Marvin Olasky bicycled across the United States and took a freighter to the Soviet Union before he found Jesus. He was a registered member of the Communist Party who believed religion is the opiate of the masses, but he couldn’t outrun the “hound of heaven.”
Today Olasky is the editor in chief of WORLD magazine, a Christian news magazine founded in 1986 that now has about 400,000 readers. Olasky has worked in academia and served as an occasional adviser to former President George W. Bush. The New York Times referred to Olasky as the “godfather” of the “compassionate conservatism” concept that formed a central plank in Bush’s campaign platform and his presidency.
Olasky was born in 1950 just outside of Boston, to Russian Jewish parents of modest means. He celebrated his bar mitzvah at 13 and informed his parents that he was an atheist at 14. The atheist went to Yale University (just as George W. Bush was graduating), where he eventually discovered and embraced Marxism.
Olasky put his worldview into action. He started a “worker-student alliance,” naming a college janitor as an honorary Yale fellow. He sat for five days outside the Yale administration building fasting, in solidarity with a strike among the cafeteria workers. During this time Olasky also had his first foray into journalism. When he graduated in 1971, The Boston Globe offered him a full-time job, but he declined in favor of bicycling across the country with only a tent, sleeping bag, and one change of clothes.
“In my mind, flush with anti-American rhetoric, I was touring an empire on the eve of destruction,” Olasky recalled in a series of autobiographical pieces he wrote for WORLD.
When he reached the other side of the country, he found a reporting job at an Oregon newspaper, The Bulletin. But he soon resigned in protest of the “capitalist press.” He officially joined the Communist Party. He wrote in his political notebook at the time, “Around the world revolutionary societies are developing; what is holding them back is the power of the American empire.” His views reached extremes:
People are always being killed by governments, one way or another. The point is, how many, and which ones, and why. . . . Some radicals take a soft-headed approach to revolution. They can’t understand that [Communist Party] work is bad work which must be done, sin whose time has come. Communism may be sin, in its revolutionary power enthusiasm, but it is sin going somewhere.
The Communist Party wanted him to go to Moscow as a foreign correspondent, while building ties with Soviet officials—essentially, to be a Soviet agent. He boarded a freighter to the Soviet Union, playing chess with one of the crew members as they crossed the ocean. He took the Trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow.
When he finally arrived, he discovered what he now considers a divinely merciful communication mix-up. No one in Moscow knew why he was there, and the Soviet officials greeted him with blank stares. A week later Olasky headed back to the States where he decided he would work as a reporter at The Boston Globe again. His pieces focused on class struggles.
What if Lenin Was Wrong?
One afternoon in 1973 everything changed. He sat down to read Lenin’s essay “Socialism and Religion.” He suddenly asked himself, What if Lenin was wrong about God? “When I sat down in that chair at 3 p.m. I was an atheist and a Communist,” Olasky recalled. “When I got up at 11 p.m. I was not.” Through the night he wandered, calling out to a higher authority. Over the next few weeks he began reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and essays of ex-Communists in The God that Failed. He tore up his Communist Party membership card.
But he was still several years from professing faith. Olasky compares that period of his life to the experience of the main character in Walker Percy’s classic novel The Moviegoer, who goes to the movies to escape pressing questions about existence. Olasky joined a film club and watched Westerns to escape. But the Westerns got into his heart, teaching him about moral absolutes.
During this time he met his wife, Susan, and proposed to her two weeks later. Together they looked through the yellow pages for a church in their new home in San Diego, where Olasky was teaching. They chose a Baptist church simply because they knew that Christians were supposed to be baptized. (Today the Olaskys are members of the Presbyterian Church in America.) The Olaskys still put off committing to faith, until an elderly deacon came one day to visit. Olasky remembered, in WORLD:
He and I sat outside in the fall southern California sunshine. A simple, kind man, he did not offer any intellectual razzamatazz. He held up a Bible and said, as best I recall, “You believe this stuff, don’t you?” I mumbled, “Well, yeah, I do.” He said, “Then you’d better join up.” Irrefutable logic. My response—“Well, I guess I should”—may have set the record for the weakest proclamation of faith imaginable. Joyfully, Christ’s deeds and words, not our own, are key.
The Olaskys’ young faith—and their family—grew, and he eventually took a job as a speechwriter at the chemical giant DuPont. But he grew disenchanted with the corporate world, declined a promotion, and in 1983 left to take a journalism professorship at the University of Texas at Austin.
In Austin, Marvin and Susan—also a writer—helped plant a church and a Christian school. Susan started a crisis pregnancy center, convinced that the pro-life movement needed to offer more help to pregnant women. They were foster parents. A pregnant teenager moved into their home for [about a year], and she eventually married the baby’s father. They had three biological children and adopted another child. In 1992, Olasky took up editing WORLD magazine.
Tragedy of Compassion
Olasky began writing what would become his most well-known book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, about how 19th-century Christian charities flourished, but with the growth of government services for the poor and suffering, Americans grew less compassionate. He argued that faith-based organizations, rooted in human relationships, provide more lasting help than government programs. As part of his research, for several days he wandered Washington, D. C., dressed as a homeless man to see how different organizations treated him.
In 1995, new-to-power U. S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich discovered The Tragedy of American Compassion, and he made it required reading for Republican members. “Our models are Alexis de Tocqueville and Marvin Olasky,” Gingrich said in his first speech to the nation. “We are going to redefine compassion and take it back.” Olasky’s ideas helped craft welfare reform, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996. An essentially shy and sometimes stiff man, Olasky became a Washington star, a special guest at expensive dinners. Arianna Huffington (then conservative) asked him to run a charity with her, the Center for Effective Compassion.
Back in Texas, an attempt to end government grants to a Christian substance abuse program prompted Olasky to write an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. The piece caught Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s attention, and he called Olasky. The two connected over the role that faith-based organizations could play in helping those in need. Bush recalled the role faith played in his recovery from drinking. Eventually Bush made “compassionate conservatism” a part of his 2000 election plank, and as president he set up the first White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Under Bush the federal government expanded grants to faith-based organizations.
But Olasky didn’t “play nicely in Washington sandboxes,” in his words. Some press reports characterized him as an oddball evangelical and extreme. After all the political attention, he turned his focus to teaching, writing, and editing WORLD.
Now based in Asheville, North Carolina, at WORLD’s headquarters, he teaches college journalism students the concept of “biblical objectivity.” In his understanding, reporters look at the world not as blank slates but with their faith as a guide to understand and write truth. A favorite Olasky aphorism is, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the streets declare the sinfulness of man.” He wants WORLD reporters to write about both glory and sin. Olasky always expresses intense awareness of his own story of sin and Christ’s glory. Olasky, writing in 2008 soon after he had double-bypass surgery, said, “Christ changed my life a third of a century ago. Every year since then has been a gift. Thank you, Lord.”