The True Believer

Say what you want about Marvin Olasky, the oddball UT professor and controversial architect of Bush's "compassionate conservatism." He practices what he preaches.

Since Olasky took his position as Bush's religious policy advisor, his ideas have popped up with increasing frequency in the governor's proposals and speeches, including his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. (Bush's stump speech about "rallying the armies of compassion" to solve society's problems was straight out of Olasky's playbook.) Bush has proposed, for example, promoting competition between government and private charities; providing government funding to faith-based after-school programs; and establishing a federal "Office of Faith-based Action" that would report directly to the president.

In many ways, his newfound prominence is a role for which the 50-year-old professor has spent all his life rehearsing. Born to Eli and Ida Olasky--a Hebrew teacher and a secretary, respectively--in a suburb of Boston in 1950, Marvin Olasky began his pilgrim's progress at 14, when, a year after his Bar Mitzvah, he renounced Judaism and became an atheist. In high school, he was a decent but unremarkable student, favoring history, English, and journalism, and scoring high marks on the SAT. In 1968, he enrolled in the American studies program at Yale, where he discovered an affinity for the simplistic, codified worldview of radical Marxism. By the time he had graduated in 1971, just three years after he started, Olasky was, in his own words, "a card-carrying Marxist," during a period when the U.S. Communist Party was about as popular as pedophilia. To prove his devotion to the cause, Olasky traveled to Moscow on a Russian freighter in 1972, practicing the language with the sailors he met on board. Then as now, Olasky was a true believer. His passion for consistency, and his tendency to carry his beliefs to their logical extreme, have remained the same; only the content of his convictions has changed.

Between college and graduate school, Olasky settled down for two years as a reporter for the Boston Globe. But it wasn't until he moved to Ann Arbor, where he sought his doctorate as a student of American culture at the University of Michigan, that his spiritual, and political, conversion occurred. Between 1973 and 1976, this radical, monkish Marxist veered even more radically toward the opposite extreme, embracing the black-and-white sense of right and wrong he found in the Western movies that were the subject of his dissertation as tightly as he'd held to the stolid, humorless dictates of Soviet Marxism for the previous 10 years. Later, Olasky would say that his conversion came "not through thunder or a whirlwind," but through a simple, nagging question: "What if there is a God?" So in 1973, as swiftly as he had adopted it, he repudiated communism once and for all, and began his second and final conversion: to evangelical Christianity, and a theological system that, like Marxism, required rigid obedience and faith in the unseen.

Olasky's pastor at Redeemer, Paul Hahn, says the UT professor is precisely the sort of upright man the church needs as a leader.
John Anderson
Olasky's pastor at Redeemer, Paul Hahn, says the UT professor is precisely the sort of upright man the church needs as a leader.
Bob Jensen, Olasky's ideological mirror opposite in the UT journalism department, says that, far from being persecuted, Olasky's access to power shows that he and his views are anything but marginal.
John Anderson
Bob Jensen, Olasky's ideological mirror opposite in the UT journalism department, says that, far from being persecuted, Olasky's access to power shows that he and his views are anything but marginal.

Olasky met his future wife, Susan Northway, while the two were attending Michigan; their courtship, as he recalls it, consisted largely of watching movies--as many as two a night--in preparation for his dissertation. The two were married as soon as Olasky finished his Ph.D., in 1976. Olasky's jobs took the couple from California to Delaware and finally to Austin, where he found a position as an assistant professor of journalism at UT in 1983. There, Olasky proved himself to be an extraordinarily prolific writer, publishing more than a dozen volumes through obscure Christian publishing houses such as Regnery Publishing and Crossway Books, with themes ranging from journalism and Christianity to the history of abortion to the role of churches in welfare policy.

The ideas in Olasky's books weren't exactly new; the thin territory of compassionate conservatism had been mined before, by writers such as Bob Woodson (of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise) and, more recently, Myron Magnet, whose 1993 book The Dream and the Nightmare suggested that the true legacy of the 1960s was not civil rights or women's liberation, but a host of social ills including "school-leaving, nonwork, welfare dependency, crime, [and] drug abuse." But thanks to a combination of luck, timing, and pure and simple salesmanship, it was Olasky who became the public face of compassionate conservatism, and the moral conscience of a Republican presidential candidate with a few sins of his own.


Olasky was catapulted from obscurity in 1994, as the Republican Revolution was nearing its cusp, by a single, fortuitous turn of events. That Christmas, former education secretary William Bennett handed Newt Gingrich a copy of Olasky's Tragedy, which Bennett had hailed as "the most important book on welfare and social policy" in the past 10 years.

The newly elected House Speaker, in turn, was so impressed by Olasky's ideas that he handed out a copy of the book to each of the 74 Republican freshmen, predicting that Olasky would be held up, along with Alexis de Tocqueville, as one of the forefathers of the New Republican vision. (The 1995 edition of the book has Gingrich's endorsement emblazoned in yellow on the cover.)

It was also in 1995 that Olasky met with Bush again, after two years of little or no contact with the governor. The Republican Revolution was in full swing, and the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse was threatening to close down Teen Challenge, a Bible-based drug treatment program, for violations such as hiring improperly certified counselors. (Bush later overturned TCADA's decision to shut the program down.)

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