The Common Good

Experiences have consequences

Date: 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?

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?

The Commission was founded by an act of Congress in 1998; the purpose was to monitor religious persecution and torture around the world, and the lack of respect for religious liberty around the world, and to write up a report for Congress, the State Department, and the White House detailing those countries that are the greatest violators of religious freedom around the globe.

Has it been a good experience for you?

It's been a wonderful experience. It may sound clichéd, but I've been in 16 countries in that position, and every time I come back I say to my wife, "We really take a lot for granted." I even tell her not to talk to me about "Christmas Wars": We can say "Merry Christmas," but there are people in other countries who get thrown in prison for five years for doing something slight like handing out leaflets. We take a lot for granted here, and we have a lot of wonderful freedoms and liberties here.

Have things gotten any better in any of these countries since 2004?

The government of Vietnam has opened up economically and is trying to open up religiously. But it's hard for totalitarian and communist regimes to understand what religious freedom really means. They think it means, "We let them sing. We let them have Bibles." But they don't let them grow, proselytize, or speak about it outside their meeting places.

Any progress in other countries?

Saudi Arabia has some awful things written in textbooks about Christians and Jews—just hideous. We've pushed and pushed, and have used our press releases and reports to shame these -people through the press. Saudi Arabia is not reformed, but we're going to hold their feet to the fire. North Korea is still the worst country in all the world. Sudan is a really sad situation.

What's your view of President Obama?

Some of his fans are going to have the same problem that fans of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had: expecting more from him than he can deliver. Obama mania is worse than Reagan mania. It's worse than any expectations we had for President Bush. So the letdown is going to come, because we live in a broken, fractured world. Working for social justice means that we live in an ambiguous world where the choices we have are never the choices we want.

What was it like to be the mascot of the Philadelphia 76ers?

I was in graduate school at American University and through Chuck Colson's ministry met Pat Williams, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers wanted someone who was extroverted and knew the game of basketball. I interviewed for the position and they said, "You may be funny in person, but in the costume you don't talk. Can you move your body around?" I said, "Yeah, I can do that." And I passed the interview. I was at all the home games.

Your professors understood the importance of your position?

I looked through my course work for graduate school and realized I was going to be missing six classes out of 14. I went to my professor and asked for permission to miss class because I had a job in the evenings. He asked, "What are you doing?" I told him I was the mascot for the 76ers. He said, "That's a great excuse. We'll make sure to get you the notes." It was a great time.