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On Marvin Olasky

Josh Marshall last week seemed a little shocked to discover the deep insanity of Marvin Olasky, the crackpot credited with George Bush's ?compassionate conservatism.? Olasky had published a column arguing that Kerry's very decision to join the Navy and request service in Vietnam was actually nothing more than a ploy to avoid service in Vietnam, indeed a savvier tactic than Olasky's own or Bush's. After reading it more closely, Josh also questioned whether there was an anti-Catholic smear in Olasky's assertion that Kerry's sin (not clear to me what it is) could never be redeemed because he was "once-born" whereas Olasky and Bush had acknowledged that "only God saves sinners."

Is there a religious smear in Olasky's column? Of course there is, although one man's smear is another's theology. And it deserves a little more discussion, because Olasky is one of the most disturbing characters in the Bush pantheon, the domestic equivalent of a Doug Feith or Michael Ledeen. In any normal world, he would be ranting on a street corner, but in Bush's America, Olasky is a trusted advisor whose book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, is, I believe, the only text that Bush has ever cited as an inspiration for his domestic agenda.

I read the book in the mid-1990s, when Newt Gingrich and the not-yet-born-again (as a liberal) Arianna Huffington were touting it. I expected an argument that religious institutions should play a greater role in delivering social services, an argument I was prepared to be sympathetic to, although with the typical liberal caveats about discrimination and proselytizing. Instead, the book is as much an attack on American religion as on government programs. To Olasky, the "tragedy" of American compassion was the existence of compassion. The trouble all began, he argues, not with the Great Society or the New Deal, but with Jane Addams. Before Addams (a deeply religious woman, by the way) brought her tawdry ideas about "compassion" to Hull House, religious groups handed out prayer tracts, not food, and forced poor people to attend church rather than giving them shelter. Since only God could save the poor, anything other than spiritual salvation causes more harm than good. There is no question that Olasky's version of a "faith-based initiative" would involve paying churches to not deliver social services.

Olasky disappeared for a while and then supposedly Karl Rove introduced him to Bush, which led to the "compassionate conservatism" of the 2000 campaign and the "faith-based initiative." Olasky's radical evangelism could hardly have fit well with the far more responsible -- and good -- ideas of John DiIulio, which is why it was never a surprise to me that the faith-based initiative never amounted to anything. For too many people, probably including Bush, it was always an excuse to do nothing.

Then there is the matter of Olasky's pose as a modern-day Whittaker Chambers. He has seen the dark side of the left, he says, and he alone sought redemption for his sins. Olasky is referring to the 1970s, which he spent as a member of the Communist Party-USA. Now, there is something powerful in the experience of a Chambers or a James Burnham, people who were Communists in the 1930s, and seared by the Hitler-Stalin pact or the revelations of Stalin's crimes, began to see how their earlier idealism had betrayed itself. It made many of them wiser and more skeptical of absolute systems of truth. But the 1970s? The Communist Party-USA, disgraced decades earlier? That may be a crime, but worse, a pretty dimwitted move. Even among serious Marxists, 99.9% would never have joined the CPUSA in the Brezhnev era. Rather than give credibility to Olasky's later conversion, his Communist past has always seemed to me to call into question his basic judgment. Why would you trust someone more because he was a moron in the 1970s? Obviously, he is one of those people who is driven to seek the farthest extremes possible, and likewise in the choice of his religious affiliation in a self-created denomination known as the Presbyterian Church in America (not to be confused with other denominations with similar names), which is about as far outside mainstream protestantism as the CPUSA was outside the mainstream of leftist politics in the 1970s. (He cast off his former religion, Judaism, the same way he cast off Communism.)

Finally, there was an interesting line in Olasky's column that Marshall found. Referring to himself and Bush, in contrast to Kerry, Olasky wrote:

The other thing both of us can and do say is that we did not save ourselves: God alone saves sinners (and I can surely add, of whom I was the worst). Being born again, we don't have to justify ourselves. Being saved, we don't have to be saviors.

I'm not really qualified to understand what he's talking about, but there was an echo there of that amazing, shocking Bush comment to Bob Woodward: "I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president.  Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation. "

Senator Byrd and others who have called attention to this strange quote have seen it as an extreme example of presidential arrogance. But it may be that they are, like so many before them, reading with secular eyes and ears language that has a far different meaning in a particular religious context. But I'm just speculating here because I am out of my depth on the subject of the varieties of born-again-ism.

I wish the Republicans had had the courage to introduce the nation to Mr. Olasky at their convention. Zell Miller's "conversion experience" just doesn't go far enough.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on August 28, 2004 | Permalink


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Finally, the first blog to seriously mention Marvin Olasky. I have mentioning him in comments at Yglesias for months at least.

