[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
June 22 - 29, 2000


Praying for votes

Try as he might, George W. Bush can't put his conservative past behind him

by Seth Gitell

A funny thing happened to George W. Bush on the way to the political center this week. On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a Bush-backed policy of allowing prayer at high-school football games. And Bush adviser Marvin Olasky's new book, Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America (Free Press, 226 pages, $24), began to appear in stores. Both events will remind the public just how far to the right Bush really is. And that reminder may create a credibility problem that is difficult for him to escape.

After all, Bush has been lurching toward moderation. Once you hear him talk about reasonable ideas -- such as the need to protect America's nuclear secrets at Los Alamos -- you can almost forget his fire-breathing ways in the GOP primary, when he spoke at Bob Jones University with former vice-president Dan Quayle by his side and proclaimed South Carolina "Bush country." Since then, Bush has tried to soften his image and build stature. He boldly sketched out his positions on domestic issues such as Social Security and education, and he even showed some heart when he postponed the execution of death-row inmate Ricky Nolen McGinn. Still, weeks like this show that his conservative past will continue to haunt him.

"It's no longer that you can say one thing and do something else," says Gregory Payne, director of the Center for

Ethics and Political Communication at Emerson College. "He's trying to appeal to a certain constituency, the radical right, but he wants the broader electorate. This is his Achilles' heel and will be throughout the campaign."

The prayer case Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District, for example, could hurt Bush with the broader electorate by highlighting his questionable stance on separation of church and state. In April 1993, Jane Doe, whose name was kept anonymous to protect her from reprisals, was a seventh-grader enrolled in the Santa Fe (Texas) school district. She and her siblings objected to the reading of Protestant prayers over the school PA system at football games. In February 1999, the Fifth Circuit ruled 2-1 that these prayer readings violated the Constitution. The school system appealed, and Governor Bush entered the case -- though he had no obligation to do so under Texas law -- by filing an amici curiae brief.

In that brief, Bush pandered directly to the Bubba vote: "Not only does this holding underestimate the devotion some Texans have to high school football, it mistakenly and unnecessarily limits the category of acceptable secular purposes that can support ceremonial prayer." A footnote cites James Michener's novel Texas: "In some areas of Texas, high school football is sacred and the followers' devotion legendary."

The Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 against allowing prayer at the games, was unimpressed with Bush's argument. "We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens. "But such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment."

The decision will hinder the Bush campaign's attempts to portray the candidate as a political moderate. "It is troubling that Governor Bush would do that," says Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, of Bush's support for the school district. "It shows a lack of respect for the Constitution. Shame on him. Good Republicans believe in the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution."

Even more damaging, however, is Olasky's book. Olasky, you'll remember, is the Bush adviser who caused a stir during the presidential primary when he wrote an article in the Austin American-Statesman blasting three prominent journalists who appeared to be supporting Senator John McCain over Bush, all of whom happened to be Jewish. The article started with a brief description of a passage in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full during which a character begins to worship Zeus. Olasky then singled out three journalists who follow "the religion of Zeus": William Kristol and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard and Frank Rich of the New York Times. Olasky, who was raised in Malden, Massachusetts, as an Orthodox Jew but is now an evangelical Christian, wrote: "A lot of liberal journalists have holes in their souls. Some of them grew up in nominally Christian homes but never really heard the Gospels: now they are looking for purpose in their lives but have no understanding of God's grace." The column was immediately flagged for singling out Jews. Olasky said he hadn't known that Kristol, Brooks, and Rich were Jewish and has since claimed that he was the victim of "drive-by character assassination." At the time, a Bush spokesperson said he rejected "guilt by association" and added, "Are we responsible for everything our supporters say?"

Conservative sources say that Olasky is sincere in his religious beliefs and zealous about putting them into practice. He personally performs work of charity and has adopted children across racial lines. But he remains highly controversial. In May, he penned a defense of Dr. Laura Schlessinger for the Statesman. Schlessinger, of course, is the radio-talk-show host perhaps best known for describing gay men and lesbians as "biological errors." Olasky defended Schlessinger on religious grounds. "You see, Dr. Laura, now 53 years old, has become an Orthodox Jew -- that means she has increasingly presented a Bible-based critique of homosexuality," he wrote. He criticized the efforts of protesters who want to see Schlessinger banned from broadcasting because of her homophobic statements, adding: "What was meant for evil is instead producing good. Biblical Christians have come to Dr. Laura's support, showing once again how rare anti-Semitism is among those who read the Bible regularly."

