Marvin Olasky received his B.A. from Yale University. He then earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in American Culture from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Before joining The University of Texas at Austin faculty in 1983, Olasky worked as a reporter for the Bend, Oregon Bulletin and for the Boston Globe. Olasky is editor-in-chief of World magazine, the fourth most-read newsweekly in the U.S., for which he writes a weekly column. He has authored 13 books, including Compassionate Conservatism, The American Leadership Tradition, and Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism, along with 14 other monographs or co-authored books. He has published more than 800 articles on journalism, history, poverty-fighting, religion, sports, etc.
The attacks, I can now see, were bound to come. I've been an informal, occasional, unofficial advisor to George W. Bush since 1993. When he became the frontrunner in this year's presidential contest, an outspoken Christian conservative like me inevitably became a political lightning rod.
New York Times, Washington Post, and Newsweek writers, along with dozens of others, slammed me for some Bible-based analyses I had written and some I had not. Those who take their cues from those august publications echoed the accusations. A headline on the left-leaning editorial page of the U. of Texas student newspaper read, "Olasky a UT embarrassment." On my office door someone wrote in indelible ink the word "PIG."
My first, sinful reaction was the self-pitying thought in the old country song, "Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Bony fingers." I am 50 and have been a professor at UT since 1983. I've written 13 scholarly and popular books and co-authored seven more, along with hundreds of academic and journalistic articles. I've worked hard in my church and in editing World, the weekly news magazine from a Christian perspective. I've given a tenth of my spices--mint, dill and cummin--and this is what I get?
Providentially, I had help in gaining a better perspective. My youngest son Ben, who is 9, saw the PIG on my door in big block letters and asked, "Why did someone write P-16 on your door?" Then my wife and I went to have lunch in one of the dorms, where some students stared at us. She recalled how when she was a little girl she loved going places with her grandpa. He was very tall, tall as a maple tree, she thought. He was also old--in his upper 80s at that time. She said that as they walked down the street everyone would look at them, and she was proud to be next to him, and she was proud to be next to me.
That was very sweet, but there's something far sweeter. When professors are scorned and rejected for professing Christ, it's because we are walking down the street next to One who is not ashamed to call us His children. Thinking of that, and of how God providentially puts the right obstacles in our paths to build us up, my attitude changed: I thanked God for his mercy toward me, especially after the decade--from age 13 through age 23--in which I hated Him.
Thank you, Lord, for not giving me what I deserve.
I grew up in a Jewish home and went to Hebrew school for seven years. But soon after my Bar Mitzvah, the rituals that were at the heart of my family's practice seemed inadequate, and it was puzzling that the sacrificial system designed to cover over sins could simply end 2000 years ago without God setting up something else to take its place. My older brother and teachers introduced me to books that furthered movement away from Jewish belief. I read Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion, which argued that religion was only infantile wish fulfillment. HG Wells' An Outline of History was particularly influential, with its vision of mankind "at first scattered and blind and utterly confused, feeling its way slowly to the serenity and salvation of an ordered and coherent purpose."
My turn away from God accelerated when I entered Yale, which fanned in me not only pride but prejudice. Many of the older professors there were positivists who saw religious faith as superstition and ethical standards merely as expressions of Western cultural mores. Look at the immense material, scientific, and technological progress of the 20th century, the positivists proclaimed: Soon we will understand all of nature's secrets, including how life began. Some even hoped that life need not end; As one man in 1969 took small steps on the moon, mankind was ready for large leaps in space and time, with perhaps even immortality around the corner.
Other parts of my 1968-1971 Yale experience, though, suggested a pessimistic spin. Many younger professors talked of how the industrial machine that cranked out new products also manufactured death, particularly in napalmed Vietnam. The success of the machine was threatening to turn all of us into machines. I devoured required readings about individual alienation and became more alienated. I had a hole in my soul. I needed a good pastor, but Yale provided William Sloan Coffin preaching in Battell Chapel about the Vietnam war, and gay Malcolm Boyd hanging out with young men and writing Are You Running With Me, Jesus? I didn't need a friend who could run: I needed God.
I increasingly tried to stuff my hole with Marxism. A year after graduating from college I went all the way and joined the Communist Party USA. I had it all figured out intellectually: Communists were the most enlightened heirs of the enlightenment. There was no God who could change people from the inside out, and ordinary individuals were unimportant, anyway. Radical change could come only outside in, by shifting the socioeconomic environment. The only way to do so quickly and decisively was through dictatorial action by a wise collective of leaders who would act for the good of all--and I would be one of those leaders.
