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Reviewed by Amy E. Black

Faith in Politics

What can we learn from David Kuo's memoir of a Christian in the corridors of power?

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?

Which leads us to the second "book" within Tempting Faith, the insider tell–all that is capturing so much of the media attention. Recounting his two–year stint as the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith–Based and Community Initiatives, Kuo criticizes President Bush and his White House apparatus for failing to deliver on their promises and—especially—for viewing the faith–based initiative as nothing more than a political tool.

Kuo's insider account rarely authenticates sources. Instead, he quotes liberally from speeches and books, recounts entire conversations, and even quotes internal documents (such as an e–mail from his boss, Jim Towey, to his superiors) with nary an attribution. The same author who admitted engaging in disingenuous behavior when it served his own ends now describes private meetings and virtually says, "trust me." In the same pages that call Christians to practice compassion and to honor the name of Jesus, the author is attributing troubling motivations to his former superiors and revealing confidences from closed–door meetings.

Concerns about the genre aside, how does Kuo's inside story stack up? During much of the time that Kuo was working in the faith–based office, two political science colleagues and I were devoting the better part of two years researching and writing a book about the initiative. Social scientists like to resolve puzzles. Ours was this: Presidential candidates Bush and Gore held similar positions favoring increased government partnership with faith–based organizations. How did this bipartisan agreement change so quickly to bitter partisan discord? Or more simply, what happened to Bush's promised faith–based initiative? In the end, our research revealed that the initiative was largely a legislative failure but a muted administrative success.

In more than forty interviews with key players, including Kuo, his two bosses, and his boss' boss, we discovered many consistent themes. The office was created in haste during a truncated transition; White House senior staff were not engaged on the issue; House Republicans circumvented the White House and pursued goals too sweeping and too partisan; the hiring discrimination issue galvanized opposition from the left. Above all, in interview after interview, I was told that Bush deeply cared about the issue—even if his staff and much of his base did not. Even the strongest opponents of the bill recognized this; one described the depth of his commitment as "frightening."

While many elements of Kuo's tale resonate with what my colleagues and I learned in our research, the narratives diverge significantly on two central points. The first is over the separation of powers, or, more specifically, the nature of presidential power. From Kuo's vantage point, if the president really wants something, he has enough power to make it happen. Yet, according to traditional political science, the president's powers are limited, and they are most limited on issues that involve the federal budget. In foreign policy and diplomacy, the president has almost unilateral power, but when it comes to spending government dollars, Congress effectively holds the purse strings. In Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership, a book that remains central to presidential studies more than four decades later, Richard Neustadt describes presidential power as the power to persuade and as the power to bargain. Presidents do not necessarily have command and control, especially over domestic policy.

President Bush's faith–based initiative included three parts: (1) removal of government barriers that deny faith–based organizations the opportunity to compete for federal grants, (2) helping smaller, less experienced organizations gain the tools needed to compete for grants (the so–called compassion capital fund), and (3) reforming the tax code to encourage charitable giving. Kuo focuses most of his attention on the third piece, tax reform. He is correct that (at least until August 17, 2006, when a version of these reforms finally became law) charitable tax cuts failed. But he omits some important pieces of the story, most notably the quick turn from record budget surpluses to budget deficits. Congress passed an initial wave of Bush tax cuts, but they had little interest in cutting more. Could Bush have tried to persuade Congress with a heavier hand? Sure. Would it have made a difference? Probably not. Presidents, like all politicians, have to choose their battles. Pragmatic presidents will determine their priority of issues by, at least in part, weighing the chance of success.

Kuo also pays little attention to the area of real success—the ongoing efforts to remove entry barriers. Bush did not achieve these goals through Congressional action or increased funding, but the faith–based centers the president established in 11 government departments and agencies have had a demonstrated impact on opening more federal programs to faith–based groups.

Second, contrary to Kuo's account, the faith–based initiative was never a high–impact issue for most evangelicals. In fact, Christian Right organizations were more likely to oppose the program than to support it. Kuo is correct that the president hoped the issue would draw support from minority voters, especially in the African American community, but Bush and some (though clearly not all) of his advisers were well aware that the issue faced potentially serious opposition from the political Right. Yet Kuo acts as if the failure to achieve charity tax cuts sold–out the Christian Right. In making this false claim, Kuo ironically misses a much larger point. Republican leaders have indeed failed Christian conservatives by offering more lip service than action on the issues their leaders care about the most. But those issues are abortion and gay marriage, not government contracts with faith–based groups.

Some evangelicals have come to the social justice table in recent days, with the global HIV/AIDS pandemic a prominent example. Here again, though, Kuo gets it wrong. He claims that "the actual money given to Africa was far less than promised." In truth, the program is on target to not just meet but surpass the promise of $15 billion over five years for global AIDS relief. Congress has so far appropriated $8.4 billion dollars, intentionally increasing spending each year to allow for program expansion; if the current $4 billion dollar request goes through as expected, they will be $2.4 billion short of the goal with one more year left on the promise.

Which brings us full circle to the first of Kuo's two "books" within the book. Kuo is right to warn Christians about the dangerous lures of politics. Although the media buzz will likely turn away some intended readers, I don't think we should easily dismiss the warnings both explicit and implicit in Kuo's book. Though he never uses the term idolatry, he demonstrates how political power became an idol in his life and warns others against following that path. His call for a "fast" from politics (except for voting) has caused a bit of a stir, but perhaps that partially proves his point even if he presses too far toward an either–or dilemma. If we can't fathom taking even a short break from political activity, perhaps we have too much faith in politics. Despite and even through its shortcomings, perchance Kuo's book and the controversy it stirs will help turn Christians away from the temptation to place their primary confidence in politics as God's path to cultural restoration.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College. She co–authored Of Little Faith: The Politics of George W. Bush's Faith–Based Initiatives (Georgetown Univ. Press, 2004).

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