As the coronavirus spreads in China, so does fury at the government
"Not my will, but Thine." That "Thine" at the end makes the phrase smell fusty, like something in a grandmother's hope chest. But so many of the good things that I've experienced represent God's overruling of my will.
Left to myself in 1974, on the rebound from my Communist days, I probably would have become a secular libertarian. Left to myself in 1976, until God sent love into my life in the person of Susan, I might have become a libertine. Left to myself at the DuPont Company from 1978 to 1983, I probably would have resigned in frustration several times, instead of learning to rewrite efficiently and not take it personally when others killed phrases I thought were darling.
My first six years at the University of Texas at Austin developed well as the journalism department's specialist in journalism history suddenly left: That allowed me to teach history courses rather than classes in public affairs. I seized the opportunity and started cranking microfilm and fingering crumbling newspaper pages. If that opening hadn't come I probably would not have learned that Christians had edited most early American gazettes and magazines, and might not have started thinking about how Christians could become a journalistic force again. The result of this research was a popular book titled Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media, and my eventual linking up with a new magazine called WORLD.
"Not my will, but thine." The publisher delayed putting out Prodigal Press for a year, and my frustration grew. I was trying to compile a tenure file: That's where professors typically display all their books and articles. The tenure process is a mysterious one and I had no mentor, so I naïvely thought it would be good for me to show the senior journalism professors that I could write a popular book. I now know that if such a strongly Christian book had been in my file, the tenure vote would never have been 7-0 in my favor. As it was, congratulations abounded: I had survived hazing and was now a member of the tenured fraternity.
Membership had its privileges: Journalism Quarterly, a venerable academic journal, made me its book-review editor. Membership had its requirements: Genuflect to the left. My journal editing career ended after one distinguished professor demanded to choose the reviewer for a book he had written that depicted the Revolutionary War as a class struggle, the 1950s as purely a "reactionary" decade, Ronald Reagan as evil and Communists as good, etc. When a laudatory review unsurprisingly resulted, I agreed to run it only if JQ would run my critical review of the book beside it. The JQ editor said no. I was soon an ex-book-review editor.
I did not mourn that dismissal because it gave me time to edit what became known as the Turning Point Christian Worldview series. One of the 16 books in the series examined international poverty, and meetings in connection with that book taught me that it was not helpful for the United States to turn million-dollar bills into paper airplanes and toss them into Africa. Material offerings without worldview change did not work. Was domestic poverty-fighting similar?
Not my planning, but others': A Heritage Foundation executive who had read my writing on philanthropy offered a fellowship that would allow for research at the Library of Congress on the history of American poverty-fighting. Susan, never sold on Texas, welcomed the chance to move to the Washington area: She'd spent summer vacations at her grandparents' house in Silver Spring, Md. We rented a house near what we called Grampyland; Susan hoped that a one-year fellowship would turn into something permanent. We put our oldest son in a Christian school and homeschooled the next two, taking advantage of all the free Washington museums.
The Heritage Foundation gig began wonderfully. I could sit in the Library of Congress-statues overhead, soft-light-diffusing lamps making reading romantic-and fill out slips of paper requesting books. An hour later they would come back to me for leisurely reading. No heavy lifting. No wandering through stacks searching. And, I realized after a month, no sense of the reality of poverty-fighting a century or more ago.
Only when I started wandering the stacks, literally blowing dust off books and records that had languished in anonymity for decades, did the reality of the 19th-century war on poverty sink in. Those records showed that Christian charities helped to change the lives of millions. They showed how a homeless man might come to a mission looking just for material sustenance, three hots and a cot-and there he would find spiritual food that he did not even know existed. They showed how an abandoned single mom, desperate to find a way to control her children, would stumble across a way to control herself.
People often get sleepy in reading rooms, but one other advantage of wandering the closed stacks was that Trappist-type rules of library silence did not apply there. The population of the stacks was largely boombox-carrying, book-retrieving staffers, so it was strange but delightful to read sober late-19th-century reports to the accompaniment of rap and rock. During those months, hoping to differentiate top-down programs favored by Marxists and liberals from decentralized approaches that view everyone as made in God's image and able to contribute in some way, I began talking about compassionate conservatism.
Washington life had additional benefits. We began meeting regularly with national pro-life leaders willing to put aside turf wars and work together. As part of that process we talked about the state of the pro-life movement and wondered whether it was prepared to help more women if the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade: Some pro-lifers thought that would happen soon. Susan and I co-wrote a book showing that pro-lifers were not adequately promoting adoption. In the course of our research we decided to adopt, a process that proved harder than we expected-but it finally happened while we were living in Maryland.
In March 1990 I took a firsthand look at liberal compassion by putting on two dirty sweaters and shuffling through inner-city Washington with the appearance of a middle-aged homeless man. Kind folks over the next two days offered ample food, clothing, medicine, and shelter, but only one, at a massive shelter run by the Center for Creative Non-Violence, asked about my background. With hair uncombed and odor unchecked, I told him I had written speeches for the CEO of the DuPont Company. He must have thought that I was really crazy, but he took it well and offered hope: "Oh, you can write something for us about how rotten the Reagan-Bush policies are."