The Soviet Union was then on a roll, with America heading out of Vietnam and apparently ready to retreat around the world, so I did not mess around with little fringe parties; the CPUSA was small but I joined it to ride on the big bear. Post-college travel across the Pacific on a Soviet freighter and across my new fatherland on the Trans-Siberian railroad should have been disillusioning, but Lenin had said it would be necessary to "crawl on one's belly, like a snake," for the good of the revolution. I was ready to crawl.
I worked for a while at the Boston Globe, with my Marxist perspective fitting right in, and went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan, where professors were impressed by my Party line theorizing. God had other plans, however. 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 after God smashed my faith in faithlessness I quickly resigned from the Party. Not until 1976 did I become a Christian, after many hesitant steps. Two in particular were crucial. In 1974, with the original goal of merely satisfying a Ph.D. language requirement by improving my reading knowledge of Russian, I plucked from my bookcase a copy of the New Testament in Russian that I had been given as a novelty item two years before. Reading very slowly, puzzling over many words, what had seemed like superstition now had the ring of truth. In 1975, assigned as a graduate assistant to teach a course in early American literature, I had to prepare by reading Puritan sermons. Those dead white males also made great sense to me.
Fighting and kicking much of the way. I went through not only an intellectual change but a deeper transformation. While a Communist I believed man's problems to be external, with revolution as the solution. Bible and sermon reading, however, pushed me to see the problem as internal and the only cure personal. During the mid-1970s God, in a sense, reconfigured my psychology, so that the utter arrogance and self-centeredness that had previously characterized me was gone. I remained a sinner and still have periods of rotten self-centeredness, but ego normally does not control me as it used to, and I no longer exalt my wisdom above that of God's.
Reading the whole Bible helped me to confess sin, because apart from the New Testament neither the full gravity of man's problem nor the full opportunity for redemption is clear. When I was baptized and joined a church in 1976, I did not agonize about leaving Judaism to accept Christ, because I had left Judaism a long time before. Joining a church seemed like coming home to the Bible, but this time to a completed edition.
Changes in my political philosophy were a subset of theological change. Freed from thinking of man as naturally good but held down by a bad environment, I began to see family and business as God-given gifts. I became a partisan of governmental decentralization, for an understanding of original sin suggests that those who gain godlike power act like the devil. A free market system seemed right as well, because when markets are truly free people prosper only by serving others. As I began to write from a nascent biblical worldview, my academic reputation began to fall. I received a Ph.D. in 1976 only through the support of the one conservative at that time in the U. of Michigan history department, Stephen Tonsor. He came on to chair my dissertation committee after the previous chairman, who had written glowingly about my intellect when I was spouting Party dialectic, decided, when he read a conservative-sounding draft, that I had suddenly become stupid.
After gaining some experience in the business world by working at the Du Pont Company I wanted to get back to writing and teaching, and so took a 50% cut in pay to become an assistant professor at the University of Texas in 1983. I published like crazy and gained tenure in 1988 and further promotion, after a battle, in 1993. (Many Texas professors, like their counterparts elsewhere, suffer from Christophobia, but Texans also love football and learn to play by the rules. Since I published, I did not perish.)
There was further gnashing of faculty teeth in 1995, when Newt Gingrich discovered The Tragedy of American Compassion, my book on the history of poverty-fighting in America, and made it required reading for the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The university allowed me to go on unpaid leave; one advantage of being an outspoken Christian professor is that colleagues do not seem at all tearful about waving goodbye. I was able to spend twenty months during 1995 and 1996 talking with political and media leaders about welfare reform, and relishing the success of reform legislation in August, 1996.
At that time and since, I have tried to explain that effective compassion is challenging, personal, and spiritual; the contrast is with a secular liberal welfare state that emphasizes entitlement, bureaucracy, and the attempt to ban God from the premises. I've been able to see firsthand the work of heroic Christians who face hardships far greater than those in my classroom; they work one-to-one with long-term alcoholics and drug addicts, and with men coming off years in prison or single moms leaving years on welfare.
I was able to travel to seven inner-city areas last summer with my third oldest son, who is now 15, in order to research a book that came out recently, Compassionate Conservatism. The book, I hope, shows some gritty street-level reality and also suggests a need to maintain church/state separation but to tear down the wall that has kept Christians and others from expressing their faith in public areas. I believe very strongly in what the name of the think tank at which I am a senior fellow--the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty--suggests: Discrimination against faith-based institutions in public policy is an assault on both religion and liberty.
My book-writing has slowed down over the past six years because I've been editing World, which with 105,000 paid subscriptions has pushed into fourth place among American weekly news magazines. But I still teach, and I see how at my state university, as at others, race, ethnicity, and gender are emphasized, but not ideological and theological diversity. Secularism rules: It's okay for a professor to go to church, but questionable for him to base his writing and public speaking on what the Bible teaches.
