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A new front in the war

Moving from the politics of corporate America to the politics of academic America, and trying to publish so as not to perish.

A new front in the war

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

At the end of segment seven (Aug. 29) I was 31, upwardly mobile, and deciding whether to accept a promotion at the DuPont Company. I was troubled by the company's success in deflecting press attention from cases of chemical-caused bladder cancer at a New Jersey plant, juxtaposed against my father's coming down with . . . bladder cancer. But more than that was going on.

Opening up before me was a vista of the good life. The triptych in one of DuPont's central buildings-left panel, past poverty; middle panel, the god of chemistry; right panel, future prosperity-could become my own story. Had I been a chemist or engineer I could have fulfilled my calling at DuPont, which indeed made better things for better living. Sure, we all sometimes make those things rather than God the center of our lives, but that's a problem deeper than any corporate wizard can solve.

So I didn't recoil in 1981 and 1982 from corporate purpose generally: What bugged me was the public relations part of it. DuPont, like many other industry leaders, had made its peace with big government and much of the left. Its governmental affairs department lobbied for regulations as long as they would hurt competitors more than DuPont. Its public affairs department appeased liberals by donating money to pro-abortion groups and supporting ineffective anti-poverty programs.

Much giving was counterproductive. In environmental areas, DuPont and other companies typically backed groups emphasizing litigation and regulation rather than those developing market approaches to protect threatened land and wildlife. Some corporations funded leftist groups like the Center for Community Change, which trained community organizers to file legal challenges to banks that turned down individuals with bad credit ratings. Many large companies banned or restricted contributions to religious groups while supporting organizations of the left such as People for the American Way.

Similarly, companies underwrote the budgets of radical feminist groups like the National Organization for Women and the Ms. Foundation, and minority groups like the NAACP and the Urban League-even though these organizations pushed to increase government power, warred on judicial conservatives, and pressured companies to emphasize racial, ethnic, or gender identities instead of looking at people as individuals. The civil-rights groups had made important contributions during the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1980s they were creating new animosities by embracing reverse discrimination.

I had joined DuPont with the idea of defending free enterprise against the left: Now I found it and other large companies appeasing the left. That, along with the partial cover-up of bladder cancers resulting from earlier use of dangerous chemicals, bothered me. A personal question also grated: Did I want my life story to be one of God bringing me out of Marxism so that I could garner a mansion, a country club membership, and a boat?

I knew that the good life materially could also be a godly life: It's good for Christians to use wealth to help others and big homes as meeting places for church groups. I wondered, though, whether that was a heroic life. Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion was the novel that had prompted me, in my atheism, to bicycle across the country. What great notion now prompted me as a Christian? Could I best accomplish it by remaining at DuPont? Or should my story have more chapters?

With that mishmash of concerns scrambling my brain, I said no to the offer of promotion. This was unheard of. It revealed to DuPont executives my other loyalties. Then I took a vacation day to give a speech to New York City corporate foundation officers that criticized the "anti-religion bias in contributions policies of most large corporations, and the pro-abortion bias of some." I noted that most individual giving goes to religious organizations or causes, but corporations gave only 0.2 percent of contributions to faith-based groups.

During a vacation week in 1982 I wrote an article for Fortune that criticized liberal foundations, and then had an open door to suggest other pieces-if editors liked them, they might offer me a full-time job. I had just read a Christian book that superbly summarized America's recent past and present, Herb Schlossberg's Idols for Destruction. A Fortune editor agreed to my proposal for a full-scale review of the book, but when the review emphasized its theological underpinnings, he said no: "Too much religion."

Life wasn't all work. As my oldest son turned 5 we played Tortoise and Hare in a park nearby and boccer (a mix of basketball and soccer) in our basement. Bedtime reading for him and our 2-year-old included books ranging from Goodnight Moon and Go Dog Go to Sylvia Plath's The Bed Book and the beginning of our Chronicles of Narnia reading. Bedtime singing included "Go Down Moses" and lots of made-up songs. But in the back of my mind was an imperative: It was time to look for a position that would allow me to write freely as a Christian.

In 1983 the president of the neoconservative Smith-Richardson Foundation offered a position as a program officer. The offer was attractive: Program officers shift big bucks by praising or panning grant-seekers. It was also a position that would open doors in publishing: Major foundation officers regularly meet media gatekeepers who don't want to alienate those from whom they request money. The foundation president showed me around his Manhattan Upper East Side condo and explained how articles financed things: "This is the Wall Street Journal dishwasher. . . . This is the Forbes trash compactor."