Ever seen him speak? To go out on a nasty limb you wouldn't, I could easily imagine the aura of intellectual certitude that Olasky and Laura Mylroie can project being very impressive to Georg W Bush. Don't know about Mylroie, but Olasky would have an attractive biography to Bush also.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 5, 2004 3:57:12 PM

The discussion above shows a total lack of understanding of what Olasky is speaking about. You admit you don't understand the quote which is the foundation of the Christian religion which brought us the freedom of speech we have today in this nation. I suggest you study a little of American History and Western Civilization and the foundations of this nation if you want to understand the context of Olasky. We seem to be in a post-christian world today in which all knowlege of our past has been lost. It is too bad, for we will probably have to live through a lot of bad events before we can recover that knowledge. Of course we could go back and study some of the old documents, such as Lex Rex by Samuel Rutherford, but who would bother with that today?

Posted by: | Sep 7, 2004 5:09:16 PM

To the anonymous poster above, secularism has absolutely nothing to do with the woeful state of "our knowledge of the past." Americans simply do not care a whit about history -- and, I suspect, your own interest in same is as limited as your reference to Lex Rex would be in any discussion on the founding texts of America's plurastic society.

When mere mortals like you, me or Marvin Olasky interpret the teachings of Jesus, there is always a chance that we will err. For you to imply Olasky's theology is somehow a transparent reading of the Gospel suggests that you are either ignorant of the two thousand years of theological debate that Jesus sparked or you are willing to overlook same in accordance to your political preferences.

Either way, the only "bad events" I can foresee us living through is another four years of an administration so arrogant as to believe itself divinely appointed. History is filled with men "on a mission from God' who do anything but heal the world.

You would do well to consider the remote possibility the President is one such errant believer.

Posted by: Jose Marquez | Sep 7, 2004 9:45:26 PM

To the anonymous poster above, secularism has absolutely nothing to do with the woeful state of "our knowledge of the past." Americans simply do not care a whit about history -- and, I suspect, your own interest in same is as limited as your reference to Lex Rex would be in any discussion on the founding texts of America's plurastic society.

When mere mortals like you, me or Marvin Olasky interpret the teachings of Jesus, there is always a chance that we will err. For you to imply Olasky's theology is somehow a transparent reading of the Gospel suggests that you are either ignorant of the two thousand years of theological debate that Jesus sparked or you are willing to overlook same in accordance to your political preferences.

Either way, the only "bad events" I can foresee us living through is another four years of an administration so arrogant as to believe itself divinely appointed. History is filled with men "on a mission from God' who do anything but heal the world.

You would do well to consider the remote possibility the President is one such errant believer.

Posted by: Jose Marquez | Sep 7, 2004 9:47:05 PM

Sorry for being anonymous, as it has to do with the way the preview of posts works on this system. Secularism has a great deal to do with our present situation. I'm fully aware of a lot of the details of 2000 years of Christian history and knowledge and the appreciation of the importance of Scripture doesn't make one arrogant. I'm certainly willing to admit my ignorance and so is the President as well as Olasky. The fact that one seeks to follow Scripture doesn't necessarily make one arrogant or ignorant. Quite the contrary as indicated by the founding of our nation which was by individuals steeped in the Christian tradition if not always individually Christian. I only mention Lex Rex as an example not as an exhaustive documentation of our Christian history. Of course we can err in our interpretation of the Bible, but the quote above by Olasky is the clear implication of the Christian gospel as agreed upon by the vast majority of Christians over the past 2000 years. It isn't a matter of interpretation by Olasky or myself. The President does feel, I believe that he is called to service of our Lord as do most Christians. This doesn't make him arrogant; rather it makes him quite humble. If Americans cared more about history, we probably wouldn't be in this post-christian world we are in today. We've long since lost the purpose on which most of the major educational institutions east of the Mississippi river were founded on and without which it is unlikely that they would have been founded. Are you aware of the roots of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cornell, etc? The Christian gospel has been the most important force for bring liberty and freedom to the western world in spite of the many errors made by individual believers. A careful study of western civilization and US history (which has been thrown out of our schools) makes this very clear. People today always seem to want to rewrite history in light of the present rather than trying to understand the present based on events of history. This failure to understand our true roots results in one of the greatest dangers to our present culture. Other great nations have fallen into the waste bin of history because of similar forgetfulness.