Strong stuff, dropping words like "evil" to describe Dr. Laura's opponents -- and it's anything but moderate. Perhaps that's why, in Boston last week, Bush tried to put some distance between himself and Olasky. "Marvin Olasky is a fellow who lives in Austin, Texas," he told the Phoenix. "He is very much involved with encouraging faith-based programs. He has been at meetings at the governor's mansion in Austin." Bush's spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, added: "We have thousands of informal advisers who come to meetings at the governor's mansion. The last meeting [with Olasky] was about a year ago." (Olasky, now bringing his message of compassionate conservatism to England's Parliament, could not be reached for further comment.)

But it's hard to distance yourself from someone for whom you've penned a book introduction. "Marvin Olasky was the first to show brilliantly how our nation's history is one of compassion," Bush writes in the foreword to Compassionate Conservatism. "Even now, some still look to big government, and others are content to let markets be their only guide. Marvin has emphasized a different view, and it is an approach I share. Prosperity is not enough. Conservatism must be the creed of hope." The author bio on the book jacket describes Olasky as "an adviser to George Bush since 1993."

Olasky's book is a road map for the social-policy agenda that Bush says he would like to promote. Bush's view of "compassionate conservatism," for instance, focuses on letting faith-based institutions run social services, a concept known as "charitable choice." Proponents of charitable choice believe that faith-based organizations are better equipped than the government to address social ills. Of course, churches -- especially evangelical ones -- aren't just in the business of performing acts of charity. They also want nonbelievers to embrace their brand of religion. Which is what makes the idea so controversial.

Opponents of charitable choice highlight the danger that these "faith-based institutions" will proselytize among clients, in search of converts and new parishioners. There's also the concern that government money will corrupt religious organizations. (Al Gore has come out in favor of the concept of charitable choice, but he has cautioned against violating the First Amendment.) Olasky's book doesn't do anything to allay these fears about blurring the church-state divide. In fact, in his jaunt across America with his teenage son, an account of which makes up the bulk of the book, Olasky treats constitutional concerns lightly.

After describing a few visits to religious charities, a common theme emerges: Olasky quotes their leaders lamenting the First Amendment restrictions that would come along with government money. He quotes one youth leader in Dallas saying, "There is no way we could take that money, although we desperately need it. We might as well shut down." Another describes an incident in which a religious group was offered a $170,000 grant. The program leader says she will hire only a "Christian" to run the program. "If the director has sex outside of marriage, I will fire him immediately," Olasky recounts the leader saying.

Olasky praises a Texas prison rehabilitation plan put in place under Bush and describes it as "a Bible-based, eighteen-month prerelease program that emphasizes how God can change hearts." The program had the added benefit of avoiding liberal scrutiny, according to Olasky. "State officials kept the American Civil Liberties Union at bay by giving all organizations, religious or atheistic, the opportunity to propose values-based prerelease programs," he writes.

Finally, Olasky describes a youth program in Indianapolis -- a city then governed by Mayor Steve Goldsmith, Bush's main domestic-policy adviser. A charity known as Village House ran a summer camp for children. The charity kept religion out of the summer camp, but ran a vacation program that combined Christianity with "Afrocentric theology." Olasky quotes the head of the program describing how it evaded scrutiny on the inclusion of these religious elements: "Here, in our summer-camp program, we don't keep up on the wall things about Jesus. We say to parents this is a Christian camp, but whenever we have guests coming here, we take down all the Jesus things."

Throughout, Olasky treats the First Amendment as if it were an arcane technicality -- a provision of some securities regulation, forced upon the good people of America by the ACLU. First Amendment advocates, of course, take issue with this attitude.

"I think that separation of church and state is what guarantees religious freedom in this country," says Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. "It's a major bulwark for religious freedom."

Says the ACLU's Wunsch: "Our name gets tossed out there in this derisive way as if what we care about is just an obstacle -- as if that were un-American. What we exist for is actually nonpartisan and to protect the Constitution of the United States."

And plenty of voters are likely to see things the activists' way. Former Democratic National Committee head Steve Grossman, a key Gore ally, contends that Bush's links to Olasky will hurt him in the general election. "I'm alarmed at the cavalier attitude that this individual takes toward the issue of separation of church and state, which both I and the vice-president take as an ironclad principle of our democracy," Grossman says. "George W. Bush is running away from his own record and his own beliefs as an attempt to masquerade as a centrist, mainstream political leader. I'm not prepared to let George Bush walk away from the views of one of his principal advisers."

Gore has not yet played the religion card in the general election. In his own way, he wants to capture his share of evangelical Christian voters. But he wants the First Amendment supporters, too, so after this week his reticence shouldn't last long. Given that the selection of as many as four Supreme Court justices is an issue in this race, we're likely to hear much more about the Santa Fe religion ruling and Marvin Olasky.

The question is which image the public will buy: Bush the moderate, or Bush the religious conservative.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.

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