In June of 2021, Marvin Olasky eased his lanky, 71-year-old frame into a desk chair and began writing his bimonthly magazine column. The title: “One Year to Go.” After nearly three decades as editor-in-chief at WORLD, the muckraking evangelical news magazine known for its “biblically objective” reporting, Olasky was ready for a gradual, understated retirement in July of 2022—a “glide path,” he called it. He seemed to be getting his wish: a stable of veteran reporters, burgeoning video and podcasting divisions, and a successor who shared his values and general fastidiousness. “I can happily report that WORLD is in good shape for the transition,” he wrote.
Then, a month later, the bombshell: The magazine’s board announced the creation of WORLD Opinions, a new section that would be “unequivocally Christian and conservative,” according to its incoming editor Al Mohler, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president and Trump apologist. Olasky and his staff were blindsided. Under Olasky, WORLD had taken a stand against Trump, early and emphatically, earning scores of angry emails and cancellations. There were rumblings, too, that upper management was similarly disgruntled by WORLD’s stances. Olasky believed the long-standing wall of editorial independence would hold. Now, though, it appeared to be crumbling.
Olasky’s three senior reporters and the senior editor soon quit, but he stayed on to reach a compromise, primarily out of concern for “our younger reporters,” he said. When he couldn’t, he submitted his resignation letter on November 1. His successor and others left soon after. The glide path was no more.
Was WORLD Opinions the final straw? “I’d characterize it as more of a brick than a straw,” Olasky told me, speaking via phone from his home in Austin, Texas. “It was sudden.” In an essay in Current, he recounted asking WORLD executives and board, “Does ‘Biblical’ equal ‘conservative?’” He suggested that the magazine had become “afraid to offend the Right.”
The most challenging aspect, he said, was watching his core editorial team leave en masse; years earlier, many of them had actually lived in the Olasky home during their summer internships at WORLD. “It was, in many ways, family-like. These are people I worked closely with for a long, long time.”
In the year since his departure, Olasky has written for various publications and launched Zenger House, a non-profit that rewards journalists for “street-level reporting” demonstrating biblical principles. It’s in keeping with Olasky’s concept of biblical objectivity. He has long argued that journalists should use the Bible as “the plumb line” for their reporting, declaring, “The only true objectivity is Biblical objectivity.”
For Olasky and his admirers, that philosophy of “biblical objectivity” made the magazine singular—and is now, they fear, being discarded. But others, including many Christian journalists, see it as a problematic framework that can advance one-sided narratives and stoke polarization. And for some scholars of the Christian Right, they hear in Olasky’s ideas the echoes of dominionism— the belief that Christians should reclaim all earthly institutions. It is a worldview some see mirrored in or directly influencing the militant Christian nationalism taking hold today.
For his part, Olasky is actively denouncing Christian nationalism and defying the Trumpward tide. But he’s also fighting a surge his critics believe he helped create.
BORN IN MASSACHUSETTS in 1950, Olasky grew up in a secular Jewish family of modest means. A bookish atheist with self-diagnosed “class envy,” he attended Yale amid the cultural revolution and became a card-carrying Communist by graduation. As a Boston Globe intern and later reporter, he made a point to cover “the dark side of capitalism,” he wrote in his memoir. But in 1973, reading Vladimir Lenin’s critique of religion, he began to wonder: “What if Lenin was wrong? What if God does exist?”
Those questions brought an abrupt end to his Marxist sympathies. He threw himself in the opposite direction, reading up on capitalism and, eventually, Christianity, eschewing mystical theology in favor of the practical. “I had not left Communism merely to believe in pleasant myths,” he wrote. “The question was and is truth.” He officially converted in 1976, later settling into the Reformed Presbyterian tradition. By 1983—long before Olasky’s brand of “compassionate conservatism” became the polestar for George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign—he was teaching journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and honing the defining idea of his career: biblical objectivity.
In The Prodigal Press, published in 1988, Olasky traced the history of journalism from the earliest colonial newspapers, claiming that “until the mid-nineteenth century American journalism was Christian.” But humanism and pantheism, he argued, had corrupted the industry, resulting in “incomplete reporting.” Olasky urged Christian journalists to pursue “true objectivity,” including “both material and spiritual dimensions” in their reporting.