For example, if one doesn't understand the "Great Awakening" that occurred earlier in the 18th century in the US, you will not understand the foundations of liberty in the US and how different the American Revolution was from the French Revolution. Unfortunately, this history is now being left out of our education system because people don't think it is relevant or politically correct.

Posted by: David Forslund | Sep 7, 2004 11:53:47 PM

Mark, are you talking about this Presbyterian Church in America? Because if you are, it is by no means outside the mainstream of American evangelical protestantism. I happen to be a member myself, and I am a commenter in good standing on several liberal blogs.

Anyway, Olasky's comment sorta sounds like it draws off of what might be an accurate description of PCA-ish theology regarding personal redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and so forth. Where he goes horribly wrong is in acting as if that should have any bearing on politics or justify the taking of political power. That is a pretty clear distortion of anything remotely resembling a Christian viewpoint. (For the record, I have no idea whether or not Olasky is anti-Catholic, but I think that particular comment was intended as an attack on Kerry for being, or at least appearing to be, secular, not because of his affiliation with the Catholic Church per se.)

Posted by: JP | Sep 8, 2004 12:55:43 AM

JP, you are correct about PCA being in the mainstream of American evangelical protestantism.(I'm in the PCA, too.) Olasky's quote is a view not restricted to a the PCA, but are views of mainstream American evangelical protestantism. The Bill of Rights of the US Constitution restricts the role of government in relation to the Church, not the other way around. Our founders were quite comfortable with the church having influence in politics. In fact, it is doubtful that the American Revolution would have happened at all without the active participation of the protestant church. It was expected for hundreds of years that Christianity would provide a "conscience" to politics and government in this nation. It is only today where our courts are trying to reinterpret the constitution to something it doesn't say to try to remove the right of religion to express its views about right and wrong in government. Olasky's views are not at all a distortion of a Christian viewpoint. It may not be the viewpoint of all Christians, but it certainly is a legitimate Christian viewpoint. To denigrate someone just because they have a different but legitimate viewpoint is itself a sign of arrogance and narrow mindedness. Tolerance, itself, has taken on a new meaning today. Christians are declared to be intolerant because they believe that certain things are right and wrong. Tolerance seems to be made equivalent to acceptance today. This is not the historic meaning of tolerance. We can be tolerant of something but not accept it as right. The contemporary usage of tolerance results in intolerance toward Christians because they stand on principle. (I do think that Olasky is taking Kerry to task for his secularity, not his Catholicism, which results in lip-service to Catholicism and an inconsistent theology.)

Posted by: David Forslund | Sep 8, 2004 1:08:29 PM

Well, I don't mean to take this discussion too far afield, but the PCA, even on its own website, very clearly states that it is an ecclesiastical body and that it does not make political pronouncements. I have attended many PCA churches in my life, and I have never seen any political cause advanced in any form, either from the pulpit or otherwise. While it is a theologically conservative denomination, it is apolitical. I would be very surprised if your experiences have been any different.

As for your broader point, I think your views owe a lot more to the doctrine of American exceptionalism than to anything found in scripture. Political activism is entirely absent from the New Testament church. Moreover, one of the most central themes of the Gospels has to do with the disciples' gradual realization that Christ is not a political leader who will bring justice to the earth by taking control of the government, but a spiritual leader whose kingdom is advanced solely though reaching the hearts of individual people. The purposes of the church are worship, evangelism, and mercy, not to make the world a more moral place per se. Olasky's views distort and distract from those purposes. He is essentially coopting the message of the gospel to advance what amounts to a worldly power grab. That is not a view that is taught in PCA churches, nor is it something that Christians ought to tolerate.

Posted by: JP | Sep 8, 2004 8:56:47 PM

Olasky's criticism of Kerry is profoundly anti-Catholic. Catholicism and Protestantism of the Calvinist type have very different theologies. The Calvinist five points (Total Inherited Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints -- "TULIP") are not accepted by the Catholic Church, which is interested in good works as an evidence that you are following God's law.

This is why Kerry's statement about being more interested in being on God's side than believing God was on his side is very telling. It reflects the religious outlook of his Catholic faith, where you are supposed to try to be on God's side by examining what you do, though human beings, as sinners, are not expected to be perfect. Naturally, this point of view would not be accepted as a sincere religious belief by those Protestants that believe in justification by faith alone. This debate runs through tracts of anti-Catholic writing that would occupy many yards of shelf space.

