On Sunday, March 7, beneath an imposing wall of American flags at the Austin Convention Center, Governor Bush introduced the high-profile “exploratory committee” charged with organizing his not-yet-official presidential campaign. His supporters, including such Republican luminaries as George Schultz, J.C. Watts, Haley Barbour, Jennifer Dunn, and John Engler, trooped to the microphone to sing the Governor’s praises and predict what a great president he would be.
When Bush took the podium, he declared himself in favor of “prosperity with a purpose” and “limited government, low taxes, free and fair trade and free markets.” And then he reiterated a phrase that had become the early theme of his almost-campaign.
I’ve described myself as a compassionate conservative, because I am convinced a conservative philosophy is a compassionate philosophy that frees individuals to achieve their highest potential. It is conservative to cut taxes and compassionate to give people more money to spend. It is conservative to insist upon local control of schools and high standards and results; it is compassionate to make sure every child learns to read and no one is left behind. It is conservative to reform the welfare system by insisting on work; it’s compassionate to free people from dependency on government. It is conservative to reform the juvenile justice code to insist on consequences for bad behavior; it is compassionate to recognize that discipline and love go hand in hand.
It’s too early to be certain whether “compassionate conservatism” will survive as a Bush campaign slogan. Several of his Republican rivals were quick to attack the concept, insisting that conservatism is inherently compassionate and suggesting that Bush is simply pandering to weak-kneed liberalism.
But at least one Bush supporter (not on the dais that Sunday afternoon) had reason to hear the speech with particular personal pride – and to lament the reaction of Bush’s Republican rivals. Over the last decade, Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism at U.T.—Austin, has done more than any other conservative activist to connect the notions of compassion and conservatism, and to insist that compassion is not a liberal monopoly. Through speeches, articles, his editorship of the Christian newsweekly World, and his many books – most notably The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992) and its 1996 sequel, Renewing American Compassion – Olasky has done much to popularize the concept of compassionate conservatism and to tie the idea explicitly to the national Republican agenda of welfare reduction, anti-abortionism, family values, and indeed, “limited government, low taxes, free and fair trade and free markets.” When he heard other candidates dismissing Bush’s declaration, Olasky had a familiar reaction. “Here’s Sisyphus rolling this boulder up the hill. When George Bush is sincerely explaining this, these other guys are trying to knock it down to the bottom of the hill once again. It’s going to be a fight within the Republican Party.”
Since the publication of Tragedy, Olasky has become one of the Party’s prominent policy theorists. Although he declines to be described as the intellectual father of the idea, since the late eighties Olasky has been promoting conservative compassion. “It has lots of fathers,” he said. “I may be one of them, but there are others: Bob Woodson, in D.C. [head of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise] – he’s been fighting this battle for twenty years. Myron Magnet, author of The Dream and the Nightmare, is another. I may be one also.” For Olasky, conservative compassion primarily means eliminating the “false compassion” of the welfare state and replacing it with the “warm-hearted but hard-headed” compassion of personal, faith-based charity. He minimizes his own “irregular” role in the Bush conservative braintrust. “I give bad advice whenever I’m asked,” he says wryly. “There are a few policy papers being developed, and I’ll put my two cents in.” A close Bush advisor, however, described Olasky and the Governor as good friends, and said, “They’re sympathetic thinkers about [compassion], because they both believe that it’s a phrase that should not be surrendered to the left, and it is something with which true conservatives ought to be concerned. Conservatism ought to be concerned not only with those who have made it, but those who aren’t part of the dream – people who are on the bottom as well as those who are in the middle and top.” Olasky has taken part in pre-campaign discussions concerning “what’s the next wave of compassionate conservative welfare reforms, that can empower neighborhoods, communities, and individuals to independence.… He’s been very helpful in pushing the edge of the envelope.”
