Meet Bush's Guru

Dubya's 'Compassionate Conservatism' Has A Father

So who coined George W. Bush's favorite label for himself - "compassionate conservative"? The answer is: Marvin Olasky, a college professor in Bush's state of Texas. 60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon takes a look at the evangelical Christian who was once a Marxist.
When George W. Bush wants to describe himself to voters, he only needs two words: "compassionate conservative." It's a term Bush uses in almost every speech, but it wasn't concocted by speech writers.

The man behind "compassionate conservatism" is an obscure journalism professor at the University of Texas. His name is Marvin Olasky and he is a man with a past - many pasts, in fact. He's a Jew-turned-atheist-turned-Marxist-turned-evangelical Christian. He's been advising Bush for years - and his ideas are so influential that he's known as "Bush's Guru." And his philosophy of compassion features a warm heart and a very hard head.

Critics blast Olasky for claiming that people are poor by choice, by their own insanity, or because of parental abuse.

"What I've said is that in this society right now, that is the most frequent reason why people are poor," said Olasky. "I've known people who have turned their lives around. And you know, in one sense, I'm one of them."

Olasky sends out the word in the pages of World, the weekly Christian magazine he edits; in a syndicated newspaper column; and in more than a dozen books. And it was Olasky's reputation that led George W. Bush, then a candidate for governor of Texas, to first call Olasky back in 1993. Olasky's been advising Bush ever since.

He is called "the country's most controversial Christian writer," perhaps because he always writes about politics and politicians in religious terms. He's linked Republican senator John McCain to the Greek god Zeus, praised Theodore Roosevelt's "Biblical honesty," and said John F. Kennedy was a "pagan."

"JFK, I think, as is widely known now among journalists, would run young ladies in and out of the White House. You know, hundreds of them ... according to the stuff I've seen ..." said Olasky. "Kennedy was not much of a Catholic, at all."

Olasky looks the part of the mild-mannered professor, but when he sits down at his computer, hellfire and brimstone leap off the screen. Liberals, homosexuals, abortion rights supporters, environmentalists all come in for damnation. Olasky outraged feminists when he said he'd be ashamed to vote for a woman for president, an opinion he now expresses a bit less directly.

"The point I was trying to make is that we should not assume that men and woman are exactly equal in every activity," said Olasky. "There are going to be certain occupations that require great degrees of aggressiveness, in which men are naturally are going to be more abundant than women."

"Compassionate conservatism" - as developed by Olasky an popularized by Bush - isn't all that complicated: religion is good and government is bad. That means welfare is bad, but charity is good. Take that one step further, and it's not the government which should be helping the poor and the needy, it's the churches.

It's an idea that Bush - who wrote the forward to Olasky's latest book - has been preaching since the early days of his campaign.

"Government can hand out money," said Bush on the campaign trail back in January. "We can do that, and sometimes we do a lot of it. But it's important for our country to understand that what government cannot do is put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. You see, this is found in churches and synagogues and mosques and charities."

Bush has proposed giving eight billion dollars in federal aid to religious charities and churches to run programs for the poor. That's about a third of what the government now spends on welfare. To see just just where that money would go, take a look at Victory Home in San Antonio. It's a program Olasky considers a model of "compassionate conservatism."

The men at Victory Home are drug addicts who are breaking their habit with prayer.

"Here's an ex-gang member, an ex-heroin addict. And today he's training to be a pastor ..." said the program's Roman Herrera, describing one of the addicts. Herrera himself was a drug addict until he joined the Victory program 20 years ago. Now, he helps others.

"We give a place to sleep. Warm food. And nice clothing. And we get them shelter," said Herrera. "But also, we meet the spiritual need. We define the problem of drugs and alcohol, the root of the problem is sin ... and the cure is Jesus Christ."

And that's why Victory Home can't get federal money now, because - according to the U.S. Supreme Court - the Constitution prohibits the government from funding any charities with religious ritual or practice. But Olasky believes it's precisely these programs which deserve government help, because - according to his credo - welfare without religion is doomed to failure.

Olasky grew up in a religious home - a Jewish home. But religion wasn't always with him.

