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 to ‘professionals’ who have no regard for God is an abdication of biblical parental responsibility.” When I read Olasky this quote and suggest that it sounds like he’s against public education—which would certainly come as a surprise to Bush, whose twin daughters graduated in May from a public high school in Austin—he frowns and asks to see my notes. Looking perplexed, he consults his own copy of the book to check my accuracy and then frowns again. “Every teacher has a worldview,” he explains. “It’s not accurate to say [that public schools are neutral]. For Christians, every subject should be viewed through Scripture. If you don’t, you’re promoting a worldview that is not biblical.”
“So should Christians not send their kids to public schools?” I ask. Olasky acknowledges that his charge of parental abdication of responsibility was a little strong, but says, “I still stand with the words of this, or at least the implication: that parents have a responsibility to learn who the teachers are and a sense of what is being taught.”
The “pig” graffiti on his door, he tells me, was prompted by remarks he made in 1998 during an interview with a newsletter called the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Olasky had said that feminism led to “great sexual irresponsibility” and had called the millions of children aborted since Roe v. Wade “the victims of feminism.” Later in the interview, he said, “God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, but, generally speaking, when that occurs, it’s usually because of the abdication of men. As in the situation of Deborah and Barak, there’s a certain shame attached to it. I would vote for a woman for the presidency, in some situations, but again, there’s a certain shame attached. Why don’t you have a man who’s able to step forward?” In a subsequent column in the biblically oriented weekly magazine World, which he edits, he explained the context: In the book of Judges, Barak refuses to lead the Israelites in battle unless Deborah accompanies him; she agrees but warns him that a woman will get credit for the victory.
When I ask him about all this, he says his remarks to the newsletter were “exceptional clumsiness in speech.” He adds, “I certainly didn’t mean there was any shame attached to the woman involved.”
I point out to him that the person who defaced his door probably believes that he opposes women holding jobs with authority.
“That person would be wrong,” he replies. “Deborah was an extraordinary woman. So the world should be able to greet and cheer exceptional women, absolutely.”
I am left wondering why anyone should feel ashamed that Deborah used her God-given leadership. Olasky provides me with an answer, sort of, in the May 20 issue of World: “Everyone, male or female, should be told, ‘Be all that you can be,’ but what most of us can happily be depends on the way we are made—and God knows our frames. He knows, because He made us, that men and women are complementary in nature… . He knows, because He made us, that men are typically more aggressive and women are typically more nurturing.”
Perhaps Olasky’s most publicized fracas occurred when he suggested in an Austin American-Statesman column that news reporters favored Arizona senator John McCain over Bush because, while Bush spoke openly of faith in Jesus Christ, McCain talked about his Stoic moral code without naming a religion. Olasky began by suggesting that the main character in novelist Tom Wolfe’s most recent book, A Man in Full, converted to the religion of Zeus—rather than Christianity—because the author believed it would be politically incorrect, if not commercial suicide, to have his character experience a Christian conversion. Along the way, the metaphor got muddled, and Olasky wound up insulting three reporters, who happened to be Jewish. “I made a couple of mistakes,” Olasky says now. “I didn’t know those folks were Jewish. When I name people now, I make sure.”
But the column also directly questioned the religious grounding of reporters who appeared to favor McCain. “A lot of liberal journalists have holes in their souls,” Olasky wrote. “Some of them grew up in nominally Christian homes but never really heard the Gospel; now they are looking for purpose in their lives but have no understanding of God’s grace. Others know more but don’t want to repent.” Olasky says he’d write that passage differently now. “We all have holes in our souls,” he says. “A good pastor will always say, ‘We are sinners.’ I might have been pointing the finger.”
Olasky’s affiliation with World drew attention from William Safire when the magazine published a scathing story on McCain a few days before the South Carolina primary. Although Olasky said he had recused himself from editing political stories, Safire didn’t buy it. Writing that the story amounted to “backdoor backing of candidate Bush,” Safire concluded it was “religio-political sleaze in action.”
Then there is Olasky’s take on the poor. In his new book he argues that throughout American history, many faith-based programs have had a better success rate than government programs in helping the poor. Faith in God and character building are essential to escaping poverty, he wrote: “Hard, character-building work is often particularly important in this process. Research studies show that church attendance tracks closely with lower dropout rates, less drug use, and fewer crimes committed. Faith-based organizations have shown that the best way to teach self-esteem and respect for law is to teach that we are esteemed by a wonderful God who set out for us rules of conduct that benefit society and ourselves.”
Dope dealers, alcoholics, thieves, and illegitimate children populate the book, as well as many modern-day saints doing selfless work in tough, urban settings. But Compassionate Conservativism seems to focus on the poor in need of rehabilitation from destructive behavior. Although the problems of law-abiding, working poor people are not addressed, Olasky says he did not intend to “dump on” the poor. “There’s no shame in being poor,” he insists, acknowledging that health problems, spousal abandonment, and layoffs—things outside a person’s control—often lead to poverty. Still, he continues, many people lack “a work understanding” that religious values could fill. “Faith in Christ gets a whole set of attitudes,” he says. “If you have a problem with your girlfriend, you still go to work. “
During our interview, Olasky admits that, on occasion, his words go too far, but that’s the nature of column writing. He recalls LBJ’s frustration with equivocating economists, who would only give advice in the form of “on the one hand, on the other hand.” Johnson fumed, “What I need is a one-handed economist.”
And yet Olasky acknowledges that “bold and courageous” reporting—devoid of shades of gray—could destroy church outreach to the poor. When I mention the late Reverend Lester Roloff, who ran afoul of the State of Texas in the seventies when corporal punishment in his “Bible-based” school violated state child-care laws, Olasky observes that “compassionate conservatism could produce similar stories.” But he adds, “If we condemned the whole public school system because of Columbine, that wouldn’t be a rational thing to do.”
The future of compassionate conservatism, it turns out, depends on balanced news coverage. “It will be up to reporters: Do they emphasize the good stuff or the bad stuff?” Olasky says. “It’s easy for them to find bad things.”