At Work & Public Square

Mike Cromartie: Celebrating a Life of Quiet, Yet Profound Cultural Impact

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Several excellent articles have been written about the recent passing of Michael (Mike) Cromartie. Christianity Today, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and The Trinity Forum, among others, have admirably summarized the impact he had on the culture. While Mike was a personal friend of mine and well known to our team here at IFWE, we thought you should know more about him because of his tremendous, behind-the-scenes influence as a believer.

Mike Cromartie wrote or edited numerous books, conducted many conferences both for believers and for non-believers, and was constantly engaging with the political issues of his day. However, his main emphasis could be summarized as interpreting evangelical faith to the culture and interpreting the culture to evangelicals.

Especially in this way, he was a model of what we talk about at IFWE as someone who applied his faith to his work and exemplified the character of Christ to those he touched.

He had a profound understanding of how his faith in Christ applied to the political arena and could effectively connect with people, both in the church and in the world.

Interpreting Culture to Evangelicals

Others have talked about the books he wrote, but what I particularly remember are certain snapshots of encounters I had with him. One thing that few people know is the influence Mike had on Chuck Colson, one of Nixon’s “Watergate” hatchet men, who came to Christ in prison and ultimately founded Prison Fellowship. When Chuck became a believer, he needed to be discipled, and Mike took it on himself to expose Chuck to the best and brightest people in the evangelical world.

I met Mike for the first time when he brought Colson to the Ligonier Valley Study Center to spend a few days with theologian R.C. Sproul. They spent full days talking, and I remember walking into the room after they finished and seeing 10 to 15 full flip-chart pages hanging from the walls. Chuck and R.C. had covered many of the objections to Christianity and important ethical issues of personal and public life. This interaction was the foundation of the profound worldview that Chuck Colson wrote about in many of his books and that shaped his emerging prison ministry organization.

Mike also connected Chuck with thought leaders that brought other dimensions to his understanding, such as Richard Lovelace and his Dynamics of Spiritual Life.

It is one thing to write books that can influence thousands and it is another thing to influence one person (Chuck Colson) that can influence millions. This is one part of Mike’s legacy.

Mike also had an early role in influencing the C.S. Lewis Institute and was one I consulted with often when I became president of CSLI in 1987. He regularly invited me to seminars with important thinkers he hosted at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. That helped me to gain a deeper understanding of a broad range of issues relating faith to public life.

Translating Evangelicals to the World

One snapshot of this work is a time that a Washington Post reporter wrote in a front-page article that evangelicals are “poor, uneducated and easily led.” When this caused a firestorm of criticism, the author of the article called Mike and asked him, “What did I say that was wrong or inaccurate?” Mike had the opportunity to explain to him that many evangelicals are wealthy, or relatively wealthy, and that far from being uneducated, some of the most brilliant, well-educated, and foremost scholars and scientists now and throughout history have been evangelical believers. In addition, far from being “easily-led,” he argued, many such people are strong leaders in politics, business, and other arenas of public life. It is especially noteworthy that the writer called Mike, who was recommended to him by others as one who knew the subject but could also engage in a charitable conversation on the topic.

Mike had a kind of humility and winsome nature that drew many non-believing journalists to him. Most people don’t know that at one time he was the Philadelphia Chicken entertaining in a costume during the Philadelphia 76’ers games.

He used his creative, fun nature to be an engaging moderator and a disarming conversational partner on tough issues. In fact, he was by far the best moderator I ever encountered. When we had a meeting, I sometimes invited Mike to moderate.

Other articles written about him have noted his numerous conferences interpreting evangelical faith to non-believing journalists. One story he told me stands out.

Mike got to know journalist Christopher Hitchens, the noted new atheist who wrote God Is Not Great. Hitchens had heard that Anne Rice, the author of The Vampire Chronicles, had come back to faith in Christ in part through reading N.T. Wright’s massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God. He asked Mike to get him a copy of the book. Mike did so and later asked Hitchens what he thought of the book. Hitchens responded that he had tried to read it but couldn’t because of what he described as “white noise.”

Elsewhere, Hitchens said that as a journalist, he could always listen to a position with which he disagreed and be able to accurately describe and somehow get under the skin of that person and feel what it might be like to hold that position. However, he said one group of people that he found it impossible to understand and empathize with were believing Catholics or evangelicals. He similarly described this inability to understand or obstacle as “white noise.”

Perhaps he began to overcome that obstacle through friendship with Mike and other evangelicals such as Larry Alex Taunton. Taunton wrote a book called The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Taunton describes the unlikely friendship he had with Hitchens. It seems that through people like Mike and Larry Taunton, he was increasingly able to hear the gospel. While there is no evidence of a deathbed conversion, there is hope that perhaps Hitchens finally had his ears opened so he could hear through the “white noise.”

Living Out Faith in His Work

Although Mike sometimes felt inadequate intellectually, he was able through his alert mind and engaging personality to minister to the best and brightest believers and non-believers.

Perhaps we can all take this to heart. It is not just brilliance and access to positions of power that count. We can all come to love Christ more and more with our minds (as well as our hearts, souls, and strength), love people, and connect our faith with our personal and public life.

If we live out our faith through our work and are able to care for those around us, there is no limit to the kind of impact we might have on the culture. It is not only the scope of our work but our influence on key individuals that can make a difference.


Photo credit: EPPC

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