The response to his book was scant and dismissive—the academic journal Church History called the book “hard to take seriously.” But it was taken very seriously by Joel Belz, a publisher from North Carolina who ran a scrappy evangelical biweekly called WORLD. Belz asked Olasky to join the magazine’s board in 1990; in 1992, Olasky came on as editor.
If The Prodigal Press was his “dream,” Olasky later wrote, WORLD was “a dream walking.” Now, he had a platform to test his theories, overseeing a newsroom reflecting the “biblical position” on national politics and world events. As media trust plummeted and traditional newsrooms shuttered, Olasky grew WORLD into a top Christian publication with hundreds of thousands of readers.
In his 1996 book, Telling the Truth, Olasky explained how his reporters approach the “God’s eye view.” Likening Scripture to river rapids, he categorizes topics on a 1-6 scale, with “one” referring to topics where there is biblical certainty and descending from there. With issues that Olasky believes the Bible is mute on—class six topics like NAFTA—journalists “should balance views and perspectives.” But with matters that Olasky believes the Bible condemns, there’s no need for traditional nuance, he argues, using homosexuality as a class one example. “Balancing such stories by giving equal time to gay activists is ungodly journalism,” he stated with trademark terseness.
For other Christian journalists, those lines aren’t so clear. Jesse Holcomb, who teaches journalism at Calvin University, said he tries to be cautious, as a Christian and journalist, about assuming the Bible speaks “loudly” and definitively on issues like human sexuality or abortion. “There are others who also hold a high view of Scripture who might land differently,” he said.
Olasky was always candid about WORLD’s conservative bent. Christian journalists, he wrote in 1995, should fight “a limited war against secular, liberal culture.” Over the years, WORLD assailed the mainstream press, public schools, and the science behind climate change. In March 1997, Olasky’s wife Susan wrote a cover story excoriating Zondervan Publishing for developing a “gender-neutral” Bible. The article earned the magazine a censure, later rescinded, from the Evangelical Press Association. But WORLD won: Within months, Zondervan had scrapped the plan.
In time, though, the magazine became known for its willingness to investigate its own camp. Olasky’s reporters regularly dug into and broke scandals before the mainstream press, including Dinesh D’Souza’s affair, Mark Driscoll’s bogus book sales, and most recently, former Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s sexual misconduct allegations.
A hard-hitting Christian news publication is hard to come by, said Michael Longinow, journalism chair at Biola University. “I tell my students, ‘You may not like the political stance they take but look at their stuff because they do their homework.’”
And yet, Longinow and other Christian journalists I spoke to expressed concern about biblical objectivity. Dean Nelson, journalism chair at Point Loma Nazarene University, took issue with Olasky’s entire concept. “He wants everyone to interpret events through the prism of the Bible, but the Bible itself is an interpretation. So whose interpretation of the Bible are we going to buy into?”
And Longinow acknowledged that biblical objectivity can be “reductive,” fueling evangelicals’ distrust of journalists and creating “Christian silos.” “Taken to its extreme, it can turn into the polarity we have in our nation right now,” he said.
Although Longinow has freelanced for WORLD in the past, none of these men reported full-time for the magazine. But Sophia Lee has: She joined WORLD’s reporting team in 2013 and remained until fall 2021, when she exited because of the magazine’s changing direction. She said her experience was mainly one of “independence and freedom.” Lee, who was born in Korea and immigrated to the U.S., said there were moments when she and Olasky disagreed, particularly on issues like immigration, but he was always willing to engage. “He was genuinely interested in what I had to say.”
Olasky is, of course, aware of the critiques. But what his critics often neglect, he believes, is his emphasis on humility. The Bible does not offer definitive answers on everything, hence the six class “gradations” of the river rapids metaphor. And while biblical objectivity hinges on the Bible being infallible, he stressed: “It’s important to remember that our interpretations are not.”
IN 1977, MARVIN AND SUSAN OLASKY had a profound experience reading Francis Schaeffer, the American theologian who galvanized the Moral Majority and helped kickstart the anti-abortion movement. Schaeffer’s books showed the Olaskys “a battle—theological, intellectual, and cultural—was raging,” Olasky wrote in his memoir.