By even his own account, there was a time Marvin Olasky was most unlikely to become an advisor to national conservative politicians, let alone a firebrand Christian fundamentalist on the cutting edge of the Republican revolution. The son of Eli and Ida Olasky was raised as an observant but not devout Jew in the Boston suburbs, a fan of the Red Sox and journalism. “My perfect Saturday was taking the subway over to Copley Square and reading all the Saturday morning newspapers … and then just walking over to Fenway Park.” He says he became an atheist at fourteen. As a scholarship student in American Studies at Yale in the late sixties, he continued his interest in journalism, but also became involved in anti-war, pro-labor, and radical left politics, although he disdained most student new left organizations as insufficiently “serious.” Following graduation he bicycled across the country to Oregon where, as a young reporter in 1972, he joined the U.S. Communist Party (“they had the franchise”) – even traveling to Moscow in a vain attempt to connect more directly with the historical fount of Marxism-Leninism. Returning via Europe to New England, he worked briefly as a reporter for the Boston Globe, then went on to graduate school in Michigan. There he abruptly became disillusioned with atheism, communism, and left or even liberal ideas of any kind. As a young academic and then a corporate public relations specialist he moved further and further to the right, spiritually as well as politically. By 1983, when he arrived in Austin as an assistant professor of journalism, Olasky had become a puritan Calvinist, a fundamentalist Presbyterian, and an anti-abortion, anti-welfare activist. It would be a decade before he assumed his present role, as a leading thinker and propagandist of the Christian right.
From a distance it seems a puzzling, even confounding transformation. In Olasky’s own story of his conversion there is but one possible explanation: divine providence. He arrived at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1973 a committed communist, even attending national Party gatherings held near Detroit. But as early as November, he began to have unexpected doubts. As he recalled in his 1996 Christmas column for World magazine:
But God had other plans…. One day near the end of 1973 I was reading Lenin’s famous essay, “Socialism and Religion,” in which he wrote, “We must combat religion – this is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently Marxism.” At that point God changed my worldview not through thunder or a whirlwind, but by means of a small whisper that became a repeated, resounding question in my brain: “What if Lenin is wrong? What if there is a God?”
My communism was based on atheism, and when I was no longer an atheist I quickly resigned from the Party, although I thought I was leaving the eventually winning side. Not until 1976 did I become a Christian, however. The steps down that path were hesitant and included activities such as watching classic westerns (with their strong sense of right and wrong) and reading Christian existentialists.
Olasky was enrolled in Michigan’s American Culture program, and planning a dissertation on politics and American films, particularly classic westerns. But the developing change in his political perspective created a conflict with his dissertation director, program chairman Marvin Felheim, as Olasky found himself not only endorsing the absolutist moralism of western films, but defending the 1950s Hollywood anti-communist investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Olasky describes the episode as his introduction to academic political correctness – Felheim’s angry rejection of his first drafts left him without a director. His academic career was saved only through the intervention of the sympathetic chairman of the history department, Stephen Tonsor, a conservative Catholic.
Felheim is dead, but Tonsor, now retired, concurs with Olasky’s memory of the story, saying he intervened at the request of the dean of the graduate school. “Marvin Felheim [told Olasky], ‘Well, you’re a fascist – and you can’t write a doctoral dissertation for me.…’ Almost in desperation, Mr. Olasky turned to me.” Tonsor was impressed with Olasky’s abilities, although he is uncertain what had made him change his political perspective. He laughed: “I guess he watched too many John Wayne movies, or something of the sort.” More seriously, he suggested that the change did not seem to be based on any emotional crisis, but was an intellectual conversion. “With intellectuals, emotionality and rationality are very closely linked,” said Tonsor. “I don’t think you can draw a line in these things. I’ve had students who have had major shifts in their thinking, but that was generally accompanied by enormous emotional disturbances of various kinds.”
Olasky had studied Russian, initially out of socialist zeal, practicing his conversation skills while playing chess with Russian seamen during his 1972 trip to Moscow. He describes as providential his graduate school review of the language, for by chance he used a Russian translation of the New Testament that he had been given during his stint as a reporter in Oregon. “To my surprise,” he recalled in World, “the words had the ring of truth. (It helped that I had to read very slowly.)
“An assignment to teach a course in early American literature also helped, since my preparation involved reading Puritan sermons. Those dead white males spoke truth.” John Wayne, John the Baptist, and Jonathan Edwards: “From a Christian perspective,” Olasky says now, “I felt the Holy Spirit working on me at that point.”
