When Rick Warren arrived at the Faith Angle Forum in Key West, Florida, in May 2005, the megachurch pastor addressed one of the last remaining groups in America that knew almost nothing about him: journalists. In the room were 20 of the most influential voices in media, including New York Times columnist David Brooks, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, and The New Yorker's Elsa Walsh. Although The Purpose Driven Life had already sold 25 million copies, says Brooks, "I'm not sure many in the room had heard of him."
For many elite journalists at the time, modern American Christianity was a strange and vaguely menacing hydra featuring the heads of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the crazed sandwich-board prophet who breathed fire in their general direction on the local street corner. Yet here was Warren, an exemplar of evangelicalism's West Coast variety, a species redolent of sunshine and casual conviviality. He distributed handshakes and hugs and thoughtful compliments on recent columns and reports. "Suddenly you saw a very different world," says Brooks. "This was not some fringe preacher. That had an impact on the group."
Now, eight years later, a new evangelical standard-bearer, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is addressing the same assembly. The move from Warren to Keller speaks to how American Christianity has changed in the interim. Whether the media have kept apace on such changes is debatable. There's no question that the mavens of mainstream media are still wont to treat "fringe" figures as central ones. Witness the elevation of Qur'an-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones to the status of an evangelical icon and a convenient counterpoint to radical imams on the Muslim side—in spite of the fact that Jones has no leadership or influence among American evangelicals. Yet it's also true that top journalists and columnists seeking Christian comment on social issues today are less likely to seek out the controversialists and the firebrands than to contact thoughtful representatives like Keller or scholars and statesmen like Mark Noll or Richard Mouw. All of these leaders, in fact, have cultivated relationships with writers and broadcasters at the Faith Angle Forum.
A Rare Talent
In the world of American media, an invitation to the Faith Angle Forum, now in its 14th year, is a golden ticket, and the man sending out the invitations is Michael Cromartie, a beltway believer whose meandering political and religious journey has rendered in him a rare talent for friendships on both sides of the aisle.
Cromartie converted to Christianity as a teenager in the Vietnam War era, proclaimed himself a progressive pacifist, and joined a Christian commune. Shortly after joining Chuck Colson's then-new Prison Fellowship, however, he was literally mugged by reality when thieves invaded his hotel room in Denver in 1978 and left him bound and gagged. (Cromartie managed to convince the burglars to leave his new tie so he could still attend his meetings with dignity.) That experience and Colson's influence produced a paradigm shift, and Cromartie went on to work for the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he is now vice president and director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life project. From his perch on M Street five blocks from the White House, he has served as a consigliere for conservative Christians in the nation's capital.
He has also helped countless journalists, whose only map to evangelicalism reads HERE BE DRAGONS, chart a more finely drawn geography of the American Christian landscape. In fact, the concept for the forums took shape as Cromartie received one call after another from knowledgeable journalists who wanted to know whether all evangelicals hate sex, or whether he could provide contact information for the author and publisher of the Book of Ephesians.