To say there are few surprises in David Kuo's new book, Tempting Faith, is not to suggest that it is uninteresting or to be skipped. On the contrary, the book provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how political priorities get made and carried out in the Bush White House.
It's just that, as much respect as I have for people like Jim and David who believed in the promise of the faith-based initiative at the beginning, I have always thought of it as I have the invasion of Iraq: Not necessarily a bad idea, but given what we knew of Bush and his advisors, there was no reason to think it would turn out well.
The initiative was useful, after all, only inasmuch as it promoted the image of Bush as a devout man of faith who had rescued religious groups from the discrimination they had suffered at the hands of government (and probably liberal, it was implied) bureaucrats. Indeed, there were a few instances of grantmakers stupidly refusing to consider an application because the organization had a "religious" word like "Jewish" in its title. But those were few and far between, and easily fixed with an authoritative "Cut it out!" memo. Or an executive order. Take your pick.
Once it came down to the hard work of actually putting the government's money where Bush's mouth was, however, well, there was always something else higher up the priority list. Like the elimination of the estate tax, for example. The most significant piece of Bush's faith-based initiative--tax credits for charitable giving--was pushed aside early on to make way for the repeal of the estate tax. Compassion in action can wait; we've got some rich donors to reward!
In some ways, it's easy to excuse the Bushies--it was sinfully easy for them to get away with their bait-and-switch. The truly conservative religious types, Kuo makes clear throughout the book, were never really that interested in fighting poverty to begin with. When Ralph Reed tried to start The Samaritan Fund in the 1990s, he was only able to raise $500,000 of his $10 million goal. Poverty just doesn't get the blood racing like abortion or gay marriage. In addition, one group targeted by the faith-based initiative--suburban moms who are keen on compassionate conservatism--only needed to hear Bush's rhetoric on the subject, not check his record. And religious minorities, perhaps the most important constituency for the program, were courted through a series of regional conferences and meetings that held out the promise of funds. Unless they each checked with each other, it seemed like somebody was getting money, even if it wasn't them.
My very favorite line in the book is uttered by an aide in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives on the morning after Bush has finally been told that his grand $8 billion a year initiative was really more like a $30 million cardboard cut-out. "We've got to make it look like we're doing something," the staffer told the various faith-based staffers at the agencies. "Stop whatever you are working on and focus on making it look like we're doing something."
Focus on making it look like we're doing something. Because you wouldn't want to actually do something. No, not when you can get political credit for looking like you're doing something instead.