The True Believer

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.

Although Olasky's time is largely spent working with charity groups such as New Start, his books, which number nearly 20, focus on larger, society-wide solutions. Since the late 1980s, Olasky has been a vocal advocate for dismantling the welfare state and replacing it with a massive network of churches and private charities like the one that existed in the 19th century. Unlike the government programs which were the keystone of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, such compassionate conservative initiatives would fund charities and churches that help individuals "one by one, from the inside out," without interfering with or inhibiting those--like New Start--that operate on overtly spiritual or evangelical principles. Practically, it would mean a dramatic increase in volunteerism and the scope and scale of private charities; politically, it would mean devolving the welfare system to churches, faith-based groups, and other community organizations, often without the kind of strict oversight that exists for government programs.
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Erica C. Barnett