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.

Although Olasky opposes giving handouts to able-bodied individuals--ABODs, he calls them--he is no Social Darwinist. In fact, he bristles when people accuse him of being uncompassionate, pointing out that he, unlike many Republicans, believes in helping anyone who is willing to work to earn their keep. That many conservatives hew to the strict bootstraps model of financial assistance--kicking out the crutches, rather than providing an arm to lean on--is disappointing, but not devastating, Olasky has said. "The Social Darwinist variety of conservatism--humanity evolves economically through survival of the financially fittest and elimination of the poor--turned its back on the needy in the past, and still sups with racism," he wrote in 1996. "And yet conservatives who privately defend sin at least do not try to use governmental force to push others to sin; liberals do." Olasky's strongest admonitions, however, are reserved for Democrats and others who wear the "compassionate" mantle without demanding personal and spiritual change of those they attempt to help.

Demanding, uncompromising, critical, rigid--Marvin Olasky is all of this and more, both toward others and with himself. As an elder at Redeemer, Olasky is called upon to live what campus minister Boyd calls "a life above reproach." That means he must "govern [his] family well, perform well in an ethical sense, and make decisions based on the dictates of the church," Boyd says, citing qualifications listed in the New Testament book of I Timothy. It's a role he takes as seriously as any he has played. His pastor, Paul Hahn, says Olasky is precisely the sort of person the church wants as a leader. "His life is about serving others and trying to expose them to the love of Christ," Hahn says. "[In] everything he does--whether it's in the political world, or the world of print, or as a professor at UT, or in his formal role as an elder of the church--he's committed to showing others the love of Christ and modeling that."

Ideologically, Olasky's worldview is, in a word, bulletproof: Nothing penetrates his genuine, deeply held conviction that if everyone would just live more righteously--that is, more like Marvin Olasky--the problems of the world, from abortion to poverty, would be solved. It is, Olasky's critics have pointed out, the kind of worldview that makes for dangerous comparisons: the Christian vs. the secular, the righteous vs. the unholy, the blessed vs. the condemned. "People like Marvin have a theology that says the secular world is corrupt, and that people who live a biblical life are going to make it to the big time," says Bob Jensen, a professor in the UT journalism department. "People who hold that position...have to feel persecuted in the secular world, because that's their identity."

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.

In Olasky's office on the 7th floor of the communications building at UT, where he's teaching one class--sportswriting--this semester, there's little indication of Olasky's sense, prominent in his early writings, that this white Protestant male is a persecuted minority. In fact, except for the "W Stands for Women" placard on the outside of his door--"I brought that back from the Republican Convention," he explains proudly--there's little evidence of any ideology apart from the walls, which are covered with portraits sampling the pantheon of American revolutionaries: Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Robert E. Lee--and, somewhat incongruously, the Catholic martyr Thomas More, who was charged with treason by Henry VIII and executed in 1535. One imagines that Olasky feels a camaraderie with these dead white males, who offered themselves as standard-bearers for principles which, at the time, had few champions.

Olasky's writings, however, evoke a different sort of hero: the mythical Sisyphus, who was condemned to daily push a rock uphill, only to have it roll downhill again by morning. Like Sisyphus, Olasky is, in his view, fighting a battle which can never be fully won. It's a crusade for which he is fully prepared to suffer--and, academically speaking, for which he believes he has. Although he was finally awarded tenure in 1993 (and a salary increase in 1994, after he complained that his salary was "way below that of other full professors"), Olasky is convinced that a far greater number of Christian academics are "blacklisted" out of major universities for voicing their beliefs. "I work in hostile territory and know that everything I say or do is examined critically," Olasky wrote in 1997. "...We do not know what informal blacklisting does to the academic prospects of Christians and conservatives."

It's true that Olasky's beliefs about journalism--that Christian journalists should, as he wrote in his 1988 book Prodigal Press, "not be afraid of boldly stating the Christian view of reality, which includes both material and spiritual dimensions"--have been, to put it gently, controversial among his peers. "I would say that Marvin probably has felt that he doesn't have a lot in common with his colleagues," says journalism department chair Stephen Reese. "His perspective is atypical...Most people are not as likely to make their faith so overtly a part of their critique." Some colleagues have questioned the quality of Olasky's scholarship and published works, which tend toward conversational, anecdotal lessons of personal courage and moral uplift. His books, which have received their share of scathing reviews, are clearly directed at a popular audience, not Olasky's academic peers. Many were published by small Christian publishing houses.

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