- Deseret News - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Marvin Olasky sits at a table on the screened-in porch of his modest home here, speaking calmly, but with conviction, about topics close to his heart: faith, freedom, and the role of journalism in America.

The editor-in-chief of the evangelical Christian newsmagazine World doesn’t buy into one of American journalism’s most valued traditions — studied objectivity in which arguments from “Side A” and “Side B” are presented as equally valid. He believes that on matters such as abortion and marriage, “the Bible is very clear, so we are not going to be even-handed in the sense of balancing of subjectivities, which is what ‘objectivity’ often came down to.”

Such “advocacy journalism” may seem jarring to the trade’s old-school purists, but it works for the World, which has more than 85,000 paid subscribers (400,000 readers) as mainstream magazine stalwarts such as Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report have evaporated in print. Category leader Time magazine — which in 1922 pioneered the format — has also struggled.

World, a nonprofit operation that has never attracted the large national advertisers whose exit rattled its larger competitors, also sponsors a periodic World Journalism Institute program that Mr. Olasky said trains budding reporters to “follow the Bible and be fair, accurate, honest, and humble in chasing a story” — a dictate unlikely to be issued at secular journalism schools.

To Mr. Olasky, such journalism provides necessary insight for believers in a culture that has taken pluralism to new heights and has often pushed what’s been called traditional Christian values into minority status.

“This is America,” he said. “And I think for a long time Christians have had the erroneous idea that we’re a majority, and we’re (now) learning to live as a minority, which is educational and disconcerting for some, but that’s the way it is.”

The improbable Christian

If there were a master list of improbable converts to both Christian faith and a conservative worldview, Marvin Olasky’s name would probably occupy a prominent position. His grandfather was born in the Ukrainian town of Olyevsk, the Anglicization of which became their American surname. Louis Olasky, originally Lepke ben Yehoshua, escaped the Czarist army in 1912 and ended up in Malden, Massachusetts.

Raised Jewish, Marvin Olasky recalled reading H.G. Wells’ “History of the World” and Sigmund Freud’s “Future of an Illusion,” so that by the age of 14 “I thought all this belief in God was just childish stuff,” he said.

His nonbelief led to embracing communism while he was in college during the Vietnam War. But his long march toward his desire to live in a totalitarian monopoly was interrupted in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

As a doctoral candidate in American Culture, he needed to demonstrate foreign language mastery, so he chose Russian “in order to speak to my Soviet big brothers,” he recalled, and along the way he’d picked up a New Testament in Russian and started reading — very slowly “puzzling out the words.”

“I started believing there was really something here. This is not just a book written by man, there’s something inspired by God in this,” he recalled.

An assignment to teach a course in early American literature — which largely consisted of the sermons of leading Puritan preachers Jonathan Edwards and Increase Mather, as well as authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne — further impressed the young Olasky with Protestant thinking and theology. The 300-year-old sermons, from what he called “dead white guys,” transformed his worldview.

He explained how after becoming a believer he naturally abandoned communism of which atheism is the foundation.

“God brings people through all kinds of different paths. But I really believe in God’s sovereignity, God’s providence,” he said. “So in a sense, in my own experience and then seeing what the Bible has to say, flipped the switch to believing really in freedom rather than totalitarianism.”

Finding ‘compassionate’ conservatism

Mr. Olasky, 64, began his working life in public relations for chemical giant DuPont. But after responding to a three-line classified advertisement in newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher, he ended up spending 24 years teaching journalism history and writing at the University of Texas at Austin — the liberal “blue dot” of the Lone Star State.

He didn’t proselytize in class — either for the brand of advocacy journalism that evolved into World’s reporting style, or for Christian faith in general. But for 10 years Mr. Olasky did teach a course in comparative religions for journalists, showing the connections, similarities and differences among Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

“My goal was to get the kids to think seriously about religion, insofar as much of their training was in materialism, to come out of that (course) thinking that this other stuff is for real in some way and you should deal with it sooner or later in your life,” he said.

Outside of the classroom, Mr. Olasky gained national attention with a 1992 book, “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” which argued against welfare programs long on cash but short on human development. The basis for the book and Mr. Olasky’s thesis was his experiment living as a middle-aged homeless person in Washington, D.C. Social service groups readily provided food, but balked, in the case of the Zaccheus Community Kitchen, when the author asked for a Bible.

The concept morphed into a theme of “compassionate” conservatism (though Mr. Olasky said he didn’t coin the term), first embraced by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, and then echoed by George W. Bush as governor of Texas and 2000 presidential candidate. Today, Mr. Olasky said, Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida espouse the values he promulgated.

Along the way, Mr. Olasky also wrote about the parameters of a Christian worldview and, in 1988, chronicled what he called “the anti-Christian bias of American news media” in a book called “Prodigal Press.”

