The New Statesman Interview - Marvin Olasky

<em>The US Presidency</em> - Bush's mentor wants to save souls and believes the poor should be left

George W Bush has had a guru to help him in his quest to become the most powerful man in the world. He is Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and a fundamentalist Presbyterian. Olasky has had a profound effect on Bush - so profound that, soon after meeting him in 1993, the future president told an interviewer that "those who don't believe in Jesus Christ will go to hell". One of Bush's rare published works is a preface to the book that takes its title from the phrase that made the professor famous, Compassionate Conservatism.

Yet Olasky is a strange guru and has already had to be disowned several times. He was a communist - not just a Marxist, but an actual member of the Communist Party USA - for a few years in the early Seventies, a commitment from which, even now, much of American society shrinks in horror. Olasky agrees it was a terrible thing to do but, in his life-parable, he uses the brief membership as evidence of the extremes of sinfulness from which Christ saved him.

The grandson of a Russian Jew who deserted from the Russian army, he was brought up religious, but gave up Judaism at 14, not long after his bar mitzvah. He sees his leftist period as one in which he responded to praise by liberal teachers at school, at university (Yale) and as a junior reporter. "What I remember about college," he wrote in the American Enterprise in 1995, "is that I could do and write the silliest things and receive plaudits, as long as my lunacy was leftward . . . [at the Boston Globe I could] write an article that was probably filled with gross misunderstandings but [if] it was nevertheless correctly progressive . . . the Globe would print it without even checking to see if I had gotten it right."

In 1999, he criticised three prominent columnists for their lack of respect for the Christian message. All three turned out to be Jews, of which he says he was unaware, but it earned him the taint of anti-Semitism from his less scrupulous enemies.

The year before, he had given an interview to a religious news- letter in which, commenting on the biblical story of Barak and Deborah (who was then the ruler of Israel), he noted that "God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, generally speaking, but when that occurs it's usually because of the abdication of men . . . I would vote for a woman for the presidency, in some situations, but again, there's a certain shame attached. Why don't you have a man who's able to step forward?" Olasky has said this was taken out of context - although, when put in context, the sense remains the obvious one. He now makes a point of saying that "the reason God brought us to Austin" in 1983 was so his wife, Susan, could found a pregnancy centre that advises women on alternatives to abortion.

His reaction to the furore among women over the statement is more important for what it says about Olasky, and about the way in which he influences Bush, than for its content. He is not a mere reactionary: he calls himself a "modern conservative" - a figure who, he says, "enjoys quoting Martin Luther King . . . [as much as] a traditional liberal". He seeks to build a bridge between the truly fundamentalist Christians and the more mainstream conservatives who may, or may not, be devoted to Christ. He sincerely wants to Christianise American society, but realises this is a contested project and tries to be careful of the sensibilities of those who do not share his views.

In part, Olasky hooks into the centuries-old American distrust of the central state and federal activism. But, more importantly, he is a product of the extraordinary growth in importance of the US religious right over the past two decades: 90 per cent of Americans say they believe in God and 80 per cent in an afterlife. Churchgoing may be on the decline, but it is still at somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of the population (compared, for example, to a British level of roughly 7.5 per cent). Sales of religious books continue to grow; so do the audiences for religious TV and radio.

There has been a huge proliferation of churches - mostly Presbyterian - which insist that the Christian life must be reflected in schooling and social policy (especially in abortion policy). The phenomenon is most marked among young and middle-aged families that have moved, often from rural areas, to the suburbs or to the dormitory towns of large conurbations. The Christian right, roused by liberal reforms in areas such as abortion and homosexuality, and by a Hollywood, TV and print culture that sells sex as part of hedonistic consumerism, has come out of the private arena in which it saved souls and entered a public one in which it is determined to save the nation. As Peter Beinart wrote in a New Republic essay of 1998: "The Christian right turned the family from the ideal refuge from the state into an almost Confucian model for it."

The Christian right received an immense boost from Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky - and from his lying about it. When Clinton's prolonged torture at the hands of the witchfinders was over, Olasky reflected their disappointment that he had not been brought to the stake, but warned that the people would henceforth not accept "an anything-goes moral vision . . . the populace [would] want the next president to be someone who would not disgrace the Oval Office" - a piece of rhetoric that passed straight into the lexicon of the Bush campaign.

