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

Published: Friday, June 15 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Michael Cromartie, founded the Faith Angle Forum, a conference that introduces journalists to the likes of pastor and author Rick Warren, center, and Mormon historian/scholar Richard Bushman. Michael Cromartie, left, founded the Faith Angle Forum.

Pew Forum on Religion & Public L

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.

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