Michael Cromartie is Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and director of its programs on Evangelicals in Civic Life and Religion and the Media. He also participates in numerous other ministry and government initiatives; he is a regular moderator for the Trinity Forum, and is a senior adviser to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He also served twice as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He has edited fifteen books on topics such as natural law, religion and politics, and foreign policy.
For Patheos’ series on the Future of Evangelicalism, he spoke with Timothy Dalrymple by phone.
There is a strong movement, led by people such as James Davison Hunter and Andy Crouch, to redefine Christian engagement with culture. Your stance is that engaging culture is not sufficient. Can you tell us about affecting society through politics?
It’s not an either/or but a both/and proposition. Christians need to engage culture. And Christians who are called to the political arena have a real calling to work in a civil fashion for more just laws. Sometimes those who talk about Christians engaging culture want to diminish the importance of the political, and sometimes vice versa. I want to emphasize a Reformed view of calling, that we can do various things in various times and places in our various callings.
My task at the Ethics and Public Policy Center has been to educate and inform religious believers, especially conservative Christians, in how to be involved more wisely and prudently in public debate. While doing that, we need an Augustinian sensibility, because we can both be faithful in our calling and not have an overinflated expectation from the political.
When Ronald Reagan was elected, many people on the Christian Right thought that the Kingdom of God was arriving on Air Force One, and all things were about to be made anew. After eight years of Reagan, while much good was done, they felt deflated. In the same way, some of that happened when George W. Bush was elected President. The same will happen for progressive Christians who put the same kind of stake in President Obama. We should never diminish the importance of the political and we should never over-inflate the importance of the political.
What do you mean when you say that we need to adopt an Augustinian sensibility?
I mean that we need to adopt a form of Christian realism that recognizes that, because of the Fall, we live in a world that will remain sinful and broken until the end of time. While living in a broken world, our task, if it’s political, is to help the state curb that brokenness and that sinfulness in a way that aims toward justice. I use the phrase “Augustinian sensibility” to lean against a Utopian temptation for people on the Right or the Left who give the political realm more significance than it should be given.
So it’s a chastened view of politics, but it’s not anti-political. People should have firm, clear political convictions on what justice means, without becoming so ideologically wired that they have over-expectations for what can happen in the public policy realm. It’s a Christian cast of mind. Having that cast of mind can help nurture a form of Christian civility that is really important in these times, when we have a culture that is more shrill than ever.
One of the great representatives of political realism, in the 20th century, was Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is often cited as one of the current President’s favorite thinkers and inspirations. Is President Obama practicing what Niebuhr preached?
The President seems to have a great admiration and respect for Niebuhr. People all over the political spectrum claim Niebuhr as their mentor. The question is: What part of Niebuhr has the President bought into?
That’s a debatable proposition. When there’s a problem, the President’s instinct is clearly that the state needs to solve it. So there seems to be a lack of appreciation for mediating institutions and the roles they play, as the first instinct is to have government solve all of the many problems that we have. So it’s not clear to me what part of Niebuhr he appreciates.
It is clear that Niebuhr’s thinking on foreign policy has not influenced President Obama. Niebuhr knew the nature of totalitarianism and critiqued it constantly; he was anything but an advocate of moral equivalence. There’s a tendency with President Obama, because he thought Bush bellicose, to believe that he ought to do the opposite. So rather than talking about the virtues of living in a free and democratic society, he has spent a lot of time apologizing for America’s problems.
You talk about utopianism and the ethics of rhetoric. Candidate Barack Obama used soaring language and utopian images. Do you think that he raised expectations so high that they could not possibly be met? Did he purchase an electoral victory at the cost of inevitable post-election disenchantment?
I agree with that. The rhetoric was so soaring, and so promising that it led, as you say, to a crash and great disappointment. What surprised a lot of people in this town was how quickly the disappointment came. And the disappointment came as well for people who are very much on the Left end of the spectrum. There are all kinds of disappointment in the Democratic party.
Some of that disappointment could have been dissipated if Obama had not overly inflated his promises and goals. It’s a real art to call people to their highest aspirations and at the same time keep them grounded in a realistic sense of what the policy arena can solve and what it cannot.
There is something about President Obama’s wonderful speaking style, the beauty of the rhetoric, and the historic significance of his own person and his election as President of the United States, that led to a whole cast of almost magical expectations of a historical moment. That may have blinded some people to the policies he championed as a young Senator.
Let’s talk strategy. You help Christians learn how to engage the political arena fruitfully. Imagine a group of Christians who come to Washington to address the issue of sex trafficking. What moves would be wise and unwise in regards to aligning themselves with political parties or power structures?
One of the first moves has to be made before you even come to Washington — and that’s to come academically prepared. If your concern is sex trafficking, then you should become academically conversant with international law and international relations. Be prepared intellectually in the field of your concern.
