An Indispensable Man

By Carl M. Cannon
August 29, 2017

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage: “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” It’s intended as irony, of course: It means that nobody is irreplaceable, a notion considered so profound it’s been attributed over the years to people who never even said it, including French statesman Charles de Gaulle.

Its earliest known source, however, was an American writer and philosopher, an early 20th century socialist named Elbert Hubbard. “The graveyards,” he wrote in 1907, “are full of people the world could not do without.”

I don’t want to pick on Hubbard, even if he penned such dubious tracts as “Jesus Was an Anarchist,” because he and his wife were aboard the RMS Lusitania when the Germans torpedoed it in 1915. Both Hubbards perished along with 1,200 other souls. So I won’t call him an idiot. I’ll just say this: Elbert Hubbard never met Michael Cromartie.

Mike, who passed away Monday after a two-year fight with cancer, was a friend. So I make no pretense of being objective, but I believe this is true: Mike Cromartie did more to ensure that American political journalism is imbued with religious tolerance, biblical literacy, historical insight, and an ecumenical spirit than any person alive. No one is a close second. This man was one of a kind.

He was also gratifying to be around. I once read that Mother Teresa said a Christian’s first obligation is to smile. I inferred that her idea was that if this is working for you – believing in Jesus -- it ought to make you happy. A smile, in other words, fits St. Augustine’s description of the sacraments:  an outward and visible sign of inward spiritual grace. Mike took this to a whole other level. He never employed a smile when a laugh would do, and didn’t stop at laughing when a guffaw was in order.

He couldn’t tell a joke to save his life, but he loved them, and if you told him a funny story, he’d make you tell it again and again – even to people who’d heard it already. He loved going to the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner and wasn’t above cadging a ticket from the journalists he helped with stories, which was pretty much every political reporter in D.C. who wrote about the role of faith in U.S. politics. He didn’t mind meeting presidents at those dinners, although the selfies and snapshots he put on his Facebook page were of Cedric the Entertainer or Will Smith or Washington Wizards guard John Wall.

Yet he was serious about faith and religion in a way that surprised even his friends. New York Times columnist David Brooks told me yesterday that Mike knew every serious Christian thinker on this planet. Reached at Yosemite National Park, Brooks mentioned how he’d learned about most of these people from Cromartie. “I was thinking today how many of the key people in my life he introduced me to,” he said. “Even my wife.”

A big-city U.S. newsroom is one of the most secular places on Earth. Whether journalism’s powers that be realize it or not, this is one of the sources of the rift between journalism and our readers, viewers, and listeners. Mike made it his professional mission to bridge that chasm. In a letter to Cromartie, renowned magazine writer Peter Boyer told Mike simply, “You should be named the patron saint of journalists.”

It wasn’t quite like Daniel in the lion’s den when Cromartie ventured into our world -- Mike liked reporters too much to use that comparison -- but it was unique how much attention he gave us. He was a unique kind of missionary: not trying to convert us, just trying to help us do our jobs better. Along the way he showed his faith to good advantage.

“He made Christianity seem a rational decision, even to non-believing intellectuals, and gave faith an intellectual heft to believing Christians,” longtime NPR religion writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty told me this past weekend. “Mike was the most incandescent Christian I've ever known. He was a man of deep faith and deep intellect, but he wore his gifts and his belief so winsomely that he drew everyone to him, no matter what their faith -- or lack of faith.”

Hagerty described Cromartie as her “go-to person” to explain politics, religion and culture. Dozens of Washington journalists had the same relationship with this lovely man for more than two decades. Now we’re going to have to find our own way.

Or maybe not.

Michael Cromartie’s really Big Idea was something that came to be known as the Faith Angle Forum. From his perch at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Mike had for years hosted luncheons and welcomed curious reporters to his office where he’d hand them a relevant book or dispense a quote for our stories. But in 1999, with a grant from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Mike invited a couple dozen journalists to a resort in Maine to sit around a table for a few days and discuss theology and politics with learned scholars. It sounds boring, I know, but it wasn’t.

“It was,” Economist writer Adrian Wooldridge said, “one of the most pleasant, as well as one of the most instructive, experiences in journalism."

The scholars we invited over the years -- Mike put me on a steering committee of journalists to hash out the ideas -- ranged from famous evangelical pastors (one conservative, the other liberal) to French scholars on Shiite Islam, to political scientists who study America’s religious attitudes. We’ve had Mormon, Jewish, and Catholic college professors, guitar-playing Christian biologists, presidential speechwriters, atheist authors, devout British scientists, Muslim university chaplains.