Another retired Michigan faculty member, Cecil Eby, first taught Olasky in an undergraduate course and later was a member of his original dissertation committee. Eby says his own politics are “slightly on the right,” and very much anti-communist because of his research on the Party’s role in the Spanish Civil War. When he first met Olasky, he told him he didn’t even want to hear about his Communist Party activities, because he didn’t want to risk ever being called as a witness in some future investigation. Eby was later shocked to receive the initial chapters of Olasky’s dissertation. “This was such an about-face,” Eby remembers. “The kinds of things that I objected to, that he had expressed in a very adamant way from the left, that I couldn’t accept – I suddenly found myself rejecting the stuff that he was saying from the right. I thought it odd.… Based upon what I know about ideologues, they can reverse themselves very quickly.”
Susan Olasky, then an undergraduate at Michigan, met her future husband while he was in the middle of his work on the dissertation. “It was a very stressful time for him,” she said. “When I met him, he was definitely an anti-communist, but I wouldn’t say he was a Christian, at that point.” Marvin was very involved in student film societies, and she remembers his disagreements with other students over their “moral laxity” – specifically his insistence that they strictly follow the terms of rental contracts with distributors. On their first date, they went to see Anatomy of a Murder. Later, he would recommend that she read Whittaker Chambers’ Witness. “That book described where he was then,” said Susan. “The battle between two religions: those that believed in God, and those that believed in communism or some kind of materialism. Chambers was pessimistic – he thought the materialists would win. That was an important book to Marvin.” Susan, from the Detroit area, was a Methodist, although she wasn’t very religious and didn’t find much substance in the “social gospel” of her home church. “Her background was something like Hillary Clinton’s,” says Marvin pointedly. “It’s a good question which one of us had furthest to go, to actually become a Christian in the sense of belief as opposed to just sort of general identification.”
Susan and Marvin embarked on their spiritual journey together. The dissertation (“Clean Pictures with Red Blood? American Popular Film and the Adversary Intention”) was completed and accepted, and that same year Susan and Marvin were married. They moved to San Diego (Marvin had been hired as a lecturer in Literature at San Diego State) and after consulting the yellow pages, joined the First Baptist Church of La Mesa, near their home. “I picked it out of the yellow pages,” says Marvin. Following a year in San Diego, he took a job in public relations at the DuPont Corporation in Delaware, and for the next five and a half years he wrote speeches, articles for business magazines, and related p.r. material. He found the work challenging but ultimately unsatisfying. “I wanted to work at DuPont because I was on the side of free enterprise. But I found out … you were largely lobbying government officials and others so that when they do the next set of regs –say environmental regs – that they write the regs in a way that benefits you and hurts your smaller competitor. I found that distasteful after a while.”
During his time in San Diego, on a lecture trip to Indiana he met a Presbyterian minister, also a Yale grad, who had introduced him to the writings of John Calvin and to the Puritan roots of the Presbyterian Church of America. According to Paul Hahn, pastor of Austin’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church (which the Olaskys helped organize in the early nineties, and where Marvin is an elder), the P.C.A. was founded in 1973 in an orthodox schism from the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The denomination insists upon the divinity of Christ, the uniqueness of Christianity as the sole path to salvation, the virgin birth and resurrection, and upon the Bible as infallible and inerrant. Hahn says the mainline denomination affirms many of the same doctrines on paper, but no longer in practice. “We’re the fundamental idiots, basically,” said Hahn. “We actually believe what the Bible says.” The church traces its historical roots directly to the American Puritans and beyond, to Scottish Calvinism. “The word ‘Puritan’ has been given such negative connotations,” says Hahn. “Puritanism can be summed up like this: people getting drunk on the Gospel.” Of Olasky, his pastor says, “He’s real. He’s got sins of his own, but he’s genuinely seeking to know and enjoy God, and to be that kind of Puritan figure.”
Olasky had come home, spiritually and ideologically. Had he found it at all wrenching to move not only from atheism to belief, but from Judaism to Christianity? “I never really exchanged Judaism for Christianity, because Judaism was gone. I changed from Judaism to atheism to Marxism.… In some way, early on, before college, I had bonded with American history. It wasn’t any particular nationality or ethnic group. I bonded with the idea of America, as a city on a hill.” Had it ever occurred to him that he might simply be exchanging one sort of rigid orthodoxy, that of Marxism-Leninism, for another? “Oh yeah. And I think that’s probably a reason why I was very reluctant to explore this in any organized fashion. At first I only did it for other, academic reasons. Perhaps that’s why Catholicism never appealed to me, because it seemed too organized. Protestantism seemed at least a little more anarchic.”