Secondly, one of the problems we’ve had in this town is that there have been so many wonderful essays and books written about the life and career of William Wilberforce that many young Christian activists come to Washington to be the next Wilberforce. One has to remind them that Wilberforce took twenty to thirty years to accomplish what he did.
He was not aware of how important he was. He did not know that years later we’d be making movies about him. He was simply faithful in his calling. It’s really important for people who come with high ideals to come to town and be faithful in their work. Too much stirring up of fervor around Wilberforcian ideals can lead to a great deal of disappointment. What we need to recover is a Reformed view of calling that says everybody should be faithful in his or her area. So if you’re coming to town to work with International Justice Mission, they might need an FBI agent to investigate crimes on the ground, international lawyers to work with international laws related to trafficking, and writers to tell the stories of the victims of trafficking. These important ministries of justice need people with all kinds of gifts and skills, so what is urgent and important is to find where those gifts can best be used.
When I first came to town, Ronald Reagan was President. Many people came to town with the motto, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” They really didn’t have a working public philosophy undergirding their own personal faith. This again goes back to my own view about the need for an Augustinian sensibility, which is a real desire to be faithful and serious, and yet also to know when to pull back and realize that God is sovereign, His Providence is at work, and we’re just instruments to do what we’re called to do.
I was in meetings during the Reagan years with Christian Reconstructionists and theonomists who came to Washington and said, “We’re going to take over America.” Some of our friends and colleagues on the Left think that this is going on now. Actually, it’s not going on now, but it was going on in the Reagan years. I attended those meetings, and they would have been frightening if they had possessed any power. They never had power; they never had anybody’s ear. So the Randall Balmers of the world can worry all they want, but these people never controlled anything. They did talk that way, however, and they ended up leaving because they had an overinflated view of what the political could do.
So people need to come ready and prepared, but also have a Christian cast of mind that realizes that we are all called to be faithful in working for justice, in doing the best we can, but also in having an eschatological horizon ahead of us, realizing that it’s not all in our hands.
One of the tricks of the trade these days is saying, like Jim Wallis, “I’m not conservative or liberal. I’m biblical.” Or, “I’m neither right nor left. I’m Christian.” That’s not really helpful. People ought to know that faith transcends politics and political allegiances, but you really do have to make choices between relative goods and lesser evils. Party platforms matter, and you will want to align yourself with certain policy goals. So one has to get over the embarrassment of saying, “Yes, in light of my views on marriage and life, I am a conservative,” or “because of my views about war and peace, yes, I am a liberal.”
The sooner that Jim Wallis can get around to saying who he is, and quit dodging the question, the sooner we can get on to a robust conversation about what policies lead to Shalom in the world.
You came to Washington as a follower of Sojourners and Jim Wallis. What changed?
In college, I had handed out Sojourners magazines. They sent me fifty at a time and I gave them out. Then I came to Washington and immediately went to work with Chuck Colson and his prison ministry. I introduced Chuck and Jim Wallis for the first time. They met each other, and we went down to a Sojourners worship service.
What changed? Well, Irving Kristol says that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. That was quite literally true for me. I was actually bound and gagged in a hotel room at midnight. They hit the wrong guy. I was living a simple Christian lifestyle; they took my watch and my vitamins and my $33. It’s a funny story now, but at the time it wasn’t funny at all. I could have been shot, but they just left me bound and gagged.
An experience like that has a very profound effect on your reading habits. When you’ve been mugged and bound, you begin to read James Q. Wilson and other people on theories of crime and punishment in a different way. You begin to realize that there are very real people out there who mean harm and need to be restrained by the state.
The second transformative moment was hearing several lectures on Solzhenitsyn and the gulags and realizing that 60 million people had died in them. As a member of the evangelical Left, I had believed that America was the Great Satan. I had to learn about the nature of truly totalitarian regimes, their expansionist tendencies, and what they had done to their own people.
The third transformative moment was reading the literature on welfare reform and social policy, and realizing that the billions of dollars that had been spent with the best of intentions had actually made matters worse in domestic policy. The Great Society programs that Johnson had put in place had demonstrably and empirically created more harm than good.
It was quite a journey. I had grown up in a Democratic household; my mother was state vice-chairman of the Democratic Party. But I moved from a liberal to a neo-liberal to a neo-conservative, based on looking at those empirical realities. My mother was exasperated with me. She was a liberal Democrat all her life, and a year before she died, she said, “I don’t know what happened to you.” I told her: “Mom, I became a conservative for liberal reasons.” The “liberal reasons” being that we mustn’t make matters worse for people by creating a dependent underclass and by encouraging irresponsibility. We ought not to become libertarians, but we ought to have a more limited view of how the government does these things.
There has been recently a call to “civility.” What would a specifically evangelical form of dialogue look like? What virtues would it honor?
It would always recognize that our disagreements and arguments are about policies and not about people. At the end of the day, what defines us the most is our identity in Christ, not our political identities. People on the Right and on the Left forget this.
