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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

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.

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