The perils of wedding faith to politics
White House staffer David Kuo was anguished when his Christian ideals clashed with political reality.
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As the Christian Coalition grew in influence, Kuo started writing speeches for the big guys – Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, presidential candidate Bob Dole – and became an adviser to Sen. John Ashcroft.Skip to next paragraph
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His story is replete with fascinating insider anecdotes, from how he learned fly-fishing from Sandra Day O'Connor to his first gabby interview with Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Kuo left national politics in an effort to save his first marriage (he did not succeed) and to start his own charity. But he was soon wooed back by the charming governor, Bush, who convinced him of his own deep desire to close "the gap between the rich and the poor."
"I loved him," Kuo writes. "Bush was the real deal. He loved Jesus. He wanted to help the poor. He was the embodiment of the Christian political statesman I had dreamed of finding."
Campaigning for the presidency, Bush promised $8 billion a year in spending for his "compassionate conservatism" – tax credits totaling $6.3 billion to spur charitable giving, and another $1.7 billion for specific programs. After he won, the longest section of his inaugural speech focused on compassion, and the faith-based initiative was touted as his domestic priority.
But the difficulties began immediately, Kuo says, with delays in setting up the White House office and the proposed spending levels dropping without explanation.
As deputy director of the new office, Kuo soon grasped that, "White House staff didn't want to have anything to do with the initiative.... It didn't resonate with them.... Republicans were for tax cuts, business growth, a strong military."
So began three years of trying to get legislation and funding to fulfill the promises to grass-roots religious organizations. Budget proposals lost out to tax cuts. And the White House staff did not even come through with a phone call when congressional Demo- crats and Republicans were finally ready to act on legislation, he charges.
In desperation, Kuo and his colleagues politicized the program – holding conferences of faith-based groups in strategic congressional districts – in hopes of winning the support of White House political staff. Yet Kuo concludes during a visit of black pastors to the White House that even the president seemed content just talking compassion rather than funding it.
After an operation for a brain tumor led Kuo to concentrate on "how I treat others and how I live before God," he left the White House and decided to tell his story.
While Kuo names names and gives telling details – and has been criticized for not portraying the whole picture of the faith-based initiative – his book doesn't seem like sour grapes so much as a confession and a heartfelt plea for people to wake up. Christian political leaders are simply politicians, he says, and never the special pastors many evangelicals would wish them to be.
A wise and refreshingly candid book, "Tempting Faith" is a parable about the limits of politics and the genuine demands posed by faith.
• Jane Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.