His fame as a conservative theorist was still several years away, but Olasky arrived at the University of Texas in 1983 fully formed in his new theological and political beliefs. His first book, Corporate Public Relations: A New Historical Perspective (1987), focused primarily on the failings of major corporations to promote what he considers ideologically correct capitalist public policy. In Olasky’s view, modern corporations have abandoned a nineteenth-century ethic of pure competition, and “worked diligently to kill free enterprise by promoting government-big business collaboration [and] supported economic regulation with the goal of eliminating smaller competitors and insuring their own profits.” As far as it goes, such a critique of corporate action is unremarkable, even commonplace, but Olasky’s corollary – that the heads of major corporations are in fact closet liberals seemingly engaged in a left-wing conspiracy against private interest – drifts into ideological fantasy. “The problem of the left in the twentieth century,” he says, “is the problem of big government.” No doubt his successors at DuPont are saying much the same thing, as they work diligently in consort with their industry colleagues to subvert effective regulation of toxic chemicals.
But despite his occasional “free enterprise” obsessions, the center of Olasky’s work is not economic. He has been breathlessly productive, churning out a dozen books under his own hand in as many years, another half-dozen as a co-author, while editing sixteen more in the Turning Point Christian Worldview series produced by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers (an evangelical house based in Wheaton, Illinois). He has published several hundred articles, maintains a regular column in the Austin American-Statesman, and in the mid-nineties assumed the editorship of World magazine, an evangelical newsweekly with a mission “to help Christians apply the Bible … to everyday current events.” The publications are quite repetitive, and many of the books, and the magazine, are issued by Christian or conservative publishers subsidized by religious or right-wing foundations (causing some skepticism among his academic colleagues about the independence of Olasky’s scholarship). But the sheer workload is astonishing, calling to mind Olasky’s frequent quotation of one of his political heroes, Teddy Roosevelt: “Black care seldom sits closely behind a rider when his pace is fast enough.”
Olasky’s personal life in Austin has been similarly eventful. He and Susan now have four children, all boys, the eldest twenty years old and the youngest eight. They helped found the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center, which Susan describes as part of the “evangelical response to Roe v. Wade.” (The Center, occasionally a target of protest by abortion rights groups, provides anti-abortion and pro-adoption counseling for pregnant women, and related anti-abortion services.) With four other families, they began a Presbyterian prayer group that in 1994 became Redeemer Presbyterian Church, now with some 400 members. The family also spent two years in Washington, D.C. (1989-91), while Olasky worked at the Heritage Foundation. During that time Susan and Marvin also adopted their youngest son, a bi-racial child, partly as an expression of their anti-abortion convictions.
Without the support and endorsement of conservative foundations and prominent Republicans, it is likely Olasky would have remained an obscure professor of public relations and journalism history. But when The Tragedy of American Compassion was first issued by conservative publisher Regnery in 1992, with the promotion of the Heritage Foundation it caught the wave of conservative reaction which peaked with the 1994 Republican Congress, and won the personal endorsement of Newt Gingrich. Olasky became a media star and a much-quoted congressional witness on welfare reform, and Regnery re-issued the book in 1995, with an introduction by Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. (Olasky’s other major books sport introductions respectively by Gingrich and Watergate felon turned born-again prison minister Charles Colson.)
In earlier books (e.g., Prodigal Press, 1988; The Press and Abortion, 1838—1988, 1988; Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism, 1991) Olasky developed his scholarly method: tendentious, heavily anecdotal histories purporting to demonstrate the political and spiritual decline of the U.S. press (and the culture at large) since the time of the Puritans, and especially since the early twentieth century. Central Ideas argues that mainstream journalism has abandoned its crusading roots in Christian individualism in favor of sinister liberal federalism. The polemical thrust of Prodigal Press is accurately reflected in its subtitle, The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media. The Press and Abortion laments that newspapers, which once sensationally excoriated abortionists and condemned any woman who might consider abortion, are now “lapdogs for the abortion lobby.”
