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.

Inspired in part by Olasky's writings, Bush launched a raft of legislation that loosened the state's regulatory grip on religious social service programs, promoting faith-based drug treatment programs, prison ministries, and church-run day care centers. Last year, when Bush was sizing up his support for a presidential run, the governor finally made the relationship official, appointing Olasky head of his policy subcommittee on religion. It was a move that pushed the soft-spoken journalism professor into the national limelight.

Olasky's newfound role, in turn, has provided him with a national forum for his now-famous ideas on welfare reform, the role of religion in government, and the responsibility of the poor to help themselves. "Every time we tell someone he is a victim, every time we say he deserves a special break today, every time we hand out charity to someone capable of working, we are hurting rather than helping," Olasky wrote in the conclusion to Tragedy. It's a conviction he holds just as strongly today.

In some ways, it's ironic that Olasky--a quiet man whose rumpled, subdued appearance belies his fiery political beliefs--has gained the kind of stature he currently enjoys. If you asked him, Olasky would tell you he never sought attention or accolades; he just wrote what he believed, and the people followed. In some ways, that's true: Strictly speaking, Olasky's most deeply held beliefs aren't political at all, but religious, although he'd be hard-pressed to draw a distinction between the two. His public statements, books, and countless published articles are informed by a deep spirituality reminiscent of the 19th-century charity workers he considers his forebears, Charles Brace and Mary Richmond. Brace and Richmond believed that by requiring the poor to work in exchange for assistance, charities could provide what Olasky has called "relief with dignity...the lesson that those who were being helped could also help others." A concept that has been praised and derided in almost equal measure, "relief with dignity"--compassion with conservatism, if you will--is the backbone of all of Olasky's faith-based welfare proposals.

John Anderson
Bill Boyd, a friend of Olasky's and college minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, sees evidence all around him that the biblical account of man's evil nature is true.
John Anderson
Bill Boyd, a friend of Olasky's and college minister at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, sees evidence all around him that the biblical account of man's evil nature is true.

Many of those proposals--particularly those which call for a return to the decentralized charity system of 100 years ago--have left contemporary social scientists scratching their heads. David Austin, who teaches social work at UT, came away from a 1995 Federalist Society-sponsored debate with Olasky wondering how thoroughly his opponent had researched the conditions that existed in poor communities during the 1890s, which--far from being the halcyon enclaves of Christian charity and brother-love that Olasky envisions--were often squalid and downright dangerous. "One hundred years ago, there were a lot of social problems, and charitable organizations barely scratched the surface," Austin says. "People lived in walkup tenements with privies in the back and cold water. Women died in childbirth and orphans were rounded up in the streets and sent to the countryside...From my point of view, it's a very limited and inadequate analysis of what went on 100 years ago." None of that, however, comes across in Olasky's writings, which have described the social conditions of the past as "almost paradisaical" compared to 20th-century urban slums.

Olasky's latest book, Compassionate Conservatism, describes a trip he took across America with his son, Daniel, in search of successful faith-based antipoverty programs. Although the result--a thin, hastily written work filled with repetitive stories of inner-city salvation--adds little to the compassionate conservative canon, Olasky's descriptions of the slums he visits are revealing. Olasky describes one neighborhood in Indianapolis as "a place [not] savory to most tastes, except those addicted to danger or depravity"; another slum he and his son visit, this one in Houston's Fifth Ward, is "filled with illiteracy, drug abuse, broken homes, gangs, teenage pregnancy, and juvenile crime." Contrast that with Olasky's description of 19th-century slums in Tragedy--as places where, though destitute, the worthy poor could get help from "slum angels" who assisted them "'gladly' because of 'Jesus' love'"--and you get a sense of why Olasky would rather return to the way things were 100 years ago, when "the poor could not legally demand the kindness of strangers," as they can today.

The desire to return to an older, more traditional world is also evident in Olasky's church, Redeemer Presbyterian. A visit to Redeemer, which Olasky and his wife, Susan, helped found as a prayer group with four other families in 1992, is a theological trip back in time, to an era when the music was traditional, the sermons were long, and the complicated world of contemporary moral issues stopped just outside the sanctuary door. (One congregation member described services at Redeemer as "work, not just a ride you go on for entertainment," and it's true.) Redeemer is part of the Presbyterian Church in America, an offshoot of the U.S. Presbyterian church that was founded in the 1970s by a handful of Deep South congregations that opposed the larger church's "liberal" beliefs about theology, social issues, and the role of women in church leadership. Although the congregation is mostly young (Olasky, at 50, is among a handful of gray-hairs at Redeemer), wealthy, and thoroughly modern, the church's milieu is that of a different era. Redeemer, like Olasky himself, strives to be detached from modern culture: Where modern culture is "easy," Olasky says, Redeemer strives to be hard.

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