A Sui Generis Man

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSON

On August 29, my friend Mike Cromartie died. He was 67 years old and is survived by his wife, Jenny, and his three children: Ethan, Eric, and Heather.

In the hours, days, and, probably, weeks, following Mike’s death, there have been and will continue to be a lot of tributes both to Michael Cromartie the man and to his legacy. He will be missed, not only because of who he was, but also because he is irreplaceable.

Douglas Minson, in a Facebook post, best captured why this is so: a combination of a first-class intellect and a world-class temperament. As Douglas wrote, “Anyone who knew Mike knows that he was able to convene conversations with political, academic, and social elites across the ideological spectrum, but what made him so remarkable was that he did so without leaving any doubt of the sincerity of his interest in the other person. What’s more, surrounded by people who make an art form of maintaining a non-committal posture and reserving rhetorical room to maneuver, he never made any effort to conceal his own deeply held convictions and passionate love for Jesus.”

I’ve spent nearly three decades in and around the culture wars. Sometimes as a participant, often as an interested observer. And the qualities Douglas described are rare bordering on sui generis. It’s what made him, in Douglas’ words, “the Apostle to the Fourth Estate.”

A saying attributed to Mark Twain goes “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. (As it turns out, the quip originated with Twain’s “The Gilded Age” co-author, Charles Dudley Warner.) The contemporary Christian equivalent would go “Everyone whines about the media, and nearly all of them do exactly the wrong thing about it.” In this case, “exactly the wrong thing” is a combination of denunciation, claims of victimhood, and epistemic closure.

Such people all-too-often approach non-Christian and/or non-conservative media—it goes without saying that, for many of them, “Christian” and “conservative” are virtually synonymous—the way a SWAT team approaches a suspected drug dealer’s home: a battering ram, followed by shooting the dogs, and, finally, an “all clear.”

Cromartie, while unsparing in his criticism when the mainstream media got things wrong, preferred to (though I suspect that he would have hated being compared to Eleanor Roosevelt) light some candles instead of settling for repeatedly cursing the darkness. He never assumed malice when ignorance and/or a failure of imagination could suffice to explain the problem. So a large part of his apostolate was acquainting the Fourth Estate with Christian ideas and the Christians who articulated them best.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. (Yet another reason that Mike will be missed.) What’s involved is an exchange of viewpoints in which your interest in what the other person has to say—as Douglas wrote—and your trust in their good faith is never in doubt. Without these, it’s just another instance of (to borrow a phrase from Mike’s favorite sport) “working the refs, ” which, however successful in the short term, does little to help the press “get religion.”

What’s also required is an acceptance of what Mike once called “the sociological fact of pluralism,” i.e., the fact that we live in a society made up of people and groups with diverse opinions and convictions. The same Abraham Kuyper who famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” is the same Abraham Kuyper, whose “greatest significance for our own religiously and culturally fractured world,” in the estimation of his biographer James Bratt, was “the way he proposed for religious believers to bring the full weight of their convictions into public life while fully respecting the rights of others in a pluralistic society under a constitutional government.”

“Our unremitting goal,” Kuyper wrote, “should be to demand justice for all, justice for every life-expression.” Now, I doubt that Kuyper could have imagined some of what passes for “life-expression” in 21st century America, but the point stands: We live in a society where most people do not share our deepest convictions. It is incumbent on us to find a modus vivendi that allows for both respect for others and the living out of our convictions.

One such possible modus vivendi goes by various names: George Marsden, James Skillen, and the folks at Cardus, a Canadian think tank strongly influenced by the thought of Abraham Kuyper, call it “principled pluralism.” John Inazu of Washington University School of Law calls it “confident pluralism.”

Whatever it’s called, it involves, in Marsden’s formulation, “supporting the rights of communities [religious and secular] to use their core convictions to define their own standards and to maintain their own institutions and associations, such as charitable works and schools.”

While it’s reasonable to wonder whether that ship hasn’t already sailed, you will never know unless you ask—as Mike understood. And you can’t ask if you are unwilling or unable to engage the people on the other side of the debate in a dialogue in which both sides feel free to express their convictions and are, in turn, willing to respectfully listen to, and possibly even learn from, the other side.

Doing this requires courage, or, to use Inazu’s word, confidence. Mike had both in spades. This was a guy who, while on business trip to Indiana, drove to the childhood home of Hoosier basketball legend Rick Mount and knocked on the front door. (I forget what happened next but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike shot hoops in the driveway.)

The courage and confidence extended beyond matters of basketball. By all accounts, Cromartie faced the prospect of death with grace and confidence in his Savior. To borrow a line from TNT’s Ernie Johnson—now this is a citation Mike would approve of!—he knew who was on the throne.

Of course, he knew this long before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life. His faith wasn’t a hothouse flower that required just the right temperature, humidity, and lighting to survive. If you believe that Christ is truly sovereign over all, then being contradicted or even treated unfairly really isn’t a big deal.

If you are confident that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” then the idea of Christians seeking “parity, not privilege” in the public square shouldn’t be threatening. After all, our convictions are built on a truth no one else can claim: The author and perfecter (archēgon kai teleiōtēn) of our faith rose from the dead.

As will Mike. Until then, look out Pistol Pete, Mike’s got next.

Image courtesy of Ethics and Public Policy.

Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.


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