The Tragedy of American Compassion is the result of what Olasky describes as a two-paragraph grant proposal to the Heritage Foundation, on the historical meaning of “compassion.” The book offers an argument from history for public policy based on Olasky’s central principles of “conservative compassion”: all government-run public assistance programs are inevitably counterproductive, because only charity that is directly personal, requires the able-bodied to work, and includes explicit spiritual counseling, has any hope of success. He derives his argument primarily from an anecdotal positive history of church-based services, juxtaposed with a negative narrative of federal programs, uniformly described as failures. The title suggests these failure are ones of good intentions gone bad: since the word “compassion” (as Olasky never tires of repeating) literally derives from the Latin words meaning “suffering with,” any welfare program derived from taxation and government funding short-circuits this personal connection, deprives the giver of spiritually edifying empathy, and turns charitable compassion into false, liberal conscience-salving.
Tragedy is the best of Olasky’s books, in that it provides a thumbnail sketch of the historical debates over welfare policy, and describes – always with a strong bias toward punitive religiosity – the explicit political battles that took place over welfare in the various eras. To his credit, Olasky attempts to refute social Darwinist arguments for the abolition of welfare, arguing that the poor should not be abandoned as hapless losers in the modern jungle but instead offered a Christian hand of solidarity and opportunity. (The book is laudingly introduced, however, by the leading social Darwinist of our time, Charles Murray. Olasky says he disagrees with his good friend concerning the genetic basis of intelligence.) The book remains primly inattentive to the larger historical contexts of social policy: good times and bad, war and peace, recession and expansion. It seems never to occur to Olasky, for example, that welfare rolls might wax and wane not in accordance with the available distribution of spiritual enlightenment, but rather with the available opportunities for gainful employment – and that elite political pressures for welfare “reform” coincide almost precisely with those periods (as now) when labor markets are tight and cheap labor in short supply: ergo, kick the poorest people back into the labor market.
More unhappily, Olasky’s presumptive poor are, virtually without exception, the conventional right-wing caricatures of the underclass: shiftless drunks and addicts, derelict fathers and irresponsible teenage mothers, able-bodied men who just don’t want to work. The many more millions of working poor – earning minimum wages or less, often with two or more family members trying desperately to make ends meet with little hope of social compassion, conservative or otherwise – are largely invisible in Olasky’s universe. In a 1995 interview, contemporary with his books on poverty and welfare, he concluded bluntly, “Today’s poor in the United States are the victims and perpetrators of illegitimacy and abandonment, of family non-formation and malformation, alienation and loneliness; but they are not suffering from thirst, hunger or nakedness, except by choice, or insanity, or parental abuse.” In Texas, where one fifth of the children live in families with working adults who earn insufficient income for food, such a declaration amounts to wilful if not malicious ignorance.
When I asked him whether a person working full-time or more has a right to a living wage, he wanted to know who would guarantee such a right – if it’s the government, he’s not interested. Rights or no rights, did he think such a person deserves a living wage? “I would put the emphasis on training and equipping people to find jobs good enough to provide an adequate wage to support a family.” Could he not conceive that wages at the bottom of the scale might have some influence on wages above it? He’s more interested in individual cases, he answered, than macroeconomics.
Among the nastier villains portrayed in Tragedy are welfare theorists Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, for their support of welfare rights organizations during the sixties. To Olasky, assertions of welfare rights are the culmination of a preposterous liberal effort “to uncouple welfare from shame.” Without shame, how will the poor be driven to work and God? To inject some simple reality into this discussion (and into Olasky’s potted history of welfare), it’s worth recalling Piven and Cloward’s seminal Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. “Relief arrangements,” they write,
are ancillary to economic arrangements. Their chief function is to regulate labor, and they do that in two general ways. First, when mass unemployment leads to outbreaks of turmoil, relief programs are ordinarily initiated or expanded to absorb and control enough of the unemployed to restore order; then, as turbulence subsides, the relief system contracts, expelling those who are needed to populate the labor market.… To demean and punish those who do not work is to exalt by contrast even the meanest labor at the meanest wages.