Since the neoconservative movement was and is largely Jewish, the question arose of how my conversion to Christ would affect my involvement in it. Author/editor Irving Kristol died early this fall: In the 1970s and 1980s he truly was the godfather of the neoconservative movement, so it was good that he blessed me, saying, "We need a smart Jew who's a Christian." But, after my escape from the Marxist hive, did I want to be part of another (although much superior) ideological movement? Also, if Susan and I doubled the number of our children, would there be enough room in a Manhattan apartment?

I saw a three-line ad in the magazine Editor & Publisher for a position as an assistant professor in the journalism department of the University of Texas at Austin (UT). On the face of it, that was a foolish alternative. The academic environment was likely to be hostile to a Christian, particularly a politically conservative one. The salary was half of what I made at DuPont. I had spent a total of four days of my life in Texas, and Susan had never been there.

When Susan and I were dating and hitting movies on the University of Michigan campus every night, we once watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. After that her only restriction on where to live was "anywhere but Texas." Yes, in Texas I'd have time to write, but the Smith-Richardson Foundation president warned me: "If you go to Texas, no one will ever hear of you again."

In August 1983 we put 6-year-old Pete and almost-3-year-old David into our Chevette-it now had a back seat but was still without air conditioning-and headed to Texas. Susan was once again a heroine, ready for another adventure despite her qualms. The 50 percent income cut didn't much matter because we had been living on only half my DuPont salary. We rented a house in Austin. I bought cowboy boots, a computer, and a handgun.

The immediate challenge for me was academic hazing, otherwise known as a publish-or-perish rule. Teaching was a minor part of the job: Six hours a week in the classroom during two terms of 15 weeks each, plus preparation time and office hours for meeting students, still left plenty of hours for writing. Since articles and papers had to be reviewed by three professors who almost always were secular liberals, the recommended way to get tenure was to write noncontroversial articles that would not challenge their assumptions.

Taking that advice for what it was worth, from 1983 to 1988 I developed-in "refereed" academic convention papers and journal articles, all of which led to books-a critique of corporate public relations from a free enterprise perspective, a critique of journalism from a Christian perspective, and a critique of abortion. The topics and my approaches to them were obviously risky, but the problem with being a stealth Christian until a certain goal is reached-tenure, promotion, nomination-is that those who start down that path rarely leave it. Another promotion or opportunity waits. Then another, and another.

Dishonesty has its perils, and honesty-rare in academia as elsewhere-had surprising benefits. Since almost all academic writers on these subjects were secular liberals, I didn't have to spend weeks doing "literature searches" to make sure I wasn't duplicating what someone else already had done. Uniqueness was practically guaranteed, because few people would be foolhardy enough to come at such subjects biblically.

The abortion issue was particularly worldview-centered (I had been a pro-abortion Marxist), but Susan led us further into personal involvement when she founded in 1984 the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center. During our Texas years we would help to start a church, a school, and an anti-poverty program, but the CPC (now called Austin Lifecare) is what I'm proudest of-and Susan led the way. She formed its initial board, raised funds, and was its first chairman. Then I chaired it for a while.

We were poor but life was good. God blessed us with our third child in 1985. When Pete, our oldest, started youth baseball at age 7, Susan and I began 21 straight years of watching our sons play. We had a great backyard that ended at a small creek, and in it we played ball and raised rabbits: Eventually our menagerie included dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, turtles, and fish. Teaching took up two afternoons a week and I worked from home the rest of the time, so we could go out and shoot baskets in the driveway, or swim in the neighborhood pool.

We had our battles. When the local daily newspaper tried to smear our CPC, we were able to prove that over half the paragraphs in its story contained misquotation, inaccuracy, or violation of the newspaper's own code of ethics. The newspaper gave us rebuttal space equal to the space of the original story. We also had our travels: long auto trips every summer, when Susan and I got up early, carried kids to the car, and let them wake up to the strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony just as the sun was rising.

We stopped at lots of Civil War battlefields, and those freshened me for academic wars. When I presented convention papers and wrote journal articles that showed liberal bias during the Scopes "Monkey" Trial in 1925, the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers confrontation over Communism in 1948-1950, and the abortion battles since the 1960s, long knives came out. Professors sometimes turned down articles with no reasons but ideological dislike, yet with novel approaches and the writing discipline I had learned at DuPont, papers and articles emerged regularly. About two-thirds escaped infanticide.

By 1988 my file was full enough to make tenure certain-if UT played by the rules. Two big projects loomed: First, since no one had written a history of abortion in America from a pro-life perspective, I wanted to do it. Second, I could hardly read a book of the Bible without running into God's concern for the poor, so it seemed that Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries must also have been challenged in that way-but the standard history books suggested that serious poverty fighting in America only began in the 1930s. That had to be wrong. I wanted to learn what was right.

Plus, in 1988 someone named Joel Belz read in my new book, Prodigal Press, a footnote about a just-born magazine named World. He asked me to drop by his home in North Carolina.

To be continued . . .

Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.