The first time I saw Michael Cromartie, he was riding a bike. We were in the middle of Montana, at a conference to which we had both been invited. Michael had found the complimentary one-speeds that the hotel provided. Still in his business casual travel attire, Cromartie was already on the go, with a grin on his face. That life of indomitable energy entered a new phase on August 28. Stomach cancer forced Michael to leave this world at age 67, far too early in the minds of the many people he had touched around the world, especially in Washington, D.C., where he was long vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Mike enjoyed a good junket, like the one on which we met, partly because of his inquisitive mind, but also because he knew that relationships develop through extended shared experiences, which are in short supply in overscheduled D.C. And Michael was all about relationships. So, when a funder asked him what he would do if money were no object, Cromartie described a first-class experience in which journalists interact with some of the best Christian minds in a setting far outside the Beltway. The result was the Faith Angle Forum, which since 1999 has invited a who’s who of the media world to places like Maine and Florida to hear from people like Timothy Keller, Peter Berger, and George Weigel.
The result is a national press corps that is now better educated on matters of faith than the reporter who sparked the idea originally. In a 1990s-era interview on some matter of Christian morality then roiling, Cromartie quoted from the book of Ephesians. The reporter, unfamiliar with Paul’s ancient letter, asked who the publisher was, as though this were a new release he had missed. Faced with ignorance on a biblical scale, Cromartie could have slapped the person down. Instead, he offered a hand up. Michael offered a hand to many.
Michael Cromartie’s bibliography was nothing to sneeze at. He wrote many fine articles, edited over a dozen books on religion and public life (one with Richard John Neuhaus), and gave fine talks on weighty matters such as Augustinian ethics. But Mike’s real triumph was his Rolodex. He seemed to know everybody, and he knew them because he was gifted at the art of friendship. Mike took a genuine interest in all he met, from the waiter serving his salad at Bertucci’s to media all-stars like David Brooks.
No Pollyannaish “nice” guy, Cromartie knew firsthand that the world could be a rough place. As a young man he was robbed, bound, and held for hours in a Denver hotel room. He interacted with criminals behind bars while working closely with a post-Watergate Chuck Colson in the early days of Prison Fellowship. Being the victim of a violent crime left Cromartie, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, clear-eyed but not bitter. He would sometimes say that he was quite literally mugged by reality, and his politics took a rightward turn. Around this time he was also working his way through graduate school as the frenetic mascot of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. He could hold his own on the court, too.
Cromartie was later appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. I remember him once rolling his eyes at “war on Christmas” talk. Having seen what real wars on religious people looked like, he was not about to come unglued over someone wishing him “Happy Holidays.” Mike had strong opinions and could be blunt, but he always remembered that people were more than the sum of their political positions.
After he finally got off that bike in Montana, the two of us discovered that we worshiped at the same large congregation in northern Virginia, The Falls Church Anglican. Michael was generous with his time and his contacts beyond my ability, as a Beltway bit player, to repay. He was a help on shared causes, with a convening power matched by no one. He would keep an eye out for potential matches in other areas of life, too. In this, as in so much, he was aided by his wife Jenny, one of the few people who could equal Mike in energy and zest for life. Once, while hosting me for an after-church lunch, Mike pointed out the route he took when biking to work, a dozen or so miles away. My prayers go out today for all on both ends of that commute.
The EPPC is titling its collection of the many tributes, “Michael Cromartie, R.I.P.” But the chances of Michael’s resting seem slim. If there is a bicycle in heaven, he has found it and is already scouting the grounds. Michael Cromartie was always on the move, and we on earth are sorry to see him go. By the time the rest of us get to where he is now, I have no doubt that Mike will again be the guy who knows everybody.
John Murdock worked for over a decade in Washington, D.C., and now teaches at the Handong International Law School in South Korea.
Photo: Sharon Gustafson