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.

According to San Williams, pastor at the nearby University Presbyterian Church, the PCA "was a reaction to the liberal social agenda" of mainline Presbyterian churches, which grew up around the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "The PCA is markedly more conservative, more fundamentalist in their interpretation of scripture," Williams says.

The church is also virulently opposed to letting women serve as leaders; it is governed by a group of elders, all men, who determine how the church will operate, teach Sunday school classes, and discipline members of the church for disobeying denominational doctrines. "We believe that the biblical account of the fall of man is true, and that the evidence for that truth is all around us," says Bill Boyd, a friend of Olasky's and Redeemer's college minister.

Olasky, who is among the church's "teaching elders," says Redeemer is "deliberately designed to make people uncomfortable--not in the sense of feeling unwanted or unable to follow along, but in the sense that it's different from the culture" outside its doors. For some reason, the model works: Redeemer has grown from five families to more than 500 members, many of them young students and couples from the nearby University of Texas.

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.

Perhaps it's not surprising, given his church's fundamentalist leanings, that Olasky's political views tend to be uncomplicated and ingenuous. Reading Olasky's published works, including his twice-monthly column in the Austin American-Statesman and his writings for the conservative Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, where he is a senior fellow, you get a sense that this is a man who thinks, like a good Marxist (or proverbist, for that matter), in maxims. "Compassionate conservatives do not merely give the poor a safety net that may turn into a hammock, they provide a trampoline." "Giving money that goes for drugs is like sticking heroin into Jesus' veins." "Bad charity drives out good." But ultimately, Olasky is making One Big Point: Whatever the government does for people, apart from building roads, providing emergency services, and ensuring the common defense, churches and private charities could do better and more efficiently.

The problem of numbers--the fact that, even under the most optimistic projections, there will always be more poor than individuals willing and able to help--never seems to occur to Olasky or his followers. Redeemer pastor Paul Hahn says the church's charitable efforts are directed at "being one small player in the game," not fixing the problem of poverty in society. "We're not going to fix welfare in America with Redeemer Presbyterian Church, but we can help those who are brought into our path," Hahn says. "The best way to help the materially needy is on a small-scale level."

For his part, Olasky dismisses concerns about whether enough people will get directly involved in helping the poor as irrelevant. "Right now [faith-based programs] can replace some portion of government-welfare programs. There are enough helping institutions, if all would participate to the max," Olasky says. "Down the road, since this sort of program will expand only if it succeeds in helping people, there's very little downside to giving it a chance."

Patrick Bresette, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, argues that programs like New Start do have a downside. As more and more functions of the welfare state are devolved to private charities, Bresette says, the harder it will become for private and faith-based groups to handle the growing needs of America's poor and disadvantaged. "There's no possible way the scope and scale of the services [faith-based groups] provide can really meet the needs that are out there," Bresette says. "[The CPPP] looked into this, and many faith-based groups were already overwhelmed. They have more clients than they can ever handle...On a large scale, you have to recognize what kind of infrastructure government programs can bring in delivering services."

UT's David Austin adds that social work emerged as a profession during the early 20th century because churches couldn't handle the number and diversity of 19th-century social ills. The problem became worse, Austin says, when a major depression hit during the 1890s, forcing cities to take over many of the churches' historical social service roles. In the past few decades, the situation has gotten worse than ever, as income disparities, drug dependence, and widespread single parenthood have created a new kind of intractable poverty. "[Olasky's] approach has nothing to do with the quantity and diversity of the kind of social problems and needs we're faced with today," Austin says. "It's like saying we can solve the entire problem of public education by throwing up charter schools everywhere. Charter schools may do very well, but they aren't going to help the 10 million kids who are still in public schools."

Whatever happens with Redeemer's New Start program, chances are Olasky will be there, shepherding it along. Besides New Start, Olasky and his wife helped set up the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center (an anti-abortion facility), took a pregnant UT student into their home for several months, and even adopted a biracial child, the youngest of their four boys. Olasky's service résumé reads like a lifetime's list of volunteer activities, even though it only goes back to 1983. Although his view of the poor is, at times, something of a caricature--"Today's poor in the United States are not suffering thirst, hunger, or nakedness, except by choice, insanity, or parental abuse," he wrote in 1996--he has, to his credit, attempted to get inside their shoes. In 1989, Olasky dressed up as a beggar and walked the streets of Washington, D.C., looking, he later said, for spiritual guidance at several of the city's shelters. (What Olasky discovered was that, although all the shelters offered him free food and medical care, none--including faith-based shelters--offered him the one thing he was seeking: a Bible. The results from that "experiment" were published in Tragedy in 1992.)
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