In fact, the polls consistently showed that the electorate accepted Clinton as a good leader while mildly disapproving of his morals - but Washington believed in what Olasky affirmed. This was a reasonable position for Bush, but Al Gore also seemed to believe it, deliberately picking for his running-mate the pious Joe Lieberman, who had spoken strongly (but not voted) against Clinton.

In a lapidary essay, written in October last year and published in the New York Review of Books before the votes were cast, Joan Didion wrote that the acceptance by both party candidates of Olasky's logic heavily disadvantaged Gore because "an entire generation of younger voters might see no point in choosing between two candidates retelling the same remote story [that] could benefit only one campaign, the Republican".

In one of his numerous columns for the religious magazine World, which he founded and edits, Olasky quotes Bush as telling him that "a person with a changed heart is less likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol . . . I've had some personal experience with this. As has been reported, I quit drinking. The main reason I quit was because I accepted Jesus Christ into my life in 1986." When Bush found his sports business in trouble during the recession of the late Eighties, he joined other Texas businessmen in a prayer group, which considered, among other questions, whether the members "had been too involved with money".

Bush, saved from drink at 40, was bound to have some fellow feeling for Olasky, saved from Lenin at 25. In 1999, as he was preparing to run for the presidency, Bush made Olasky head of his policy committee on religion. Since then, the professor has been part of the Bush policy and speechwriting team. As long ago as 1993, Bush had said that Olasky offered "a blueprint for government". In a major speech in Indianapolis in 1999, Bush used Olasky's rhetoric, word for word, when he promised: "In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organisations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives . . . We will change the laws and regulations that hamper the co-operation of government and private institutions."

Olasky, from his own accounts and from the many profiles written over the past year, emerges as a sincere believer. He and his wife helped found the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, a splinter sect from the Free Presbyterians, and stricter than the mother church. He is active in religious charities and constantly on the lookout for souls to save - including a New York Times reporter attempting to profile him. He often refers to his adopted child, who is of mixed race, using the child as an example of an alternative to abortion. For Compassionate Conservatism, he took another son on a trip around the Midwest to see at first hand what faith-based charities were doing. For another book, he pretended to be a down-and-out, in order to prove that the government and charitable shelters "would not give me the one thing I wanted - a Bible".

He measures his sincerity by the lengths to which he is prepared to go to Christianise society. His Telling the Truth: how to revitalise Christian journalism, first published in 1996, urges Christian journalists to put their religion way ahead of the journalism. He sees a model in 18th- and early 19th-century journalism, which dared to disapprove of all behaviour that was not Christian. The rot set in, he writes, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when populist owner-editors such as Greeley, Pulitzer and Hearst replaced belief in God with belief in reform - a blow from which, he believes, US journalism has never recovered.

Most importantly, Olasky puts into easily understandable words the need to shrink the state in order to grow Christianity. That is the importance of Bush's promise to promote faith-based charities. Olasky believes charities must save the poor for God as well as feed, clothe and house them: indeed, that the former task is more important. He believes that the separation of church from state is a mistake. The truth - that Christ has risen and is above all men - must be proclaimed by Christian leaders in government, especially those at the very top.

So will Bush be a kind of capitalist Ayatollah? Not likely: he does not seem to believe passionately in anything, even that which saved him from drink. More probably, he used the Christian right's version of faith for what it really is - a means of winning and exerting power. In an idealistic society that prefers hypocrisy to cynicism, to espouse a fervent religiosity is an advantage, in business, in social life or in politics. It gives the sinner a narrative of redemption that deflects embarrassing questions. Beyond that, it collides with several hard facts, including the reality that charities, whether faith-based or not, cannot keep the poor from a more wretched form of poverty than the welfare state has allowed for decades. So far, reality has won; Bush is unlikely to defy it as president. But Marvin Olasky has at least helped the former sinner to a position where he can betray his redeemers - as no doubt, in their hearts, they expect he will.

Next Article