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The faith angle: Evangelical has become the go-to guy for news media covering religion

SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Cromartie's name first started appearing in national publications when the religious right was staking out its territory in national politics in the late 1980s.

An evangelical with a deep understanding of the movement and keen political insight and connections, Cromartie had written and edited books about rise of the "moral majority." And with evangelical Pat Robertson running for president, Cromartie was becoming a go-to source for journalists seeking some clarity on a topic the mainstream media could no longer ignore.

But many of those reporters then and through the next decade didn't often cover religion, and their queries showed it: One asked him if evangelicals were simply sexually repressed. Another assumed the "Promise Keepers" ministry for men was a political movement. Still another stopped him in an interview to clarify the author and publisher of the letter to the Ephesians as though it was a new title.

While Cromartie was patient and always willing to help, he saw the faith angle to news becoming more apparent to journalists and started looking at better ways to educate the news media on identifying and explaining the religious element in their reporting.

"After receiving so many calls, I decided to host luncheons for journalists on the intersection of religion and politics," said Cromartie, now vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Deseret News' Editorial Advisory Board.

Those luncheons have evolved into a biannual junket, called the "Faith Angle Forum," for a select group of journalists from leading publications to interact informally with faith leaders, scholars and experts representing diverse views on the religious issues playing out either in the background or at the forefront of the day's top stories.

With a Mormon running for president, Catholics suing the federal government over health care mandates and gay marriage dividing Christian congregations, the faith angle in news isn't going away. And Cromartie's phone continues to ring with calls from reporters seeking a quote or explanation.

"There's nobody else who does this," said Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard and conservative political commentator. "He's not an academic who talks in highfalutin terms. He has become the source for so many in journalism as someone who can explain religion to them."

Uncharted territory

The 61-year-old Cromartie didn't plot out his career to become a point man for the media covering faith.

Raised in a southern Christian home in Charlotte, N.C., his family moved to Atlanta, where Cromartie attended high school. He said it was after his parents divorced that the gospel teachings at a church youth camp resonated with him and he converted to Christianity.

"It opened a whole new world to me. I became less self-centered," he recalled.

He joined the religious revival in the late 1960s — a counterculture that didn't get the widespread attention of the hippie movement, although they shared a liberal political view. Cromartie was drafted into the Army, but as a pacifist and conscientious objector, he didn't go to Vietnam. Instead, he was allowed to spend what would have been his military service in a Christian commune in North Carolina.

"My dad was conflicted about it," Cromartie said. "He didn't want me to be in a rice paddy, but he didn't like the idea of an anti-war pacifist, either."

It was after commune life that Cromartie was exposed to just war theory — a theory that argues there are some circumstances where a Christian can justifiably use force to protect the innocent — while attending Covenant College in Georgia and discovered he was no longer a pacifist.

"It's interesting how social context determines what we accept and (do) not accept," he said.

In addition to studying theology and psychology, Cromartie played basketball at Covenant — which likely helped him land a brief stint as the mascot for the Philadelphia 76ers pro basketball team.

At the urging of a friend, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job as a research assistant for Chuck Colson, a convicted Watergate conspirator who converted to Christianity while serving his sentence then launched a prison fellowship ministry. After four years with Colson, Cromartie went back to school to earn a master's degree in justice from American University.

Cromartie was politically the polar opposite of his boss. But it wasn't writing speeches for the conservative Colson or traveling with him that changed Cromartie to what he calls "right of center."

Instead, it was while he was on the road with Colson and relaxing in a Denver hotel room that his political views took a dramatic turn. "There were three muggers who shoved opened my door, tied me up with my neck ties, and they took my watch and a small amount of cash," he said. "They really picked the wrong guy because I was a recent college graduate with no money."

He wasn't harmed physically, but emotionally he was "shaken to the core."

Before getting mugged, Cromartie said, he thought he lived in an unjust society, where police only protected the rich and powerful and government wasn't doing its job to make more society more equal. As a crime victim, he said he became more "calm and reasonable" in his assessment of life and the society he lived in.

