Compassionate Conservative?

Marvin Olasky And 'Biblical Law' In America

Marvin Olasky has a plan for the wall of separation between church and state: he wants to blow it up.

In his new book, Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, And How It Can Transform America (The Free Press, 226 pp., $24), Olasky argues that social services in America should be broadly shifted from the government to churches. These "faith-based" agencies, he says, may be subsidized with tax credits, vouchers and perhaps even direct grants.

To do that, Olasky argues, the church-state barrier and other impediments must be removed. Thomas Jefferson's wall, he complains, "would stop compassionate conservatism in its tracks." Like other Religious Right activists, Olasky has found an easy solution to this problem. He simply rewrites American history. The founding fathers, he claims, never intended to create a strict separation between religion and government. In an increasingly overused phrase, Olasky writes, "The primary goal was freedom for religion, not freedom from religion."

And, of course, Olasky doesn't mean just any religion. Although the book contains the occasional nod toward American religious pluralism, it turns again and again to the idea that poverty, delinquency, drug abuse and other social ills have one best solution: conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. And the government, he believes, should do everything possible to encourage such conversions.

Olasky is hardly a household name in America today, but he may become one. The Austin, Texas, editor and journalism professor has a knack for making friends with men in prominent places. During the mid-'90s, he was a favorite of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who wrote the foreward to Olasky's book, Renewing American Compassion. Olasky, Gingrich said, teaches us to move "from bureaucracy to personal help, and from the naked public square to faith in God."

Now that Newt has fallen from political grace (and into the arms of wife number three), Olasky has moved on to greener pastures. In recent years, he has become an influential adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who picked up Olasky's term "compassionate conservatism" as a campaign theme. Bush provided the foreward to Olasky's current book and Appendix B of the volume is a reprint of a Bush speech on religion and social services.

Indeed, much of Olasky's book is little more than a campaign tract for Bush. He praises the GOP candidate for having a "keen and probing intellect" and an "understanding of the history of poverty fighting." He criticizes Vice President Al Gore for supporting charitable-choice aid to religious social service agencies but insisting that no public money go to groups that proselytize.

The rest of Compassionate Conservatism is part travelogue, part screed. Olasky records the adventures of himself and his 14-year-old son Daniel as they moved about the United States visiting social service agencies, most of them faith-based. The people we meet in the book predictably spout Olasky's political line. Many rail against meddlesome bureaucrats and secular social workers, condemn church-state separation and lambaste public schools and other public services.

Where does Olasky get his views? The New York Times and 60 Minutes II noted his intellectual journey from Judaism to atheism and Marxism and now to a Calvinist version of fundamentalist Christianity (he's an elder in a congregation affiliated with the extremely conservative Presbyterian Church in America). But neither examined Olasky's opinions in-depth or probed the radical forces that influence him.

Although no one seems to have noticed, one clear source of Olasky's thinking is Christian Reconstruction­ism, the most extreme fringe of the Religious Right. Reconstructionists reject democracy and religious pluralism and insist that Christians (of their sort only) should take "dominion" over the country. "Biblical law," they say, must govern every aspect of our lives, with dissenters facing the harshest prescriptions of the Old Testament legal code.

In the first chapter of his current book, Olasky mentions his long-term relationship with Howard Ahmanson, a multimillionaire Californian who has bankrolled Religious Right causes of all sorts, ranging from anti-evolution propaganda to school voucher referenda. Ahmanson is apparently a major funder of Olasky's work, winning repeated notes of gratitude in Olasky's books.

But Ahmanson is also known for his advocacy of "biblical law" and his many years of service on the board of the Chalcedon Foundation, the nerve center of Reconstructionism. Chalcedon, a Vallecito, Calif.-based outfit, is the brainchild of Rousas J. Rushdoony, godfather of the movement. Rushdoony has written many books and articles, but his magnum opus is The Institutes of Biblical Law. In that massive work, which now fills three fat volumes, Rushdoony claims the Bible requires the death penalty for 17 different offenses ranging from blasphemy, witchcraft, worshipping false gods and propagating false doctrine to sodomy, juvenile delinquency and adultery (goodbye Newt!).