The conversation was always civil, always enlightening, and always valuable. Nineteen years and 30 such conferences later, a couple of hundred journalists have imbued thousands of newspaper and online stories, radio and TV broadcasts, interviews, books, and magazine articles with more background and nuance than they would have had otherwise.

We moved the Faith Angle Forum from Maine to Key West and then to Miami’s mid-beach section, which Cromartie insisted -- no matter what the map said and no matter how many times I corrected him -- on calling “South Beach.” I think he stuck with that out of stubborn solicitude for LeBron James, who infamously said, when he signed with the Miami Heat, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”

Mike fancied himself an excellent dancer and basketball player. I’d say this was half-true. Notwithstanding the fact that in college he’d been the Philadelphia 76ers mascot – one known for pulling fans out of the stands and boogying with them at half-court -- his dance moves weren’t, let us say, contemporary. Hoops was another matter. As a baller, he was the real deal despite his modest height. A shooting guard at Covenant College, he kept his hand in the game. He taught the sport to his sons, and turned his front-yard into a half-court basketball court.

When Faith Angle was held in Key West, Mike and I would meet there a day early, mostly to ride rental bikes around the island, enjoy some swimming pool time, and look for a pickup basketball game. We rarely found them, but we did find outdoor courts where he and I would play H-O-R-S-E or one-on-one. These contests had a pattern to them: I’d win a few early and then Cromartie would limber up in the warm Florida sun and rediscover the college hoopster inside that middle-aged physique and start draining 20-foot jump shots, woofing and crowing with each made basket.

One year, when we were playing at a recreation center in the African-American part of the island, a neighborhood kid came strolling across the court, talking smack and saying how he could take us both. (In other words, he sounded like Mike.) We incorporated him into a game of “21,” but it immediately became clear that this lad had no game at all. He couldn’t shoot and he couldn’t dribble. He could only talk. I found him annoying; Mike thought he was sweet.

The kid was clearly lonely and desirous of male attention. So Mike talked to the teenager about his home life, about school, about sports, about God. The kid was receptive to it, so much so that Mike tried to teach him how to shoot a free throw. That was a bridge too far, but the young man went away happy. He thanked us, asked us if we’d be on the court again the next day. As he left, Mike said quietly to him: “God bless you.” I could tell that the young man was touched. I know I was. This happened a dozen years ago, and I still think of it anytime I’m tempted to brush someone off. We hadn’t gone to church that Sunday morning, but being with Mike that day was even better for my soul.

Like LeBron, Mike took his talents to Miami, too. But those of us who accompanied him on those trips were loath to think in recent weeks, as we learned about his diagnosis, that in losing Michael Cromartie we were also losing the Faith Angle Forum. As it turns out, handing the baton to a trusted colleague was one of the few concessions Mike made to cancer. It will continue. Hallelujah to that.

“Mike did something rare,” columnist Michael Gerson said recently. “He built a community of honest inquiry on matters of faith, including people outside the faith. I know that conservatives are not big on ‘safe spaces.’ But this is a safe space for the biggest questions of meaning and purpose. With alcohol. On Miami Beach. What other institution can say the same?”

It’s not too much to say that being diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer tested Mike’s own faith. Although he was in his mid-60s, he ate well, drank moderately, and rode his bicycle from his Arlington home to work in downtown D.C. He never smoked. But that wasn’t it. Mike lived with a passion that made him desperately want to continue. In his low moments, he wondered aloud, “Why me? I love my wife, my kids, my job. I don’t want to leave yet.”

His pastor gave him some Jonathan Edwards sermons to read about heaven, which filled Mike with joy and wonder. He believed in eternal life, and rejoiced in what lay ahead, while simultaneously mourning his kids, Eric, Ethan, and Heather, and their mother, his beloved Jenny, as well as his work here on Earth. His fellow believers understood the dilemma. “This is all so utterly sad,” Gerson told me. “Death is particularly unfair for someone who loves life so much, and is so good at living it. It is hard to even imagine such vitality stilled.”

A couple of hours after Heather told me, “Dad has gone home to Jesus,” I found myself wandering over to Mike’s office. His aide-de-camp, Sylvia Travaglione, was at her desk not knowing quite where else to be. Ethics & Public Policy Center President Edward Whelan joined us, and we talked about this dichotomy between Mike’s faith and his will to live. “It was a tension,” Ed said. “Mike handled it with grace.”

He’d have liked that. Grace was a word he and I often used. Sylvia then asked me to email some of Mike’s journalism friends. Taking my cue from Heather, I told them that Mike was now “with the angels.”

 “Yes,” replied Peter Boyer. “And the angels are singing.”

Another, Will Saletan, replied simply: “He was always with the angels.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.