That volume, reissued last year, caught the attention of Joel Belz, a publisher in Asheville who had an idea for a news magazine tailored to make evangelical readers understand world events and pray about them. Mr. Olasky was invited to “stop by” when in the area, and eventually joined the magazine’s board.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Olasky recalled, the publication wasn’t doing well, and other directors urged its closure. Mr. Olasky said he delivered a short speech making the case for keeping World alive, and by 1994 ended up as editor-in-chief, working remotely from Austin during the school year.

As a news magazine, World’s coverage often follows news events dominating the mainstream media with a distinctive view tailored for its readers. For example, World reported on the racial unrest following the shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer. But World expanded the story to examine both the question of “black-on-black” homicides and whether evangelicals can contribute to finding solutions.

In that same issue, an article on infertile couples included a section on what congregations can do to express love in those situations.

Not even-handed

Despite noted journalist David Halberstam’s assertion that journalistic “objectivity is (garbage),” mainstream journalism has for years prided itself on offering contrasting views, generally in a neutral frame, and allowing readers to make their own decisions. Mr. Olasky takes a different view when it comes to issues on which he believes the Bible has clearly spoken.

World’s reporters eschew the common tactic of finding “a couple of experts who are basically (opposite), (so) you can practice journalistic ventriloquism with the experts. That’s the way the story will settle and come out the way you want it to come out,” Mr. Olasky said.

In his 1996 manifesto, “Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism,” Mr. Olasky defines both homosexuality and heterosexual adultery as subjects where traditional journalistic impartiality is, in his view, unnecessary: “Biblical objectivity means showing the evil of homosexuality; balancing such stories by giving equal time to gay activists is ungodly journalism,” OMr. lasky wrote. “Similarly, in an article showing the sad consequences of heterosexual adultery there is no need to quote proadultery sources.”

One of the first major expressions of World’s approach came in 1997, not long after Mr. Olasky took the publication’s editorial reins. The International Bible Society and Zondervan Corp. planned to release a “gender-neutral” rendition of the New International Version, a Bible translation that had, over the previous 20 years, captured the lion’s share of the evangelical market. World’s editors opposed the move as being “Scripture twisting,” while Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Billy Graham, took a more nuanced approach in reporting the matter.

“We came out in different ways on that,” Mr. Olasky explained. “At that point we got support from lots of others, and at that point Zondervan and IBS had to back down. We figured it wasn’t going to last all that long, and it didn’t last all that long, but nevertheless we stood where we stood.”

The episode also let evangelical readers know they had a choice between two publications: World or Christianity Today, which Mr. Olasky described “historically has been the voice of the evangelical movement.”

David Neff, who edited Christianity Today at the time of World’s Bible-version story, views the difference between the two publications as one of focus. “While (CT) did news reporting, it was reporting largely on Christian organizations, churches, networks. … World (magazine)’s focus used to be much more heavily on secular news with a particular kind of perspective,” he said. “In a sense we saw them as not direct competitors as trying to do the same thing, although we were both asking for the same dollars from subscriber’s budgets.”

Journalism professor Michael Longinow of Biola University in La Mirada, California, said World fills a niche for evangelical readers concerned about the secular tone of general magazines.

“World magazine is like the ‘special forces’ of evangelical news reporting and analysis at the magazine level. They’re not a wire service or a breaking news outlet. They’re a magazine,” he said. “But before that magazine came along, nobody was digging into tough issues and doing real news reporting at the level that rivaled Time or Newsweek.”

Mr. Olasky is on a mission not just to report news through an unflinching biblical point of view but also to prepare other evangelicals for journalism careers in secular outlets. The World Journalism Institute, its mission statement indicates, exists “to recruit, equip, place and encourage journalists who are Christians.” Among its claimed placements: the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Florida’s St. Petersburg Times as well as The Jerusalem Post.

Dean Nelson, founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, said Mr. Olasky’s brand of reporting is not unlike other advocacy journalism.

He cited the left-leaning evangelical Sojourners magazine as “a type of advocacy journalism, and so is World. Both of those magazines see the world through a particular prism that they think is true, and what I appreciate about the World and Sojourners … is they’re very up front about where they’re coming from,” he said.

Refuge for believers

For Mr. Olasky, however, World’s focus is not just about advocacy, but also about providing a refuge for what may be a looming evangelical minority in society. Buffeted by rulings on same-sex marriage and other lifestyle issues, conservative Christians now face segments of society where their views are less likely to be lauded and accepted.

Mr. Olasky said America’s pluralism might well now be turned against traditionally held views, and Christians also need to be ready for that development. He noted that America’s longtime pluralism, which first accommodated “different ethnicities and then different religious beliefs” is now a pluralism of “lifestyles.”

“So Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, we need to see ourselves as a minority,” he said. “When you’re a minority, you’d want to protect minority rights. You don’t want to allow a temporary majority to ride roughshod over the minorities. So that’s where I think we can learn.”

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