Rushdoony, who preaches a hyper-Calvinist theology, says true Christians should exclude nonbelievers. "In the name of toleration," he grouses, "the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions as though no differences exist."

Rushdoony wants to shut down public schools and other public services, turning those functions over to the home and church. Relying on his literalist interpretation of the scriptures, he approves of some forms of slavery, insists that abortion is murder, says gossip should be illegal and claims that homosexuals "are a dangerous people, and the relationship between the criminal mind and homosexual mind is a close one." The Bible requires, he says, that men abstain from sex with their wives for 40 days following child birth if the baby is male or 80 days if the child is female. And he devotes a long passage on the biblical penalties if your ox gores a man (or another ox).

Rushdoony's Institutes also mandates male dominance in the home, church and society, regarding female leadership as leading to disgrace and shame. "Matriarchal society," he writes, is a "decadent or broken society. The strongly matriarchal character of Negro life is due to the moral failure of Negro men, their failure to be responsible, to support the family, or to provide authority."

Now to most Americans, this is extremism and bigotry of the most obvious kind. But to Olasky it apparently is not. In his 1988 book, Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media, Olasky praises Rushdoony's analysis of the Ninth Commandment and says, "Rousas Rushdoony provides a useful discussion of the many aspects of that commandment in his important book The Institutes of Biblical Law."

It's hard to understand how Rushdoony's chapter on the Ninth Commandment is "useful." It contains just as much bizarre and bloodthirsty biblical analysis and pontification as the rest of the work. In fact, at one point Rushdoony even questions whether six million Jews died during the Holocaust, suggesting the number is exaggerated and an example of "false witness" against Germany.

Olasky's other books also contain references and footnotes to an array of Reconstructionist authors, including Gary North, Gary DeMar, Gary Amos and George Grant. These names may mean little to most Americans, but to observers of Reconstructionism, they are a cavalcade of crackpots, whom no mainstream scholar would take seriously.

North, for example, thinks stoning is the biblically preferred form of capital punishment. He notes that the means of execution are cheap and readily available and that stoning demonstrates the whole community's responsibility for crime prevention. (Picture your Neighborhood Watch as a lynch mob.)

Grant, who served for many years as books columnist for World, Olasky's weekly news magazine, has equally radical opinions. In one of his works, he praised the centuries-old governmental persecution of gays and suggested that the only legal right gays have is to a fair trial. Yet Olasky thanks Grant (and Ahmanson) for help in producing The Tragedy of American Compassion.

Now this tells us three things: Olasky has studied the writings of Rushdoony and Company, he works with them cordially and far from dismissing them as nuts, he considers their views "important." He even seems to have adopted some of their ideas or at least come to the same conclusions--including his central proposal for moving social services from the government to the churches.

Other examples abound. In an interview with the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Olasky said, "God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, 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."

Olasky also has no use for the public school system. According to the Alliance for the Separation of School & State, Olasky has signed that group's proclamation calling for the end of all government involvement in education.

Olasky even seems to accept the Reconstructionists' views on slavery. In his 1995 book, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue: Political and Cultural Wars in Eighteenth-Century America, Olasky observes, "[W]hile Scripture makes defense of slavery in some modes impossible and in other modes difficult, it does not simply ban all of its modes."

No one expects Christian Reconstructionists to take over America tomorrow. But their views have seeped into the broader Religious Right in alarming ways. When fundamentalists moved into national political prominence in 1980, Moral Majoritarian Robert Billings said, "If it weren't for [Rushdoony's] books, none of us would be here." Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson says he isn't a Reconstructionist, but he has invited Rushdoony and North on his television show and as recently as last year he mentioned that he gets North's newsletter.

A lot of Religious Right activists want to see Christians take dominion. They just disagree about who should rule and how draconian the theocratic program ought to be. Ideas from a radical agenda can be carefully repackaged and gradually smuggled into the political mainstream one item at a time.

Is Olasky a Christian Reconstructionist? Does he support the imposition of "biblical law" in America? I don't know the answers to those questions. But the next reporter who does a profile on him ought to ask.