During this same period, Olasky read and was “impressed” by the work of R.J. Rushdoony, the theological don of Reconstructionism. Like Schaeffer, Rushdoony called for political engagement. But his vision went further: He believed God charged Christians to be “dominion men” who would “reconstruct” the earth according to Old Testament law before Jesus’ return. Olasky told me, “If you had asked me in 1979, ‘Are you a Reconstructionist?’ I would have said yes.”
In 1986, Olasky met Howard J. Ahmanson Jr., an insurance heir who sat on the board of Rushdoony’s think tank, Chalcedon, and bankrolled Rushdoony’s writing. Impressed, Ahmanson asked Olasky to edit and contribute to the 16-book Turning Point series he was funding through his philanthropy, Fieldstead. In The Prodigal Press—book two in the Turning Point series—Olasky directly references Rushdoony. Rushdoony scholar Michael McVicar also detects “echoes of Rushdoony’s historiographic vision,” albeit a “milder” one, in Olasky’s view of American journalism’s decline and his charge for Christian journalists to reclaim the media.
“Reconstructionists influenced me in the 1980s and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that lingered in the 1990s,” Olasky said. But by the time he started writing for Fieldstead, Olasky says he’d largely abandoned Reconstructionism, believing its project of creating a New Eden in America was unattainable and unbiblical. “I was pretty much over it.”
Still, over the years, many have linked dominion theology to Olasky’s “compassionate conservatism,” given its emphasis on dismantling welfare and handing those responsibilities off to churches and charities. As recently as 2019, Olasky contended that separating church and state was a misreading of the Constitution—a common refrain of Reconstructionists and present-day Christian nationalists. (In an email, Olasky clarified: He believes the Constitution suggests that “the government should treat all religions or non-religions equally.”)
Julie Ingersoll, a leading scholar of dominionism and a religion professor at the University of North Florida, thinks it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Olasky considers himself a Reconstructionist: “The truth is, there are no membership cards.” Olasky’s ideas may bear traces of dominion theology even if he thinks he has moved on, she contended.
As for whether dominion theology is driving the current upswell of Christian nationalism, Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, was adamant: Absolutely. “Christian nationalism would be an empty husk of revisionist history without it.”
Ingersoll saw the connection, too: “The Reconstructionists lit fires that got away from them.” After all, she noted, Rushdoony never claimed America was a Christian nation or advocated for violence, but his ideas have been “taken and adapted” by those that do.
For his part, McVicar was cautious about linking Reconstructionism to what we currently consider Christian nationalism. Since the founding, Americans have argued over whether this is a Christian country, he pointed out. “Those are deep tensions in what the country even is. I don’t think you need Rushdoony for that.”
FOR OLASKY, HIS SWASHBUCKLING early years at WORLD and books like Prodigal Press are half a lifetime ago. He’s still committed to biblical objectivity, but his combativeness has subsided. “I’m 72; I may be more mellow about some things than I was back at age 38,” he said.
While he doesn’t believe WORLD helped fuel the current upswing of Christian nationalism, he acknowledged: “Prodigal Press and Telling the Truth probably contributed to distrust of mass media.” He also saw the possibility that Reconstructionists influenced his early work. But he was quick to note that, by the 2000s, he was arguing against the dominionist goal of “trying to enforce biblical law.”
“I think it’s fair to say he has changed,” one former WORLD staffer who worked alongside Olasky for years told me. “Not because he’s given up on principles, but because he’s become less partisan.”
The most significant shift in his thinking, Olasky said, is a fear of the far right. “I haven’t changed my concerns about the far left, but I’m also concerned about the far right in a way I probably wasn’t back then.”
Olasky never voted for Trump, although he didn’t begrudge his fellow Christians who did. He was equally critical of Hillary Clinton in 2016: That September, WORLD’s cover featured the Grim Reaper sporting an “I’m With Her” button. He understood how Republicans could “hold their nose” before and throughout Trump’s presidency. But everything changed when Trump refused to admit Joe Biden won the 2020 election. “To maintain the election was stolen was just pointing us down the road to civil war,” Olasky told me.