"It is an experience that wipes out all innocence and naivete. And it causes one to change one's reading habits and to think more broadly about crime and punishment and life in general," he said. "People on the left and the right need to learn this ... to take a more honest, balanced and nuanced view of politics and life."

Educate the educators

Cromartie has put that belief into practice, drawing praise for his ability to pull together experts with diverse opinions for a panel discussion to educate journalists and others with a stake in knowing how faith influences society.

"I don't like think-tank gatherings where everyone agrees," he said. "We intentionally try to hear from diverse viewpoints and perspectives."

Wilfred McClay, a humanities professor from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who has been a panelist for Cromartie since 1995, said he is not only impressed by the other panelists but also by the journalists Cromartie is able to lure, who represent a wide array of opinions and media.

"I think part of what was interesting for me was how intelligent journalists, even if they are unacquainted with a subject, develop an ability to ask extraordinarily penetrating questions that academics wouldn't think to ask," McClay said.

He recalls a forum where he spoke about the influence of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr on President Barack Obama, and the questions led to a discussion about why aren't there theologians like Neibuhr influencing society today.

"The discussions can be pretty free-wheeling and go anywhere," McClay said.

Cromartie recalls a forum when a writer demanded Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren declare who was and wasn't going to hell. After Warren replied that was Jesus' call and not his, Cromartie broke the tension by announcing, "Discussions about eternal destinations would be best had at the cocktail reception after this session."

Cromartie's skill at convening a group of diverse viewpoints on a topic as emotional as religion and keeping the discussion civil and productive caught the attention of Luis Lugo, a political science professor at Calvin College who was invited to participate on a panel in the mid-1980s.

Now director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Lugo found in his research that religion — particularly evangelical Christianity — was rising as an issue in national politics. And he, like Cromartie, noticed the news media was struggling to explain it.

With a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts in the mid-1990s, Cromartie began to host the luncheons for journalists. Then Lugo asked him to think bigger, and the Faith Angle conferences were created, in which about 20 journalists are invited for three days to an informal setting in South Beach Miami, Fla., to learn from the experts about several religious elements in the news.

"From our point of view, it's how we educate the educators," Lugo said. "A lot of people's perceptions about religion in politics comes from what they read in the media."

He explained that his polling data has shown that next to race, church attendance is the most reliable indicator of how someone will vote and that 70 percent of Americans want a president with strong religious beliefs.

"Religion has to be taken seriously," Lugo said. "We weren't making that case but we saw in our research that it was becoming an important topic."

In addition to his work at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Cromartie has traveled around the world on behalf of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2004-2010, identifying and working with foreign governments to correct instances of religious discrimination and persecution.

"He has his finger on the pulse," Lugo said.

'Elephant in the room'

Cromartie says he and his forum board give a lot of thought to the topics and invitees for the biannual forum, which is no longer funded by Pew, but instead by "cobbling together" donations from several foundations and other groups interested in upping the level of discussion of faith in public life.

In addition to selecting topical subjects and inviting those who would best benefit from exchange, Cromartie has another secret to attracting some of the best in the business to gather in a room and talk religion with scholars and clergy: hold the conference on a beach in Florida.

"That's the genius of it," joked Barnes, a close friend who turned down invitations to attend the forum until a couple of years ago. "When I was finally able to go to one of them I was knocked out at how good it was."

That was in 2009, when McClay spoke on Neibuhr; professors Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame spoke about their upcoming book "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us;" and Frances Collins, an evangelical who was nominated as head of National Institutes of Health, spoke about religion and science.

"He gets people to come and speak whom he doesn't agree with," Barnes said. "They are people journalists have rarely heard of, but Mike gets them there."

Cromartie respects the role of journalism in society and the writers who have come across a faith angle to a story and need some answers. He lives by the adage: "there are no stupid questions." To Cromartie a phone call from a reporter is a journalist doing his or her homework on the issue, and if he doesn't have the answer he likely knows someone who does.

"I get calls from as many liberals as conservatives who want to know what people are thinking. I think they realize I won't push the story this direction or that," he said. "But the key point here is the faith angle is the elephant in the room that people have ignored in the past but can't anymore."