One of Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s closest advisors on religion and the man he’s credited with helping him craft his vision of “compassionate conservatism” wrote an opinion column last week in which he slammed three Jewish journalists as having “holes in their souls” and adherents to an educated atheism he referred to as “the religion of Zeus.”
The Bush advisor — University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky — is an evangelical Christian who converted from Judaism. A proselytizing modern-day missionary who edits the Christian magazine World.
When contacted about the column, which appeared in the Feb. 16 Austin American-Statesman, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said, “He’s expressing his opinion, not the governor’s.” Futhermore, McClellan said, “We’re not going to get into playing the political game of guilt by association.”
But Olasky, reached Thursday evening, insisted there was no “guilt” with which Bush should fear associating. “This was a piece describing folks in the press, many of whom — as I wrote in the column — were raised in secular Christian homes. Any attempt to impute any anti-Semitism to me is complete and utter nonsense.”
“I didn’t even know one of the reporters was Jewish,” Olasky added, referring to the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks. “I knew [Weekly Standard editor and publisher William] Kristol was. And I thought that [New York Times op-ed columnist Frank] Rich was. But I did not know about David Brooks.”
“Oh, golly,” Olasky said, when told that the Forward, a weekly Jewish newspaper in New York, had written that his column might hurt Bush among Empire State voters.
When Olasky wrote of “the religion of Zeus,” practiced by too many American journalists, he was alluding to Tom Wolfe’s recent tome “A Man in Full,” which discusses, in Wolfe’s words, “the death of God — or at least a kind of atheism among educated people.”
But Olasky then compared this conceit with the writing of three high-profile journalists without a lot in common except that they have written positive statements of Sen. John McCain — and that all three are Jewish
Complaining of journalists who “turned” from approving of Bush after he began to speak “publicly of his Christian faith,” Olasky wrote: “A lot of liberal journalists have holes in their souls.”
He then continued, saying, “McCain has a similar appeal to neoconservative journalists such as William Kristol and David Brooks. Last week, they noted approvingly that, for McCain, ‘cultural renewal does not depend on a religious revival.’ They don’t like it when Bush says, ‘Faith, to me, is strength. It puts life in perspective. I recognize that I’m a humble sinner.’”
Brooks, Olasky wrote, “has faith only in Zeus-like strength.” Rich, meanwhile, is “also a case study in running away from the Bible. He likes McCain because the senator would not speak at a Christian Coalition conference but prided himself on the support of the gay Log Cabin Republicans.”
He quotes a column by Rich that called McCain “the first major GOP presidential candidate in years who is not running as a pious moral scold.” That led Olasky to conclude that “Rich’s paranoia about Christians is extreme.”
When asked about Olasky’s lumping together of him, Kristol and Brooks, Rich said: “I certainly don’t think it was unintentional.” He also said he will be addressing this issue — and the Bush campaign’s condemnation of former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, a McCain supporter and also a Jew — this Saturday in his Times column.
“It’s weird to me that a convert out of Judaism would fixate on three journalists who are Jewish,” Rich added. Odder still, he said, was that Olasky would “never mention that fact in his column and then deny to the Forward” — which first reported about the piece — “that he knew they were Jewish when the Jewishness of all three of them is a matter of public record.”
“It’s odd,” said Kristol, of the grouping. When asked if he thought it was a coincidence that Olasky targeted three journalists with “holes in their souls” who were all Jewish — especially with so many gentile reporters who could also be accused of liking McCain, like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, or the Times’ Maureen Dowd — Kristol demurred.
Reached Friday, Brooks said, “When I’m sitting in Adas Israel synagogue, it’s not Zeus I’m thinking about.” That said, Brooks said he doesn’t “think there’s anything anti-Semitic in the piece.”
“I don’t know if this affected anything or not, but I wrote a really negative review of [Olasky's] last book in The New York Times Book Review,” Brooks said. “It was a real wacko book that is reflective of this column. It was about how all good presidents are good Christians and how all bad presidents are bad Christians.”
Olasky explains the selection of the three journalists as simple coincidence. The three men were “authors of two pieces I had in front of me when I wrote the op-ed,” he said. “If I have caused any distress to William Kristol, who I know, or Frank Rich and David Brooks, who I do not know, I am very sorry about that.
However, Olasky said, anyone who would charge that the column was anti-Semitic would be “really hitting below the belt.”
Bush first phoned up Olasky in 1993 after hearing that Olasky had been “born again” at the age of 26, and after reading some of his scholarship.
The two men met for an hour. Then in 1995, during a controversy surrounding the drug program Teen Challenge — which includes a program of religious conversion to Christianity — Bush sought Olasky’s advice, which entailed less government regulation for faith-based organizations. Amid vociferous criticism that he was trying to weaken the boundaries between church and state, Bush pushed laws that promoted more activities by the church, such as day-care and drug-treatment centers.
Olasky was the subject of a profile in the New York Times Magazine last fall, “Where W. Got His Compassion” — during the writing of which Olasky tried to convert the article’s author, New Republic senior editor David Grann.
In the article, Olasky said that the success of these programs should belie any discomfort anyone feels about the proselytizing that takes place within them. “Are you willing to put up with these religious practices that you feel very uncomfortable with but nevertheless you see the success of?” he asked. “Or would you rather end those practices and see more assaults, rapes, drug use and homicides?”
Said Olasky on Thursday night about his relationship with the governor, “he likes my writing and I like his leadership.”
Bush has experienced a bit of trouble as of late because of his proximity to people criticized for a lack of tolerance.
He has repeatedly evaded questions about his Louisiana campaign chairman, Gov. Mike Foster, who was fined $20,000 for hiding the fact he bought mailing lists from klansman David Duke. Bush also refused to say an unkind word about former Republican Pat Buchanan, much to the chagrin of supporters in the Republican Jewish Coalition, who consider some of Buchanan’s rhetoric teetering on anti-Semitism. And since kicking off the South Carolina primary campaign earlier this month at Bob Jones University, Bush has been slammed for refusing to say he did more than “disagree” with the anti-Catholic leanings of the school, where interracial dating is verboten.
“Don’t judge my heart,” Bush has snarled when asked about his reticence on these and other issues. “My little brother Jeb married a Mexican girl,” he said another time when pressed about his speech at Bob Jones.
Olasky, whom Bush once appointed to head up a gubernatorial task force on religion, has played a controversial role in his campaign at least once before. Times’ columnist William Safire wrote recently that an issue of Olasky’s World that came out before the South Carolina primary was “religio-political sleaze in action.” Safire wrote that World slammed McCain as “a conniving politician” who used “liberal, even Marxist, terminology,” and, in reference to wife Cindy McCain’s past drug addiction, wrote, “for all his dependence on his wife’s money, John McCain doesn’t appear to be a particularly attentive husband.”
Olasky said he has worked on 20 books and written more than 500 articles, none of which contain a whiff of bigotry. “I have been very, very vigorously trying to bring Christians and Jews together in a variety of social movements.” He added that in between the time that he was Jewish and the time he was “born again,” he went through a period when he was “very hostile to Judaism.” But he’s long past that, he said.