In the late ’80s, when Reagan was in office, a statement came out by liberation theologians called “The Road to Damascus.” It was a theological statement that anyone who supported Reagan’s war in Central America was not Christian. That kind of politicization of the gospel is wrong. It’s also wrong when people on the Right say to me, “I don’t think So-and-So could be a Christian because I don’t agree with their public policies.”
That’s appallingly heretical. Our identity is rooted in our doctrinal commitments, not our prudential judgments.
A person can be a Christian and be politically confused, but that doesn’t make him any less Christian. Realizing that at the beginning should soften the edge of our conversations. The more we can decouple the policies from the people, the better. If you come with that posture, then you ought to be able to be civil toward your opponent because you realize that person is made in the image of God, possesses the imago Dei, and ought to be treated with civility and dignity no matter what he or she thinks.
The need for civility is more urgent now than ever. Christian charity and civility should always be that hallmark of our conversation, especially in our political disputes.
You occupy a mediating space. What would you want your friends on the Left to understand about the Tea Parties, and what would you want those on the Right to understand about the Obama administration?
I want my friends on the Right to understand that the people in the Obama administration have, in general, extremely good intentions. They just have a different view about what public justice is and how we ought to arrange our life together politically and legally. Except in the most extreme cases, one should never call into question the fact that these people are well intended.
I don’t think it’s fair for people on the Left, when they see a big mass movement, to find a label and call them all racists. Nor do I think it’s right for people on the Right to call somebody a communist because they believe in state intervention in a way that the person making the charge finds inappropriate. So I think we ought to be really careful about putting labels on people in ways that misrepresents them and damages them. Just critique the policy.
I trust that I have earned the respect of liberals and conservatives alike, because they know that I respect them all. The fruits of the Spirit ought to be exhibited in these kinds of exchanges. And if they aren’t, then one has to reexamine one’s commitment to the central truths of the faith.
It’s too easy in this town to get so stirred up ideologically that we forget our prior commitments. The dead are not raised by politics. There are some things that transcend politics that are more urgent than winning political victories. It’s always very important, when Christian politicians reach across the aisle, that if their opponent gets sick in the hospital then they should be the first people there to see them.
One of the great characteristics of Rick Warren is his ability to do this. I hosted and moderated a luncheon discussion on the new shape of evangelicalism last November. Twenty-five journalists were there. Ten months before, Rick had given the invocation at the Obama inauguration, so the press were curious about him. And in room of twenty-five journalists, I would estimate that twenty or more were coming from a liberal perspective.
So, how do you defuse a room full of liberal, skeptical journalists? You hug them all. Every time Rick Warren walked up to someone, he would see their name tag and exclaim, “Oh, Dan Gilgoff! You did such a great job on that last article you wrote.” None of it seemed contrived. It’s just who Rick Warren is. But I said to myself: twenty years ago, would Falwell go around the room hugging all these New York Times writers? I doubt it. There would have been all sorts of suspicion. Rick was just going around the room, greeting everyone, totally comfortable in his own skin.
That’s a really powerful thing. Those coming into the room who really wanted to hate or dismiss him had a harder time doing so. We need more of that: the hugging ministry!
What does it mean to live in the imitation of Christ, even as one lives and works in the corridors of great power and wealth? What does it mean to imitate a crucified carpenter when one is walking in the marble halls of the Capitol?
Some believers have a tendency to become prima donnas when they find success. It’s refreshing when you meet a person, like Fred Barnes, who is not affected by his notoriety and position. David Brooks, although he is not a Christian, is simply one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He’s never in a hurry, dashing around the room to meet other people. He’s a fundamentally decent person.
Whether we’re working among the poor in South Atlanta, or among the rich in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the way in which we comport ourselves personally, emotionally, relationally, ought to take on those attributes that Thomas à Kempis talks about. That may mean displaying a posture of decency and charity, of listening and humility, remembering people’s names, caring about their personal needs. The way we treat the people who park our cars, the wait staff at a restaurant, and a Senator, ought to be the same.
It’s sad when people come to Washington and get all hyperventilated about people of power, as if the person they’re standing next to is somehow more important in God’s economy than the person who parked their car in the parking lot. I don’t think that’s true. We ought to treat all people in all walks of life with the same kind of respect and dignity, because they are made in the imago Dei. It’s a spiritual discipline to remember that. We have to realize that the God we worship is far more important than the person with the big title in front of us.
That ought to enable us to relax around people of power, and not to be intimidated. Our decency ought to overflow as a person, so that they realize that we are people who try to imitate Christ.
In the past six years, I’ve worked as a commissioner the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In the international human rights community, you meet many people who care about humanity but a little less about humans. You meet people who care about the suffering in Sudan but who treat people who are working on those issues poorly. We have to remember that in all these areas, all people are valuable and made in the image of God, and thus we should treat everyone with the same respect and dignity.