"I had a lot of arrogance then, as a teenager," he recalled. "I thought ... that all these traditions of the past, the Bible and so forth, (that) this was just stuff that was written thousands of years ago and had no relevance today."

Olasky had become an atheiest by the time he went to Yale in 1967. Coincidentally, George W. Bush was a senior at Yale that same year. But the two traveled in very different circles: Bush was a fraternity boy, Olasky was a student radical - so radical, in fact, that after college Olasky became an official, card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

But a few years later, Olasky - like the Great Gatsby - reinvented himself. He threw away The Communist Manifesto, left his wif, and discovered Jesus.

Olasky was asked if he ever wondered why he seems to be attached to orthodoxies.

"Well, I do have a tendency, when I start doing something, to try to push it all the way," he replied.

At the same time, he insisted he is not an extremist.

"You ask a person who's an extremist, 'Are you an extremist?' - that's like asking a crazy person 'Are you insane?' Insane people are hardly likely to say that they're insane. I'm basically a moderate, in many ways."

Olasky remarried, started a family, and moved to Austin. He joined a church there - or rather, he founded one: Redeemer Church, a breakaway splinter of mainline Presbyterianism. Members of Redeemer Church take the idea of charity very personally. They run a program called New Start, a group that meets every Tuesday night which helps the poor with counseling, prayer, and Bible study.

Olasky pointed to one verse of the Bible in particular: it says, "If anyone will not work, neither shall they eat." At New Start, they practice what they preach: they give the poor simple church suppers, but they come with a hefty helping of what Olasky calls "Christian tough love."

"Just giving stuff to people doesn't work. We've tended to treat people like animals," he later explained. "We've tended to say, 'OK, we'll put some food in your bowl. We'll give you some water. We'll scratch you behind the ears. And you can lie around all day.' That's not right. That's not fair. That's not treating people as human beings made in God's image."

According to Olasky, this brand of "compassionate conservatism" does not violate the Constitution's First Amendment, which lays out the idea of separation between church and state.

"The Constitution never has anything about evangelism or proselytizing being in any way wrong," he said. "The First Amendment is designed to provide freedom for religion, all kinds of religions. It was never intended to provide freedom from religion, or in any way to inhibit religious activities."

Olasky's views don't go down well with secular groups. But many religious thinkers are equally unenthusiastic. Take the Reverend Charles Moore, who is a Presbyterian minister in Austin.

"I think that Mr. Olasky is sincere," said Rev. Moore. "He was probably sincere as a Communist, sincere as an atheist, sincere as a Jew, and now sincere as a born-again Christian ... This represents the biggest effort to knock a hole in the wall between separation of church and state that I have ever encountered in 50 years of public life."

Olasky countered, "We've had a situation in this country over the past four decades where groups that emphasize religious beliefs have been actively discouraged. And that's exactly wrong."

What was exactly right, according to Olasky, was the 19th Century approach when churches - not government bureaucrats - tried to help the poor But Rev. Moore believes that old-time religion belongs exactly where it was - in old times.

"By all means, let us go back to turkey baskets. I used to participate in that, and always felt dirty inside ... going around to destitute people who needed all kinds of things, and hand 'em a basket. They're so appreciative and everything," said Rev. Moore.

"Just like I wouldn't like to go back to the time before we had flush toilets, I would not like to go back to a time when the only kind of help anybody could expect would be from the generosity of some religious group," he added.

But Olasky believes that's exactly who the poor should depend on for help.

"We've actively discouraged religious people, instead of seeing that this is really the most powerful vehicle to bring out volunteers, people who will sacrifice their lives to help others, people who will suffer with others," he asid.

And you could almost hear Olasky talking when Bush addressed the Republican convention last month.

"We will support the heroic work of homeless shelters and hospices, food pantries and crisis pregnancy centers - people reclaiming their communities block by block and heart by heart," said Bush in his Philadelphia acceptance speech. "Government cannot do this work. It can feed the body, but it cannot reach the soul."

Yet Olasky downplayed the idea of Bush as his disciple.

"He's not an acolyte. This is something that Governor Bush believes in, has believed in for a long time. I've probably provided some help in thinking some of these things through. But basically, this is his idea. This is his sense of what's right and what's wrong. And he's carrying that forward."