Posted by: excatholic | Sep 8, 2004 9:43:18 PM

Olasky's quote above is not political at all. It is a statement about the importance of the gospel. Olasky does talk about politics, of course, and the PCA seeks to be apolitical. But it is important to understand the impact of Christian thought through the last 2000 years and Francis Schaeffer's work such as "How Should we then Live" illustrates how Christianity impacts all of life. II Cor. 10:5 says to "take every thought captive to obey Christ". Christian thought is to pervade all of culture (cultural mandate). It is the reason why the great Universities in the US were established. The path you describe, JP, is why the culture has gone to the "dogs" so to speak, because too many Christians have given up culture to non-Christians. This is not what Christ would have us do, and certainly is not what resulted in the founding of America. America is nearly unique in the world, but its strength comes from its uniqueness, particularly as it is an outgrowth of Christianity. I notice that a lot of tracts today seem to ignore this important history, totally.
As for Catholicism, the quote above of Olasky is not anti-Catholic at all. Certainly there are differences between Catholics and Protestants, but the views expressed above by Olasky are not involved here.
Again using name calling ("moron") with someone you disagree with is not a rational argument as calling him an "extremist" when he is in actuality not outside the realm of classic, orthodox, Protestant Christianity.

Posted by: David Forslund | Sep 9, 2004 12:23:34 AM

I am unfamiliar with Francis Schaeffer. But I think that you are misquoting the 2 Corinthians passage. In context, Paul is clearly contrasting the church's "war of ideas" with the weapons of the world. The point is that the church is to spread the gospel through argument, not through coercion, and it is to focus on "taking captive" people's *inner thoughts*, not their external actions. If anything, that passage seems to undermine your view that political activism is a proper function of the church.

Meanwhile, I have a question: why should we care that our culture has "gone to the dogs"? Is our culture any more immoral than that of the first-century Roman Empire? No, it is not. But neither Christ nor the first-century church made any effort to end immoral social practices like orgies or gladiator shows. Rather, the goal was limited solely to evangelism. Worship produces morality, not the other way around. Moral coercion may be proper within the Christian community, but it is pointless to try to bring it to bear on secular society as a whole. You say that the path I describe is not what Christ would have us do. Yet, that path is exactly what Christ actually did, and under much worse circumstances than those we live under today.

Meanwhile, the belief in American exceptionalism has absolutely no scriptural basis. Rather, it is American syncretism - a purely secular myth that the American church has adopted, corrupting the purity of the gospel. It puts the welfare of this nation on par with the universality of the gospel, which I think borders on idolatry. God's only representative on earth is the church, not the government or people of any particular country. Scripture is clear in saying that we are all supposed to be strangers in the world, and that our only country is in heaven. There's no American exception there. A large segment of the American church, in my view, is committing a grave error in believing otherwise, but I would hope that at least in the PCA, this viewpoint would not take hold.

Posted by: JP | Sep 9, 2004 12:44:30 PM

I respectfully disagree with your interpretation. Paul's argument is in the area of ideas, but everything we do is to submitted to him, not simply our religious activity. This is simply a further working out of the cultural mandate of Genesis. Coercion is certainly not involved.
We do need to motivate people morally. One way that has historically been done is through various laws. People say you can't legislate morality, but we do have laws regarding murder, etc. The only reliable way we can improve our country's morality is through evangelism and a change of people's hearts, which really can only be done by God. Are you saying we should not have any laws regarding morality in our society? If we do have laws governing morality, whose principles will be use?
I'm not sure I follow your argument with regard to secularism and exceptionalism. Certainly no one should put the welfare of the nation on a par with the universality of the gospel. This has nothing to do with the discussion. Biblically, all government is subject to God (cf. Lex Rex by Rutherford) whether they acknowledge it or not. If God is sovereign, he is sovereign over all creation, not just the "church". We are not to abandon the world. This is unscriptural.
You should really read Francis Schaeffer's work. It is the seminal work in the 20th century in this area. He his regarded by many to be the greatest Christian theologian in the 20th century. That you are not familiar with him and his work is unfortunate. If you do read his work, I would be interested in your opinions. His most recent work was "The Great Evangelical Disaster" which was written shortly before his death. My earlier reference was to his fundamental work "How Should We Then Live" which speaks directly to this entire issue. He has written a lot and worked in Switzerland for many years at L'Abri. He was a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod that merged with the PCA in 1982.

Posted by: David Forslund | Sep 9, 2004 1:19:41 PM

If you study what I wrote back in September, you might be able to understand to some degree what happened on Tuesday. You may not like it or agree with it, but it is an important factor in that must be understood. There are people today who believe in absolute truth. This doesn't mean that a person has a corner on it, but that there are knowable absolute truths, not simply relativistic truths. Schaeffer uses the term "true truth".

Posted by: David Forslund | Nov 5, 2004 4:02:50 PM