For Olasky, economics (like charity) is a very personal science, with the Bible as prescriptive authority. He refers regularly to something he calls “Bible-based free market economics,” conjuring a somewhat puzzling vision of yeomanlike Mom-and-Pop stores along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. When I asked him what he might mean, he eagerly recommended a book, Prosperity and Poverty, by E. Calvin Beisner, in the Olasky-edited series from Crossway Books. Beisner, the cover proclaims, has an “M.A. in Society, with specialization in economics ethics [sic] and has studied Christian ethics in economics and apologetics.” According to Beisner’s book, the Christian God is a sort of cosmic Landlord, Overseer, and Investment Banker, and each person’s responsibility is to “maximize the Owner’s return on His investment.” Such maximization requires a pure form of laissez-faire economics under which, Beisner apologeticizes, “Such things as minimum wage laws, legally mandated racial quotas in employment, legal restrictions on import and export, laws requiring ‘equal pay for equal work,’ and all other regulations of economic activity other than those necessary to prohibit, prevent, and punish fraud, theft, and violence are therefore unjust.” One imagines that Beisner is a popular after-dinner speaker at solemn gatherings of Christian businessmen.
Such passing summations, unfortunately, are not caricatures of Olasky’s thought, but in fact the root and governing ideas of most of his writings. Indeed, since he was gathered up by the burgeoning network of national conservative foundations and think tanks (the Heritage Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Capital Research Center, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, the Western Journalism Center, the Acton Institute for Religion and Liberty, etc., etc., etc.), his work has become even more simplistic, moralistic, and unreflectively reactionary.
Renewing American Compassion (1996) is largely a practical companion to Tragedy, filled with anecdotes of small-scale Christian charity projects, and concluding with pietistic suggestions for readers who wish to engage in conservative compassion. (“Teach rich and poor what the Bible has to say about wealth and poverty. Help a poor person negotiate the legal system. Employ a jobless person. Lead a neighborhood association in a poor part of town. Start a crisis pregnancy center. Give a pregnant teenager a room in your home. House a homeless person. Adopt a child.”) His editorial columns enact knee-jerk conservative positions on the news of the day: welfare is bad, abortion is evil, affirmative action is racist, public education is hopeless, the Bible is the final moral authority, and Bill Clinton is the symbolic national nexus of all evil. Clinton, not surprisingly, has been a particular bête noire in the pages of World, which has also trumpeted venomous campaigns against gay rights, the Disney Corporation, and gender neutral translations of the Bible. In recent months, Clinton’s name has been uttered mostly in frustration.
In this last vein, Olasky’s most recent book, The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton (written prior to the impeachment hearings, but published this spring) is an embarrassingly jejune exercise in Clinton-bashing, although primarily by proxy. Olasky narrates the major incidents from the lives of a baker’s dozen of historical figures, from George Washington to the current president, and praises or damns each according to a moral checklist so constricted it trivializes itself: was Jefferson promiscuous and impious, did Jackson cleave unto his wife and read the Bible, did John D. Rockefeller sell good products and attend church services regularly, did Grover Cleveland, an acknowledged but repentant fornicator, keep the tariffs low? Olasky blames the book’s preoccupation with sexual fidelity on the President. “It may be that the book got pushed a little bit in that way, because of Bill Clinton. That’s basically it – so yeah, I suspect ten years ago or ten years from now I would write a very different type of book. Maybe I should have dealt more with the overall effect of the wives. I can see that – that would be a valid criticism.”
The book’s structure is nominally derived from Richard Hofstadter’s classic history, The American Political Tradition (1948), which Olasky dismisses as based too much on economics and not enough on spirituality. When I suggested to him a Hofstadter passage (in his chapter on Lincoln) on the inevitable human tensions between unmediated Christian morality and the complex ambitions of a political life, Olasky snorted, “Hofstadter doesn’t understand Christianity at all.” In April, Olasky was still stinging from a recent New York Times review by David Brooks, a senior editor of the thoroughly conservative Weekly Standard. Brooks had quoted some of the more comical passages generated by Olasky’s moralistic calculus (“Jefferson weighed the possibility of political embarrassment and venereal disease against generous and pleasurable spasms”; “Kennedy emphasized fast action, whether sexual or governmental”) and concluded, “Olasky’s historical judgments are so crude and pinched that one suspects his main effect will be to buttress the stereotypes of those who are prejudiced against religious conservatives.” Olasky bristled at Brooks’ charge that the book fails to establish a “sophisticated public theology.” “That’s true,” Olasky admitted defiantly. “It’s not that hard. Hofstadter valued the contradictions, the complexity, for its own sake. That particular intellectual construct is not the way the Bible particularly works. It’s not that hard.”
