Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations



Status Kuo
by Dennis R. Hoover

The “faith-based initiative”—a set of policies that, if nothing else, was meant to broaden the eligibility of faith-based organizations (FBOs) to receive government funds for their delivery social services—had been one of the few political winners for the Bush administration. It appealed not only to a key GOP constituency, conservative evangelicals, but also to many in the middle. It had been a useful thing for Bush to tout in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 election cycles.

And then came 2006. The thumping endured by the GOP was of course mainly a result of corruption scandals and the Iraq war, but it certainly didn’t help that October ushered in a season of exposé for the administration’s faith-based domestic agenda.

First there was the New York Times, which found fit to print a four-part “In God’s Name” series October 8-11. Series author Diana Henriques relentlessly catalogued what she and her Times research assistants claimed were special favors being doled out to religion—exemptions from regulations, rules favoring religious employers over their employees, tax breaks, land-use privileges, and more.

This inspired John DiIulio, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, to pen, “The New York Times versus Religion: So Much Nonsense in a Four-Part Series” for the October 23 Weekly Standard. In it, DiIulio invited Times readers “to imagine an America in which all of those ostensibly favored faith groups disappeared tomorrow. Who would suffer the most, and who would have to pay to replace the social services that they now provide?”

Henriques hit back in a letter appearing in the November 4 Weekly Standard: “DiIulio’s essay focused largely on his complaint that I did not accurately or fairly address the issues surrounding federal funding for religious groups that provide social services … [but] out of almost 18,000 words, only three paragraphs, totaling 139 words, mentioned those topics at all.” The main point of her series, Henriques wrote, was to demonstrate “the trend toward greater governmental accommodation of religious groups.”

The Times investigation was embarrassing for the Bush administration, which has always claimed that the faith-based initiative only “levels the playing field” and does not privilege religion. Yet the political fallout was manageable: Conservatives can usually dismiss an attack from the Times as mere confirmation of the paper’s liberal bias.

The damage that could not be controlled, however, started on October 13, when the media began getting hold of the explosive contents of Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, a new book by David Kuo, former Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The book was officially launched October 16, but MSNBC obtained a copy in advance and set the tone of most of the coverage that followed: “Book says Bush Just Using Christians.”

In Tempting Faith, Kuo (an evangelical Christian who in 1996 worked for then-Senator John Ashcroft on the original incarnation of the faith-based initiative) claims that the Bush White House used the rhetoric of the faith-based initiative hypocritically to reassure the religious right about Bush’s personal evangelical bona fides. In fact, according to Kuo, the president’s men gave the initiative almost no attention, except for sponsoring ostensibly “nonpartisan” seminars on the initiative in selected congressional districts (a corruption he admits having devised himself) in order to bolster the GOP. 

And not only that. Kuo recounts that behind closed White House doors staff would deride leaders of the religious right as “nuts,” “ridiculous,” and “goofy.”

This wasn’t the first time Kuo had publicly criticized the administration he once dutifully served. In February 2005, he garnered 15 minutes of modest fame by taking to the web pages of to accuse the administration of being unwilling to spend any real political capital to make good on its promises of compassionate conservatism. “From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants,” Kuo wrote. “It never really wanted the ‘poor people stuff.’”

But because his new book offers many more juicy details about the administration’s alleged cynicism and manipulation, it vaulted Kuo onto a whole new level of visibility, including appearances ranging from CBS’s “60 Minutes” to PBS’s “Tavis Smiley Show” to Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

Most of the ensuing media coverage took the form of short summaries of the gist of Kuo’s allegations, followed by quotes from various White House officials and GOP stalwarts flatly denying every charge, affirming how much the Bush administration really, really likes and respects the leaders of the religious right, and accusing Kuo of being politically motivated.

John Blake’s November 4 piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Ex-Bush Staffer: White House Using Evangelicals,” was typical: “David Kuo has a blunt midterm election message for conservative Christians who support President Bush because they believe he’s a godly man: You are being used.” 