During his final months at WORLD, he argued as much; in his column two days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Olasky urged his readers to “cool and not inflame.” When WORLD’s board announced WORLD Opinions that August, it seemed like his own magazine was ignoring his advice.
The current executive editor of the magazine, Lynn Vincent—who took the helm from an interim editor in July 2021—described Olasky as her “mentor” and is confident the magazine is carrying on his legacy of “journalistic rigor” and “[telling] the truth without respect to persons.” In an email, she pointed to numerous reported features from recent issues, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s strategy for tracking down accused abusers and famine tearing through the Horn of Africa.
As for WORLD Opinions, it recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. In an October column, CEO Kevin Martin recalled developing the section, in part, to combat “the temptation to insert subtle opinion into our reporting.” It was also, he noted, meant to help boost digital subscribers. Whether they succeeded remains to be seen (Martin politely declined to speak with me or offer digital numbers). Since Olasky’s departure, print circulation has fallen by 11 percent—although, as one former staffer noted, those numbers have been steadily dropping for years.
Al Mohler remains as opinions editor, regularly stirring controversy. In November, he penned a column denouncing conservative commentator David French for supporting the Respect for Marriage Act on legal grounds. “This is how conservatism dies,” Mohler declared. On Twitter, Olasky rose to French’s defense, calling Mohler’s piece and others like it “sloppy, straw man attacks.” “Sadly, that’s what World is becoming known for.”
Since quitting, Olasky has joined the ranks of politically homeless evangelicals sounding the alarm about the far right—a role that’s earned him approval from some and cries of “woke” from others. Ingersoll, however, was hesitant to heap praise on Olasky and other conservatives who drew the line at Trump. “I think it’s dangerous to too quickly leap to ‘Oh, they’re a hero,’ because they aren’t always self-critical enough to have moved past many of the things that got us here.”
McVicar would not call Olasky a hero per se but commended him for pushing back against the “increasingly nihilistic” far right. “They need moderating voices because there are a lot of folks out there looking for excuses to hurt people,” he said.
Olasky has grown more concerned about the extremist strain of Republicanism, but he feels his party has changed, not him. Conservatives have become less “compassionate,” more “Social Darwinist.”
“It’s tragic that callous conservatism is now in fashion,” he told me.
AMID FEARS ABOUT HIS country’s future and grief over WORLD, Olasky finds hope in the next generation. A decade ago, he and his wife were brainstorming ways they could stay busy after retirement. They dreamed up Zenger House—named after the colonial editor whose landmark libel case paved the way for press freedom—and envisioned it as a foundation celebrating biblically objective reporting. Year after year, the Olaskys squirreled away cash for eventual monetary prizes. This August, they awarded the inaugural prizes—$1,000 each—to eight emerging and established journalists, recognizing stories in WORLD and Christianity Today as well as The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Yahoo. Their stories covered everything from aggressive voter suppression in Georgia to the Salvadoran pastors rehabilitating former MS-13 gang members. Sophia Lee, who now writes for Christianity Today, was awarded for her WORLD story on tent cities at the border.
Olasky tweeted recently from the Zenger House account that its awards exist to honor “excellent stories that show biblical truth, even if that’s not a writer’s goal.” In that, Zenger House may represent the most radical shift yet for Marvin Olasky—a more expansive understanding of biblical objectivity. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the person practicing biblical objectivity is Christian or Jewish,” he said. It just has to reflect God’s truth, even partially.
In an email exchange, I asked Olasky whether his definition of biblical objectivity had evolved over the years. “Overall, seems to me I’ve been generally consistent since becoming a Christian,” he wrote back. “But do I understand more nuances now than I did in 1995? I hope so.”
This was meant to be his polished response. At the bottom of the email, however, he’d inadvertently left behind a chunk of writerly processing, some vestigial notes on biblical objectivity he later gave me permission to quote. “Still a work in progress,” it read. “Trying to find a term is less important than looking at the reporting. Solid reporting is more than a balancing of subjectivities … It’s the practice that matters.”
His critics might be heartened. At age 72, Marvin Olasky is still thinking through the biggest idea of his career.
Hayden Royster is a playwright and journalist from Oakland, CA, who writes at the intersection of belief and culture. Find him on Twitter (for now) at @haydenroyster and haydenroyster.com.