In person, Marvin Olasky is affable and soft-spoken, a slender, bespectacled, bearded scholar with protruding ears, recalling dimly another New Englander, Ichabod Crane. Although he’s had his differences with his fellow professors at U.T., most spoke of him with collegiality, if not friendship. In 1993, following his two-year sojourn in Washington, he was promoted to full professor, but filed a departmental complaint because his salary was not commensurate with his rank. The complaint was settled through the university grievance procedure, and Olasky now considers the matter closed. He does suspect that the disparity was at least partly due to his beliefs (“I heard things like, ‘You’re a right-wing Christian,’ or ‘You’re against abortion'”) but the official explanations were that he had been hired originally at a low salary and that he had just taken two years off for research. University rules forbid specific discussions of personnel matters, but Rusty Todd, chairman of the department when the grievance was resolved, says Olasky’s case had nothing to do with departmental hostility to his ideas. “It was my position then and now – his case had nothing to do with support in the department, it had nothing do with cliques, it had nothing to do with religion, it had nothing to do with secular humanism. What it had to do with was the meaning of promotion, and that the scheme of incentives that promotion has to do with becomes a complete joke, if rank and salary do not proceed together.… If you’re going to give him the rank, then give him the salary.”
Office neighbor Gene Burd speaks well of Olasky, but says there may be something to his sense of departmental isolation: “People don’t exactly close their doors when he passes, but they roll their eyes when he’s mentioned.… No one would ever say anything, but behind his back, he is very disliked, for his ideas and his approach.” Olasky appears to take it in stride. I asked him if he wouldn’t be more comfortable working at a Christian university. “No,” he answered quickly. “It might be more pleasant in some ways, but in one sense, the Christian life, like the Marxist life, is one of warfare. So I feel very comfortable here, as long as there’s freedom of speech and freedom of thought.” Todd, who came to the department in 1993 after a career in newspapers, commented, “A lot of professors in most academic departments have a sense of isolation, and it has to do with the people as much as their environment.… I’m the department’s only anarcho-absurdist,” he said with a laugh, “and nobody pays any attention to me.”
Burd says the department boasts two faculty members who might now be considered “public intellectuals,” with perhaps a third coming into his own: Olasky on the right, Mercedes de Uriarte and Bob Jensen on the left. De Uriarte came from The Los Angeles Times, and writes often for the national press, particularly on Hispanic issues; Jensen has been the most active faculty organizer of anti-war and pro-labor activity. Olasky indicated Jensen’s left activism as evidence that the U.T. faculty is “tilted toward the left.” “I would not at all be in favor of running off professors on the left,” he added. “But we need more professors with a different perspective – Christian, Jewish, different world views.”
Jensen characterizes his colleague’s stereotype of “left/liberal” university faculty as both conventional and very naive. “A few years ago, I talked with him about his view that he’s a persecuted minority, or underrepresented on campus,” Jensen said. “That’s simply an insane construction of the world. The last time I looked around, white Christian men were running this university. I asked him, ‘How do you construct yourself, number one as a minority, and number two as an embattled and persecuted minority, when in fact people like you run the world?'” Jensen pointed out to Olasky that whatever his differences with the President, Bill Clinton is a white, heterosexual, Baptist Christian. “He told me, ‘Bill Clinton is not a Christian. He doesn’t lead a biblical life – a life that follows the clear instructions of the Bible.'” From a political perspective, Jensen argues, Olasky’s sense of isolation is even more illusory. “There are thousands of people like him around here. I work in a department committed to the maintenance of the corporate media. That’s a deeply conservative point of view. I work in a department where there is no vocal critic of the capitalist media. I’m the only one. There are people who hold critiques, but they don’t mention them.”