In his October 30 Weekly Standard column, Fred Barnes fumed that the “mainstream media” were making a celebrity out of Kuo to help liberals undermine GOP chances. “If you suspect there are forces eager to suppress Republican turnout,” opined Barnes, “you are right.”

From the belly of the mainstream media beast, the Washington Post’s Alan Cooperman indicated how the timing of certain events in October might have suggested a bit of a media conspiracy. As it happened, a number of religious right outfits, including Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, had designated October 15 as “Liberty Sunday,” the marquee event of which was a 7 pm broadcast designed to rally religious conservatives to vote. At that very same hour, Cooperman noted, the first interview with Kuo about his book was broadcast on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

But Tempting Faith is not your typical Washington kiss-and-tell book. It provides precisely what the subtitle says, an “Inside Story of Political Seduction,” and in the process raises larger questions about the state of contemporary evangelical political engagement. Kuo’s earnest purpose in this spiritual memoir is to call fellow evangelicals away from the siren song of politics to which he himself succumbed. To underscore his point, he ends the book with a plea for evangelicals to take a two-year “fast” from politics, so that they can get their priorities straight.

Most evangelicals are not right-wing ideologues. Rather they are like Kuo—devout people who believe in helping the poor, and who took George W. Bush at his word when he first ran for president as a compassionate conservative and promised not just to change the funding eligibility rules for FBOs but also to provide $8 billion dollars per year in new anti-poverty spending.

Many mainstream evangelicals liked the sound of this, but it never generated much enthusiasm from the major figures on the religious right. Kuo’s ingenuousness and ineffectiveness in fighting for this agenda within the Bush administration can thus be seen as a metaphor for broader shortcomings of evangelical politics. In the faith-based initiative, the evangelical center found a flagship issue, but lacked the political muscle and savvy needed to get it implemented.

Indeed, while political scientists have for years been arguing that evangelical politics is maturing (becoming more organized and comfortable with strategic alliances and compromises), several media commentators used the Tempting Faith story as a chance to reflect on how much “maturing” remains to be done. By far the most pointed of these commentaries was Alan Wolfe’s “The God that Never Failed,” in the November 6 issue of The New Republic:

Tempting Faith is in its way a significant book, not for what it teaches about the Machiavellians in the White House—surely there are no longer any surprises to be had on that front—but for what we learn about young, idealistic, and phenomenally naïve Christians such as David Kuo. It is not an analysis of a mentality, but a documentation of it. To be sure, there is no doubting Kuo’s sincerity. His faith in God is unwavering. He is truly committed to good work on behalf of the poor. He did eventually leave the White House, and with the publication of the book he testifies to the cynicism that he found there. But his recovered righteousness is itself a kind of alibi. For people like him served as enablers for one of the most immoral presidencies Americans have ever endured. If we are to know what makes Bush so bad, we need to know more about why people who are so good could ever have been seduced by him.”

Other commentators sounded more constructively critical notes. On October 17, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, “I once hoped—and still hope—that the left and right might meet in some compassionate center to offer support for expanded government help to the needy while also fostering the indispensable work of religious and community groups.” But Dionne also expressed another hope—that Kuo’s revelations spark a “quiet reappraisal by rank-and-file evangelicals of their approach to politics.”

Perhaps ironically, the best of the broader-gauged commentaries came from the same paper that produced the “In God’s Name” series. In his October 28 New York Times column, “The Disillusionment of a Young White House Evangelical,” Peter Steinfels wondered “why this obviously intelligent, alert, and devoted young man did not see the train wreck coming.” Could it have had something to do, Steinfels asked, with evangelicals’ tendency to “put a premium on words and feelings rather than on actions and results?”

Or, maybe it’s just hard to see the train wreck coming when you’re riding in the train. David Kuo has disembarked to search his soul, and he’s praying his fellow evangelicals will join him—for the next two years anyway.



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