I believe that classes at a state university should reflect to some extent the variety of beliefs in the state; students should learn secular perspectives but also religious alternatives. Nor should we readily salute liberalism's emphasis on the plasticity of human nature. For example, many liberals argue that virtually all male/female differences are cultural in origin, but that runs counter to the biblical belief that a human nature exists, and that within this nature men and women typically have God-given differences that go far beyond reproductive organs,
The combination of secularism and liberalism constitutes our established, dominant campus faith. Instead of encouraging discussion, many administrators sit by and even applaud as anti-Christian professors and students imitate professional wrestlers by slamming with chairs those who think differently. And yet, the campus of a state university belongs not to the faculty but to the people of a state, and biblical approaches should not have to hide in a corner.
We need to assert again and again, with fierce conviction, that Christians should have the same free speech rights as secularists inside and outside the classroom. We need to explain that the first amendment was designed to provide freedom for all religions, not freedom from any religion. We need to do this in small ways as well as large.
For example, here's a recent small way. I had sent an article about helping the homeless to a scholarly magazine and received a response along the following lines: "Dr. Olasky, My sincerest appreciation for your contribution to our magazine. Please find attached the draft of your article, which has two small word changes suggested by the Editorial Committee. The Committee wants to change 'she [a bag lady] needs a minister who will teach her that she is made in God's image' to 'she may need a minister.' Also, the Committee wants to change 'We need Christ' to 'We need religion.' The general impression of the Editorial Committee was one of support but they expressed concern over possibly alienating some of our members. I therefore suggested making the language more inclusive and it was accepted."
I responded, "Thanks for your note. I cannot accept the change to 'may need'; that is what she objectively needs to learn. If the concern is with 'minister,' the sentence can be reformed to read, 'She needs to learn that she is made in God's image.' Concerning replacement of 'need Christ' to 'need religion': No way. Religion can be a bad thing or a good thing. When the ex-addicts I'm reporting on say 'Jesus Christ set me free,' I can say no less, both in terms of what I believe and in terms of accurate reporting."
A short time later I received a brief, grim-sounding response: "I have made the necessary changes to your article as stated in your e-mail, and have re-submitted it to the Editorial Committee." But soon afterwards the final response came: "The piece will run as you wish. I look forward to future occasions wherein I hope to elicit your participation." One very small victory, but it arose out of a willingness to be defeated.
I've suffered losses small and large, but have certainly come to realize that if we as professors are to be bold in our profession, we need to read and think regularly about how Christ himself came to earth not only to die but to live amid rejection. His death was painful spiritually, psychologically, and physically, but think also of the rejections during his life--by family, community, local religious leaders, national religious leaders, and even his disciples. Much of the Bible is about painful rejection: Israel's rejection of God the Father, of prophets, of the Son.
So, for that matter, is much of human history. Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the great 16th century journalistic/historical account, is about the rejection of God's people through the ages. Paul Johnson's book Modern Times, a history of the 20th century, implicitly shows the rejection of God. Freidrich Nietzsche a century ago, and Ted Turner more recently, snarled that Christianity is a religion for losers. That's not true, because the last will be first, but it is certainly a religion that acknowledges the reality of rejection.
Can we handle that? The test of our testimony is not what happens when we're saved but how we act in the decades afterward. I've recently been examining applicants for membership in our church, and the crucial question concerns not when a person made a profession of faith--that may be done many times, like quitting smoking--but how God has changed an applicant's life. In my own case, I know I'm a sinner, but that I'm able to proceed at all as a husband, father, professor, journalist, and elder is a tribute to God, not myself, because all my inclinations were toward evil. I could not even have prayed for God to be as kind to me as He has, because I had no understanding of what to pray for.
God is kind to all of us, and that's one of the reasons Christianity is a religion of contentment amid distress. Here's one piece of advice in Jeremiah Burroughs's great book from the 1640s, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment: "Make a good interpretation of God's ways toward you." That means, if you have some trouble or fail a test, think that God perhaps has given you a trial to build your character. Perhaps you had your heart inordinately set on a particular selfish goal. Perhaps, had you succeeded you would have used the opportunity to fall into sin. "Perhaps God is preparing you for some great work, or setting the stage for some great grace."
Christian professors need to push the back of the envelope. We should expect beatings and then trust in God to heal all wounds and eventually wound all heals. As Joachim Neander wrote in 1680 in his "Praise to the Lord" hymn, "How oft in grief hath not He brought thee relief, spreading his wings to o'er shade thee." Christian in Pilgrim's Progress regularly had grief, which was regularly followed by relief, and that seems to be what God ordains. Let us rejoice and be glad in His providence.