On the seventh floor of a boxy building on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, in a tiny office painted institutional neutral, Marvin Olasky peers into the screen of a computer. A slightly built man with a salt-and-pepper beard and hair, he seems like a benign academician toiling away in a second-rung discipline—until you notice that someone has angrily scrawled “pig” across his door with a black marker. “There was a little furor a few weeks back,” he explains with a shrug. “It comes with the territory.” By “territory,” Olasky means the role he has staked out as the country’s most controversial Christian writer. Over the past decade the fifty-year-old UT journalism professor and senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Michigan-based think tank, has used the pulpits of newspaper, magazine, and book publishing to inject himself into the national debate on welfare reform, along the way bashing godless homosexuals, homicidal pro-abortionists, spiritually bereft liberals, and even those who dare call themselves Christians without following the letter of the Bible. In person, he evokes the third beatitude: “Blessed are the meek.” But sit him in front of his laptop and an Old Testament alter ego appears: Plague and pestilence will be visited upon all sinners.
Not even sinners themselves would deign to be exercised by what Olasky has to say if not for his ties to George W. Bush. As the certain Republican presidential nominee’s sometime adviser on welfare reform and social policy, he is the chief architect of “compassionate conservatism,” the election year’s chief catchphrase and catchiest campaign theme. In a nutshell, Olasky believes that government anti-poverty programs are doomed to failure because many of the poor need spiritual nurturing to motivate them to change their situations. Bush apparently believes this too, which is why reporters have been scrutinizing Olasky’s musings of late—to glean insight into Bush’s intellectual makeup. The resulting furor over Olasky’s more controversial positions culminated this spring in charges of unethical journalism by the esteemed New York Times columnist William Safire as well as accusations of anti-Semitism by other members of the national media. So what if someone writes “pig” on his office door? Olasky has heard much worse.
While Olasky downplays his role in the Bush campaign—he says he hasn’t spoken to the governor once this year—his newest book is likely to renew interest in their relationship. Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America, which will be published this month by the Free Press, is essentially a travelogue of a cross-country trip that Olasky and his teenage son took last summer to visit inner-city church programs serving the poor. Bush penned the foreword, which lauds Olasky’s work promoting faith-based social-service programs. “Marvin is compassionate conservatism’s leading thinker, and he has seen how lives change,” Bush wrote. “Government can do certain things very well, but it cannot put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. That requires churches and synagogues and mosques and charities.”
Compassionate conservatism isn’t just talk to Olasky. Ten years ago, having each chaired the board of a crisis pregnancy center, he and his wife, Susan, saw the need for adoptive families and adopted a biracial infant. (They already had three sons of their own.) They also initiated a mentoring program at their church, linking church members with poor people who needed help finding jobs,
It was Olasky’s 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion , that breathed life into the Republican Congress’ welfare reform efforts by giving a voice to those who suspected government social programs had actually contributed to poverty. The book argues that American churches and charities were doing a credible job in helping the poor before government programs usurped their role, confirming the suspicions of conservatives like former GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The book also caught the attention of Bush, who was mounting his first campaign for governor of Texas. “My sense is that I showed him his instincts were right on: The war on poverty hasn’t worked all that well,” Olasky says. “There must be something more that faith-based groups can and should do.”
Long before last summer’s road trip, Olasky embarked on a circuitous philosophical journey before arriving at his current set of beliefs. Raised in a Jewish home in suburban Boston, he became an atheist at age fourteen, a year after his bar mitzvah (“I suspect I thought it was cool,” he now says). After graduating from Yale University, he briefly worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe and embraced Communism. During graduate school at the University of Michigan, he again grappled with doubts after reading an essay by Lenin on socialism and religion. Olasky later wrote that he heard a whisper that turned into a repeating question: “What if Lenin is wrong? What if there is a God?” In response Olasky turned his convert’s zeal to Christianity—particularly fundamentalist Christianity, with its firm emphasis on biblical authority. Since then, he has combined his two passions, religion and journalism, by writing about current events through, as he puts it, a biblical perspective.
It’s a formula that has led Olasky to hurl harsh diatribes at anyone he feels is disobeying the inerrant Word of God. In the 1996 journalism textbook Telling the Truth, for instance, he makes the case that secular journalism has evicted religion from the premises. Christian journalists, he argues, need to invite God back into public debate by filtering all issues through the Bible’s lens. “Now, as in the past, Christians under attack desperately need good magazines and newspapers, just as colonists under attack before the American Revolution needed Committees of Correspondence,” he says.
Such a siege mentality, however, leads Olasky to espouse views that come back to haunt him. Take this passage from Telling the Truth: “Biblical objectivity means supporting the establishment and improvement of Bible-based education and criticizing government schools, in the understanding that turning education over