Except for that offer, no one asked me to do anything-not even to remove my tray after eating. At the Zaccheus Community Kitchen, provider of excellent free breakfasts downtown, a sweet young volunteer kept putting food down in front of me and asking if I wanted more. Finally I mumbled, "Could I have a . . . Bible?" She tried to figure out what I had said: "Do you want a bagel? a bag?" When I responded, "A Bible," she said, politely but firmly, "I'm sorry, we don't have any Bibles."
In July 1990 back in Austin to teach a University of Texas summer school course, I thought my book, to be titled The Tragedy of American Compassion, was done. A major New York house seemed eager to publish it. But I had divided the book's story into 28 segments, and at the last moment realized the story was hard to follow. For five weeks I restructured the book into 13 chapters and revised large parts, all the time sitting in a windowless UT office next to an office where researchers analyzed reactions to an episode of the television show Cheers. To drown out the Cheers music I played the theme music from Rocky III and IV, particularly the "Eye of the Tiger" song: Rocky pushed sleds up Siberian mountains and I pushed computer keys.
"Not my will, but thine." I finished the revision and sent it off, then waited for months until the major publisher decided the book was "too religious" and said no.
At UT, now that I was clearly letting my "religion" affect my "scholarship," some professors regretted the offer of tenure. Iowa State invited me to interview there-maybe we'd become a farm family-but two senior professors grilled me on my "inappropriate" faith in Christ. One professor who was sympathetic later sent an apologetic letter that noted, "It's terribly bad form (and illegal) to quiz applicants about religious beliefs. . . . I found the lack of subtlety unusual and interesting." Interesting, yes, but not worth a lawsuit.
I also interviewed for an endowed chair at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The one conservative professor there later published his account of the proceedings: "Although Professor Olasky was eminently qualified, his interview was a farce, which greatly embarrassed me. Virtually everyone he spoke to wanted to talk about one line and one line only on his vita-the line listing his forthcoming book on the history of abortion in America." The university provost was kind enough to tell me that a pro-life book would leave me unemployable because campus feminists would never allow such a hire.
We returned to Washington in fall 1990 for a second year: I used it to write that history of abortion in America. Susan wasn't happy about returning to Texas in 1991, in part because we were attending in Maryland a good church that combined sound doctrine with heart-convicting preaching. Upon our return to Austin we started to work with three other families to start a new PCA church there, a process that ended with the creation of Redeemer Presbyterian Church; I learned how much work a church takes and how much satisfaction it gives. A decade later we were able to start a Christian school that was similarly high-challenge, high-satisfaction.
In 1992 The Tragedy of American Compassion finally found a publisher, then-small Regnery. With no marketing oomph behind it, the book seemed to vanish, which was disappointing. "Not my will, but Thine." God brought other opportunities, particularly WORLD. Joel Belz had asked me to join the board in 1990, and in 1992 the magazine was still running such a deficit that the board discussed shutting it down. I passionately declared that WORLD was the most important development in Christian journalism in 150 years, so we had to keep it going. Needing to walk the talk, I became involved in the editing.
So I taught on at UT. One of my colleagues announced at a faculty meeting, "Teaching is a form of radical politics, my way of helping to reshape the world." Another said he demanded changed thinking among his students: "I want 100 percent converts, I really do." Another claimed to be a man on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a woman the rest of the week. (Or was it vice versa?) I put up on my office door at Thanksgiving time a cartoon depicting two Pilgrims sitting across from two Indians, with one of the Indians saying, "Rumor has it you're from the religious right."
Meanwhile, largely unknown to me, The Tragedy of American Compassion slowly gained a small following among some journalists and philanthropists in New York and Washington. Then, after the 1994 elections shockingly gave Republicans control of Congress, one or several people introduced putative Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to the book, which he read and apparently loved.
"Not my will, but Thine." My plan had been for the major publisher to launch the book in 1991 with a publicity barrage. By 1994 it would have been old stuff. In God's timing, the book was fresh early in January 1995 when Gingrich-then the political world's center of attention-told the House of Representatives in his first speech as Speaker, "I commend to all Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion."
Gingrich went on to make it virtually required reading for Republican members of Congress. One strange aspect of this was my lack of advance warning. Two weeks later I told Brian Lamb, the great C-SPAN interviewer, that "I was just walking through the kitchen" and heard Gingrich praising my work. Lamb asked, "Where was the kitchen?" I responded literally: "We have a den in our house and the television's at the end of the den, and then there are several steps that go up from there to the kitchen. I was just . . ." Lamb cut in: "What city?" Oh. Duh. "Austin, Texas."
I took a leave of absence from UT and headed to Washington. I would keep editing WORLD but would also spend the next 20 months talking with senators, congressmen, and people around the country about welfare reform.
Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.