Shortly before the recent election, David Kuo's book captured the headlines along with other startling exposés relating to the Republican party and evangelical Christianity.
Kuo's story of life as an insider in the Bush White House and in conservative Christian circles was shocking on two fronts. It described a White House staff that cavalierly "used" evangelical leaders, disparaging them in private even as the staff counted on them to deliver the president's political base.
And it claimed that the "faith-based initiative" – President Bush's vaunted program to fund religious groups that serve the needy – failed to deliver promised resources because the program was ignored or undermined at crucial moments by that same staff, and perhaps by the president himself.
Yet this poignant, compelling memoir has bigger themes. Tempting Faith: an Inside Story of Political Seduction shows how readily someone with the best intentions and noble purposes can be caught up in the heady world of Washington politics – to the detriment of family life and the warping of deeply held convictions. Most significantly to the author, it sends an urgent warning to fellow Christians of the dangers of fusing religion with politics.
Kuo is a devoted Christian who believed, as do many, that putting evangelicals in office was the answer to fulfilling God's purpose for America. Instead, he concludes that focusing on a political agenda tends to distort the Christian message and perhaps even make a god of politics.
"I longed for the day the right political leaders would arrive, govern morally, eloquently profess their Christian faith, and return America to greatness," he writes. "Now I know better. I have seen what happens when well-meaning Christians are seduced into thinking deliverance can come from the Oval Office, a Supreme Court chamber, or the floor of the United States Congress. They are ... tempted to turn a mission field (politics) into a battlefield, leaving the impression Jesus' main goal was advancing a particular policy agenda."
Kuo calls on conservative Christians to take a fast from politics, at least temporarily.
One might wonder if the deep disappointments Kuo experienced led to a coloring of the story. But the stark honesty and insight with which he depicts his own shifting allegiances and personal failings suggests that this book is the stuff of genuine soul- baring and truth-telling. And there are also warm, funny, and grateful memories of his White House days.
Kuo "found Jesus" in high school and was a political liberal in his early years, interning in the Massachusetts office of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Yet he started out in Washington in 1990 at the National Right-to-Life Committee, after experiencing guilt over a shared decision to have his college girlfriend get an abortion.
It was regular attendance at a Baptist church in Virginia that taught him that "our Christian faith presupposed a common political agenda" as well as being a conservative Republican.
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.
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.