David Kuo is the author of a new book called Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. Kuo was a special assistant to the president and the number two official at the White House office on faith-based initiatives from 2001-03. He could be a big problem for the Bush administration, because he asserts that the famous White House faith-based initiative fell far short of its bold promises, was a cover-up for very bad domestic policies on poverty, and was cynically politicized to serve partisan Republican purposes.
It’s strong stuff. Kuo says he was “dazzled” by George W. Bush and his idea of “compassionate conservatism,” but that Bush never followed through with his promises. The actual funding fell far short of the $8 billion the president personally pledged for his faith-based initiative—about 1 percent of the pledge—while effective domestic programs for low-income families were slashed to pay for tax cuts mostly favoring the rich.
Bush talked a lot about his faith-based program but never fought for it, according to Kuo. He believes the president’s campaign speech on faith-based initiatives “was one of the most important political addresses given in the last generation,” but Kuo says the failure to deliver on those promises came before 9/11. In the end, Bush delivered only “a whisper” of the promise and let the “compassion agenda” languish.
Only a fraction of the money promised was ever appropriated and disbursed, and the program also tended to favor organizations friendly to the White House political agenda, claims Kuo. I have also been told of extremely pro-administration, pro-Republican, and anti-Democratic political rhetoric at meetings of the faith-based initiative grantees. Kuo further alleges that former White House political director Ken Mehlman used the office to mobilize religious voters in 20 targeted races—19 of which were won by Republicans. Kuo says the outreach was directed both at conservative evangelicals and at traditional Democratic allies in racial/ethnic communities that are highly sensitive to religious messages and Republican wedge issues. Kuo charges that this was the exploitation of religion for political ends in which “good and well-meaning people are manipulated,” and that “God and politics were fused together.”
Is anybody surprised that a White House ruled by the likes of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney would engage in manipulation of religion? I recall the reflections of the first head of the faith-based office, John DiIulio, who left after six months. DiIulio later cited the disconnects between the White House’s faith-based office and the domestic policy advisers, whom he referred to as “Mayberry Machiavellians.”
Kuo describes the cynical character of the faith-based program, where White House officials would regularly “roll their eyes” privately about religious leaders and refer to them with disdain, even calling them “nuts,” while in public praising them as allies and reaching out to their constituencies for votes. Kuo writes, “National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy.’” On 60 Minutes in mid-October, Kuo said, “You name the important Christian leaders, and I have heard them mocked, by serious people in serious places.”
For full disclosure, I should say that I’ve known David Kuo for years. We met at a retreat and began a conversation that has lasted ever since. He was and is a conservative evangelical Christian, as he said on 60 Minutes, and he was quite unhappy with the many contradictions and hypocrisies of liberalism. I had to agree with much of his critique. But he also genuinely cared about the poor, and that was our point of connection. Kuo was one of those genuine “compassionate conservatives” that many liberals don’t believe really exist, but truly do. Yet he eventually came to realize that there weren’t many compassionate conservatives in the White House, which preferred to use the religious community for its own political purposes.
When asked if he believed the White House will now come after him, Kuo replied, “Of course they will, I can hear the attacks, ‘Oh, he’s really a liberal, or maybe that brain tumor really messed up his head.’” (Kuo survived a bout with brain cancer while serving in the White House). But, he said, “I have this burden on my heart that the name of God is being destroyed in the name of politics. … I felt like I had to write this.”
KUO AND I HAD lunch just before he left the White House, and he told me of his plans to resign. “I believe the president really has a heart for the poor,” he told me, “but I don’t think it matters.” It was a stunning statement, clearly suggesting that other priorities ruled at the White House. “So,” he told me, “I am going to leave before he breaks my heart.” Now Kuo is the Washington editor for Beliefnet and oversees the God’s Politics blog.
The White House Office of Faith- Based and Community Initiatives hired some of the best people around. Its first two directors, DiIulio and Jim Towey, are people I greatly respect and consider friends. DiIulio realized quickly what the White House priorities were and got out, while Towey, in my opinion, stayed too long.
In the beginning, I supported the initiative too, and I met with President Bush and other religious leaders on several occasions to discuss it. I believed, and still do, in a level playing field for faith-based organizations, which ought to be eligible for public funding if they obey federal law and guidelines and do not use social service funding for explicitly religious purposes. “Fund results, not religion,” as DiIulio used to say. But I said to President Bush early on that partnerships with faith-based organizations should never become a substitute for sound domestic policies aimed at serious poverty reduction. And that’s exactly what happened. Then political manipulation of religion only compounded the crime of political neglect of the poor.
Read Tempting Faith, written by a real compassionate conservative, and weep for the loss of what could have been. Then beware of those who would manipulate genuine faith for partisan political purposes.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. A version of this column appeared on the God’s Politics blog (godspolitics.com) hosted by Beliefnet.