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Experiences have consequences

Q&A | An encounter with crime led to a change in Michael Cromartie's outlook and politics

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

One common finding in the interviews I've done about careers this year: Almost no one had a long-term plan. Job opportunities, spiritual changes, and personal tragedies all changed the arcs of lives. People either fretted about the unexpected or tried to discern what God was teaching them.

Michael Cromartie emerged unscathed from a year as the mascot of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and has gone on to become vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and an expert on evangelical politics and policy debates. What changed his thinking were a draft lottery number and a mugging-and now he's learning more as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Here are excerpts from a February interview.
Where did you grow up?

Charlotte, N.C., and I went to high school in Atlanta. I became a Christian through a Young Life camp in Colorado. I then went to college but was drafted (you may have heard of the war in Vietnam).
Vaguely. What was your draft number?

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Somewhere down in the 70s. I read all this Christian pacifist literature and became convinced that no Christian should be involved in the use of force. I became a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. Later, I read about Just War theory at Covenant College and was no longer a pacifist.
What was your alternative service?

I had a job at Duke Medical Hospital in the psychiatric unit, and also a job in a Young Life-type capacity to meet the kids in the neighborhood by playing basketball with all the local young people. I was the only white guy on the court. They thought I was either selling drugs or was a narc agent.
What was your faith like at that point?

All of my friends who had been nurtured in their faith at Young Life were reading liberal theologians: Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and others. What really saved me was reading The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason. Francis Schaeffer did a very good job at cutting through the deficiencies of those theologies.
Where were you politically?

Evangelical left. I was a very intense reader of Sojourners magazine, then called The Post American. I'll never forget one night, at the Christian commune where I lived, we went around the table saying what we believed doctrinally and theologically. We had some of the most New-Age-y answers. I said, I believe in the Apostle's Creed, and I also believe that the only thing we have unity about in this room is that we're all going to vote for George McGovern. That's what we were committed to in 1972-there was a politically enforced orthodoxy, but not a religious one.
How did your politics change?

I worked for four years for Charles Colson, who had just gotten out of prison for Watergate-related crimes and started Prison Fellowship. Getting to know Chuck created some interesting dialogues, because he knew what he believed. But I remained a social and political liberal until, late one night in Denver, I was bound and gagged in my hotel room. Thank God I wasn't harmed, but experiences can shift your paradigms, and it affected my thinking. I had been reading about crime, but I was a total liberal, big-hearted goofball when it came to the reality of crime. When you become a victim, it affects your views of property, stealing, and harming people.
We've seen a lot in evangelical politics since that time in the 1970s: the rise and fall of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Bush administration, the Huckabee candidacy . . .

One lesson from that is, read Augustine: We really do live between the City of God and the City of Man. We live at the intersection of the ages. I said to my friends on the Christian right in the '80s, you act as if Ronald Reagan will bring in the kingdom of God. He will not. Because of reading Augustine, I have a chastened view of politics, which is that we live in two kingdoms. We are to bring approximate justice to basically insoluble problems. That's Reinhold Niebuhr, having read Augustine: Because the world is fallen, because it is decayed and we live in a sinful world, we will never bring in any kind of utopia. That's a warning for people on the right and the left.
Regarding approximate justice-you've been a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2004. What is its purpose?

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