Mercedes de Uriarte is well known for her strong support of affirmative action and for sponsoring programs for minority students in the department. She considers Olasky’s sense of embattlement essentially “romantic … the lonely crusader-philosopher scourged in your own land.” “The three of us,” she went on, “are such flyspecks on the culture of that university. We are all of us, just doing what a university is supposed to do, presenting groups of writing students with different intellectual options to explore.” She notes that in recent years, Olasky has taught the only sections of two courses (Critical Thinking for Journalists and the History of Journalism) central to the curriculum: “He has been given sole access to that intellectual formation of an entire generation of students, and that’s really not what you do with an embattled, isolated, marginalized individual.” Moreover, de Uriarte says, there are plenty of strongly Christian students working well and happily in the department. “It would seem to me, for Olasky’s claim to be true, there would have to be another example besides Olasky, where these rejections of Christian beliefs had played out in other arenas.… I have seen no evidence of that whatsoever.”
Olasky insists that religion has been virtually “banned” from university education, but Jensen responds that in fact Olasky’s fundamentalist assertions, particularly about biblical authority, have never been sufficiently examined. “There’s a serious question to be asked, that nobody wants to ask,” says Jensen, “which is whether someone who holds, for lack of a more precise term, a fundamentalist, pre-modern view – there’s a serious question to ask as to whether they’re competent to teach in a modern university.…
“He told me once that the Bible is ‘outside interpretation.’ Here you have a person who teaches journalism, who believes there is language written by humans, read by humans, translated over centuries by humans, that is outside interpretation. That’s kind of like a physicist saying he’s going to work on the basis of the earth being the center of the universe. It’s just a fundamentally untenable idea. Now, I don’t think he should be fired because of that – but the question about whether that kind of position is defensible, is not unlike the question of whether an earth-centered cosmology is defensible. What would you do with somebody in the physics department who taught like that?” Asked the same question, de Uriarte laughed and said, “Well, we have people in the psychology department who are still teaching that intelligence and criminality are genetic, so I guess the answer is, you just give them a classroom.”
Olasky’s colleagues are also skeptical of his insistence that the mainstream media are dominated by liberals. Rusty Todd said that the reporters and editors he knows work hard to minimize bias, and that in any case Olasky’s criticisms are largely misdirected. “There are checks and balances everywhere I’ve worked,” he said, “but the press is really quite conservative, especially in its business coverage. And I’m not aware of a liberal secular equivalent of the Trinity Network or the Christian Broadcasting Network.” Moreover, Todd argues, such a narrow political standard sidesteps the dominating institutional media conflict between journalistic interests and commercial ones. “If you want to talk about the news media, and all you’re talking about is reporters and editors, you’re missing the point. The point of the news media is in the boardrooms of the corporations that own each medium. The reporters and editors struggle every day to do their best, and I’m not sure how much the boardroom helps them do their best, as opposed to struggling to make money.… If you want to attack the press, go get them in the boardroom. Let’s stop bullshitting each other. I’m sure what’s the matter with the American press is all those commies on the board of Knight-Ridder and Time-Warner, etc. That whole criticism has sort of a hollow feeling to me.”
Whatever imagined or real hostility he may feel on campus, the public Marvin Olasky is likely to sustain his political momentum. As the Bush campaign becomes official next month, Olasky will resume his position as a national guru of welfare reform – in the terms of the Bush campaign, “pushing the edge of the envelope.” His chief contribution to the debate will continue to be his insistence that all government-sponsored assistance programs can readily be replaced by religion-centered, volunteer-based alternatives. Few observers will notice the actual scale of the task, nor realize that while welfare abolition can be accomplished by a few strokes of the legislative pen, creating good jobs or independent support structures for literally millions of poor people will not be accomplished by even the most heartfelt prayer.
But Olasky has hitched his wagon to the compassionate conservatism and “optimistic vision” of Governor Bush, who says he believes in the promise of America: “the fundamentally American conviction that each of us can be what we want to be, can achieve what we want to achieve, so long as we are willing to work and earn it.” As that essentially Puritan vision has consistently delivered for the descendants of Prescott Bush, perhaps it will also continue to do so for Marvin Olasky, and he can help the Governor reconstruct his American City on a Hill.
Bob Jensen suggests there is at least one other way to interpret Olasky’s remarkable ascension, and the former Communist’s surprising accord with the established Party of America’s entrenched elite. “What do Stalinists, or hard-core Communist Party members get? They get a very clear picture of how the world works, in which the facts and complexity of human life don’t interfere. What does a fundamentalist, of whatever sect, get? A worldview which answers all the questions, and in which the complexity and messiness and the facts about human life don’t have to interfere.”