Reviewed by Amy E. Black
Faith in Politics
David Kuo opens his memoir with early memories of fishing, suggesting that "Fishing was a repeated act of trust… . I trusted that the thing at the end of the line was a prized large–mouth bass and not some stinky carp or catfish." I, too, have very early memories of fishing, and I, like Kuo, learned to fish with my father. I vividly recall my first catch off the dock at Pine Cove camp; I beamed with pride at the tiny (and in my mind beautiful) catfish. Kuo and I disagree on what makes a great catch (I still love catfish), just as we disagree in our interpretation of some of the events surrounding the faith–based initiative.
Kuo's book is in many ways two books. The first 122 pages are a spiritual memoir of sorts that paints a rather stark picture of the pitfalls of pride and the intoxicating effects of power, both on those who wield it and to those who hover nearby. The second half of the book belongs to that ethically complicated genre, the political insider kiss–and–tell. Journalists and Bush critics will skip directly to this second half, mining for the most outlandish stories and damning quotes. Fellow Christian conservatives to whom Kuo wants to speak will likely hear the media noise, write off the author as a traitor, and skip the book entirely.
The first of Kuo's "books" offers an intriguing glimpse into the captivating and wild ride that is American politics. By almost all accounts, David Kuo was a rising star in conservative Christian circles. Within a few years of his college graduation, he was writing speeches for political luminaries including Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, and Ralph Reed. He even landed a job for a few months as speechwriter for the George W. Bush campaign. At times he seems enamored with his own self importance; one doubts that he always played quite the central role that he claims. Then again, inside the corridors of Washington power, overeager twenty–somethings can have more influence over public policy than outsiders would want to know.
Kuo's narrative sheds disturbing light on the insularity of partisan politics and the dangers of ideological enclaves. He describes his narrow social and ideological environment at work and at church; reflecting back, Kuo laments the dominance of one–sided discourse and often uncharitable characterization of political opponents. He rightfully notes the arrogance and narrow–mindedness that easily build if we lack opportunities for interaction with people across a range of perspectives and experiences. His descriptions will also ring true with many who worship in churches where a single political perspective dominates.
But some of the most glaring examples of the dangers of insular thinking seem to slip almost inadvertently into the narrative. It appears that Kuo was likely to buy into the hype wherever he went; many of his patchwork historical narratives miss or dismiss details that would be more apparent to a detached observer. His first full–time job in Washington was with the National Right to Life Committee, and he seems to have accepted their abortion–centered view of the political world. The prologue lists a litany of current problems including this startling sentence: "Abortion is as prevalent as ever." Although the practice is indeed prevalent, abortion rates, ratios, and numbers have been on a steady decline for more than a decade. His discussion of the role of the abortion issue in rousing religious conservatives parrots the traditional line on the emergence of the Christian Right. In fact, as Randall Balmer highlights in his recent book Thy Kingdom Come and William Martin chronicled more dispassionately in his sweeping With God on Our Side, abortion entered the political mix far later than concerns about IRS interference with Christian schools, but Kuo's account uncritically accepts the familiar narrative, describing the IRS battle as a secondary cause mobilizing conservative Christians.
Kuo confesses his own captivation with political power, acknowledging that politics was of much greater importance in his life than God or family. He offers several examples of his own disingenuous actions to bring home his point. Kuo recalls his response to Ralph Reed, who contacted him to ask if he wrote speeches: "Sure," I said quickly, even though I had never written a full speech for another person—or myself—in my life. I had drafted paragraphs here and there, written op–eds, and made suggestions for Mike [Gerson's] speeches, but I figured that was good enough." Describing his scramble to fund his start–up charity, Kuo talks about his interactions with Doug Coe, leader of the influential yet largely unknown group the Fellowship: "I wanted answers—and to be honest, I also wanted access to some of the donors connected to the Fellowship." These revelations effectively bring home Kuo's point that Christians can easily lose sight of their values when captivated by politics and personal ambition. At the same time, however, they create a nagging suspicion in the back of the reader's mind: if Kuo was so willing to lie and manipulate in the past for self–serving ends, how do I know that I can trust him now?