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

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."

email: mbrown@desnews.com

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