grace among people of diverse points of view. He showed us how to shoulder the challenge of living faithfully on the small planet we all share.