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.

But James Tankard, who sat on the budget council that decided, in a split decision, to grant Olasky tenure seven years ago, points out that other things besides the quality of a professor's scholarly work are factored into tenure and promotion decisions. "One thing to keep in mind is that the guidelines for promotion don't just require scholarship," Tankard says. "There's room for creative activities of various types, and he's certainly done a lot of book publishing."

Other colleagues express admiration for Olasky's ability to affect public policy, which is almost unprecedented in the department. "I think we'd all agree that Marvin has been extremely successful at getting his perspective out there," Reese says. "I'm very envious of anyone who could be as productive as he is...I think we all would like to change the world in some small way, and Marvin has certainly been able to get his views out there."

Olasky's colleague Jensen--whom some colleagues call Olasky's political and ideological mirror--puts a different spin on Olasky's influence in the Republican Party. "The fact that people like Marvin can make it into high-level policy places...tells you they are not marginal. They are not persecuted," Jensen says. "People on the left would die for the kind of access to power people like [Olasky] have."

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.

Ideologically, Olasky is on the far-right precipice of a faculty known for its liberal, if hardly radical, leanings; as one former student notes, Olasky "plus three other guys like him wouldn't balance out" the department's liberal slant. But his inflammatory public statements--most notoriously, a 1998 interview in which he commented that there was "a certain shame attached" when women become leaders in society--have led some in the department to declare him unfit to teach in a modern university. "If someone believes I'm inherently inferior...how can I be in that person's class and be treated as a fully functioning member of that community?" says Jensen, who has been one of his most outspoken critics. "We live in a secular world, not a theocracy. It's premised on the notion that there's an acceptance of diversity. Students have a right to come into the classroom and feel comfortable."

Olasky says that his statements in the interview, in which he also lamented that his female students "expect to take any leadership position offered to them, whether in society or in the church," were distorted and taken out of context by the media. (The interview, available in its entirety at www.cbmw.org, tells a different story.) What he objects to, Olasky says, isn't that women want to work, but that being a mother is often disparaged. "Being a journalist is actually a great job for a woman, because there are often flexible hours, and people do manage to combine both" motherhood and a career, Olasky says. He snorts at concerns that his ideology affects his teaching, asserting that--politically, at least--he's a rare counterbalance in a department that leans, in his view, almost perilously to the left. "There are two political parties at UT: a liberal political party and a radical political party," Olasky says.

But in his sportswriting class, where three male and nine female students gather around a conference table to talk baseball, football, and hockey, Olasky's ideological sword is mostly tucked away. Although he talks at length about World, the Christian (and virulently anti-Clinton) newsweekly he edits part-time while traveling and working one day a week at the university, he stops short of elaborating on the publication's mission: "to combine reporting with practical commentary on current events and issues from a perspective committed to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God."

Still, it's clear that, for Olasky, sportswriting, which he calls his favorite class, can convey some charged moral lessons. (Indeed, the course syllabus refers to sporting events as "microcosmic moral tales.") "Character does have an influence" on a player's success or failure, Olasky tells the students. "Sometimes the difference between being an all-star and being on the bench is what a player has from the neck up."

Sportswriting, admittedly, is hardly among the more ideological classes Olasky teaches at the university; next semester, he will teach a section of Journalism and Religion, a course that--given Olasky's evangelical bent--has the potential to arouse far greater enmity. But Olasky, whose teaching has inspired fierce support and intense ridicule in almost equal quantities, is no stranger to controversy; he revels in it. And it's no secret that a Bush victory could push Olasky into a role of prominence--and contention--greater than any he's enjoyed before, perhaps as an outspoken advisor in Bush's Office of Faith-Based Action. But for the moment, there's a magazine to focus on, a campaign to watch over, and nonbelievers to be saved. It's a mission for which Marvin Olasky has spent his life preparing.

Erica C. Barnett is assistant political editor at the Austin Chronicle.

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