By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
AUSTIN--It's an unseasonably hot Sunday in August, and the roaring air conditioner in the cavernous building that houses Redeemer Presbyterian Church is struggling to keep the congregation cool. One by one, church programs are turning into fans along the rows of folding chairs that serve as pews, and the sun coming through the high windows is a scorcher. It's nearly noon, and morning services at Redeemer are wrapping up.
But for Marvin Olasky, the day is just getting started. To do God's work, you've got to sweat.
Outside the crowded sanctuary, down a hallway teeming with rowdy children, and inside a room where church volunteers are setting up still more folding chairs, Olasky is preparing to talk to a small group of members, volunteers for the church's New Start job and life skills training program. The topic this morning is helping the poor; the theme: compassion.
"The folks who are still on the welfare rolls are Lazaruses," Olasky is saying, referring to the biblical leper who begged for crumbs from the rich all his life (not the better-known Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead). "They still need help...A lot of people want to say, 'I've done my good deed. I pay my taxes; leave me alone.' The future of this city and this country is going to depend on how many people are willing to get involved and give their time." Olasky, best known as one of the fathers of "compassionate conservatism" and an advisor to Gov. George W. Bush, speaks without a jot of irony. His words are somewhat apocalyptic, but his voice is quiet and stern.
Olasky, a slight, homely man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a calm, penetrating gaze, looks around the room, sizing up the crowd. The half-dozen kids in the room are starting to squirm, but their parents are transfixed. Each will volunteer to help an individual or a family, by preparing food, helping them with transportation, providing job placement and training, and bringing them into Redeemer's fold, where they will learn "that they, too, are made in God's image." Some will drop out before the program is over. Many will grow discouraged by what Olasky calls the "tight, physical relationship" a one-on-one volunteer program like New Start, which currently cares for 12 "client" families, requires. "Some of the things you see will make you literally sick," Olasky tells the group--people who go back to a life of drinking and drugs, fathers who abandon their children, clients who win their helpers' trust only to let them down again and again. While New Start works, in Olasky's words, "reasonably well," he admits that the church-funded program alone can't help all the families who have requested help; while 12 client families are currently enrolled in the program, only six volunteer families have stuck with it.
While Gov. George W. Bush has spent the past 18 months flogging "compassionate conservatism" on the campaign trail, Marvin Olasky has been working, in this central Austin church and around the country, to make Bush's campaign slogan a reality. For more than a decade, he's labored under the banner of compassionate conservatism to help the poor take control of their financial and spiritual destiny. Programs such as New Start, which share a mission to "feed the body and the spirit," are the culmination of that effort.
Unlike members of other activist denominations (such as the Methodists), who tend to believe "compassion" involves providing food and financial assistance to the poor, Olasky is a rigidly conservative Republican. Like many conservatives, he rejects both government-funded welfare and church-provided handouts as inadequate measures for solving people's most deeply rooted problems. But contrary to the image many people have of religious conservatives--as stern, uncompromising judges who practice armchair moralism--Olasky tries mightily to walk the walk, taking up his cross daily, as Jesus admonished his disciples to do, and suffering alongside those he considers downtrodden. "If we expect people to work, then we should be willing to work ourselves," Olasky says.
Olasky's "warm-hearted but hard-headed" approach to securing the public welfare first struck a chord in George W. Bush some seven years ago, when the future governor was still just a Texas baseball executive and failed oilman with a famous name. The two first met during Bush's first run for governor, when Bush's advisor Karl Rove invited Olasky to talk with the candidate about the ideas in his influential 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. Bush had little further contact with the man he would later call "compassionate conservatism's leading thinker" until years after their initial meeting. The two men's long acquaintance finally paid off for Olasky during this year's presidential campaign, propelling the affable but otherwise unextraordinary professor of journalism at the University of Texas into the national spotlight as the Republican candidate's point person on religion.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.