Political Hay

Crunchy Kuo

Faith-based opportunist David Kuo casts stones at the Bush administration to liberal applause -- and he feigns surprise.

By 10.19.06

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What a career President Bush's faith-based initiative has had! In the 1990s, it was called "charitable choice" and found its way into a number of pieces of legislation -- above all the landmark welfare reform bill of 1996 -- passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton (a phrase we may have to get used to writing again). In the 2000 election campaign, both candidates endorsed it as they looked for ways to harness the great moral energy of faith-based organizations to address America's social ills.

But once the Bushes moved into the White House, they were pretty much on their own. Legislative efforts to expand the reach of the faith-based initiative to encompass more programs foundered in Congress. Some critics charged that funding faith-based social service providers breached the wall of separation between church and state. Others took aim at the co-religionist exemption, which permitted faith-based organizations to engage in mission-sensitive hiring, arguing that it amounted to federally funded religious discrimination. There was talk about a political spoils system for the President's conservative religious allies and about incipient theocracy.

Much of the opposition could be chalked up to plain old politics. Above all else, the faith-based initiative promised to shake up America's social service delivery system, interfering with the long-standing relationship between the bureaucracies, their (Democratic) legislative supporters, and their clients. What if poor people looked to Republicans, instead of Democrats, for largesse? What if the assistance they experienced didn't come directly from government at all? What if -- as supporters of the faith-based initiative hoped -- the life-transforming assistance provided by religiously inspired social service providers put recipients on a path to independence and self-sufficiency? What if, as a result of this, there were fewer jobs for members of the AFSCME? Any of these developments could have begun to dismantle the Democratic electoral coalition and assemble a new and more formidable Republican counterpart. Small wonder the Democrats fought it tooth and nail.

All of this is intended to put into context the supposed bombshell revelations in former Bush faith-based staffer David Kuo's new book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, which hit the shelves this week. Kuo, who apparently wishes that the pristine policy of the faith-based initiative hadn't been sullied by crass political considerations, couldn't have picked a better time to make money for himself and his publisher, and to add more fuel to the Bush Administration's funeral pyre.

IN CASE YOU HADN'T heard, this is what Kuo is alleging:

* The Bush Administration made promises about funding the faith-based initiative that it lacked the political will to keep.

* The Bush Administration (apparently at Kuo's suggestion, no less) organized faith-based events for strategic political gain, apparently sending staffers to meet with faith-based organizations in twenty key districts in 2002.

* The faith-based initiative served as a kind of pious window dressing for the Bush Administration, while behind closed doors White House political staffers expressed scorn and contempt for their conservative religious allies.

Let's take these charges up in order. According to Kuo, President Bush has fallen far short of the $8 billion in new funding for faith-based anti-poverty programs. In the first two years, Kuo says, the total was more like $60 million.

Two points are worth making here. First, funding numbers are slippery things: by the White House's accounting, in the last three fiscal years for which we have data (FY 2003-2005), roughly $5.3 billion in grants were disbursed to faith-based organizations. These competitive grants were awarded by federal agencies using independent peer review panels to evaluate proposals. The purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiative, with which Kuo was affiliated, was not to hand out money, but rather to help faith-based (and community) organizations compete on a "level playing field" for federal grants. The data show some measure of success in doing so.

Further, Kuo complained in a 2005 column about the underfunding of the Compassion Capital Fund, which was supposed to comprise $200 million of President Bush's promised $8 billion. Well, the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced a round of CCF grants, bringing the four-year total awarded to -- guess how much? -- $206 million.

I won't claim that the money is configured in quite the way President Bush promised during his 2000 campaign. What's more, some of the tax incentives Kuo claims are important aren't part of the package, but these budget numbers are not insignificant, especially in the face of resolute Congressional opposition.

Of course, Kuo would respond, as he did to CBS's Lesley Stahl: "if the President wanted it, he could have gotten it." Or, as he put it in the 2005 Beliefnet column that announced his disenchantment with the Bush Administration: "Capitol Hill gridlock could have been smashed by minimal West Wing effort." Really? It's that easy? I guess, then, that President Bush didn't really want Social Security reform, since he didn't get that either.

Kuo's picture of what the President could have, should have, done assumes that there's no give-and-take with Congress, no resistance from entrenched interests, no competing priorities in the White House. It assumes, in other words, that there's no politics in the enactment of a major policy initiative. Giving him the benefit of a doubt for intelligence and perspicuity, he can't be serious.

Kuo's second charge is equally unserious. During an election campaign, of course people associated with the White House travel in such a way as to enhance the political prospects of the President's allies. What's more, the promotion of a policy also requires engaging in politics, as Kuo seems to have recognized when he made the suggestion back in 2002.

Of course, Kuo is now taking the role of a repentant political sinner, wishing that he hadn't perverted the noble goals of the faith-based initiative for mere political advantage: "I feel like it was...spiritually wrong," he told Lesley Stahl. "You're taking the sacred and you're making it profane. You're taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy." He goes even further: "I think that Christians, particularly evangelical Christians need to take a step back. To have a fast from politics."

Last I heard, the faith-based initiative was intended to mobilize the armies of compassion to achieve earthly goals. For the most part, grantees are supposed to refrain actually from proselytizing and attempting to save souls. They may be godly people and their motives may be godly, but their immediately fundable purposes are supposed to coincide with the earthly ends of government. If to enlist religious people for earthly ends, ends that could possibly be achieved by profane governmental means, is to "profane" religion, then Kuo's argument proves too much, for its implication is that religious folk should care about the salvation of souls and nothing else. They should stay out of social service, avoid any possible cooperation with government, and restrict themselves to worship and evangelism. That is, they should do what he blames religious conservatives for by and large doing -- tend their own gardens and largely ignore the human needs in the world around them.

But, again, I don't think he's serious. After all, he's striking his anti-political pose at a highly political moment, when a demobilization of evangelical voters could well be very costly for his erstwhile allies. Not a bad accomplishment for someone who once campaigned for and interned with the Kennedys.

OF COURSE, KUO SAYS that the timing of the book's release was his publisher's idea. As he told Newsweek's Richard Wolffe, "The timing of this book, and when it came out, was certainly not my choice. Why now is something to ask my publisher." He added: "I've written a very profoundly personal, political and spiritual memoir here. This was a very, very hard book to write. It required an enormous amount of very painful soul-searching and I don't think it has been well captured by...the...media.â€

Well, perhaps. But the message he is stressing in his interviews and in his blog -- a message over whose timing he does have control -- is that religious people ought to pull back from politics. For all of his professed awareness of how religion is perverted by its association with politics, he has to know this his current message also will be used and abused by those who can find some political advantage in it. His personal self-presentation would have been more plausible if he had waited until after the election to tell all as he promoted his book.

His final charge -- the one that has gotten the most attention -- is that the Bush White House secretly has contempt for its religious allies, merely using them for political purposes. The much-ballyhooed evidence for this is that "people in the White House political affairs office referred to Pat Robertson as 'insane,' Jerry Falwell as 'ridiculous,' and [said] that James Dobson 'had to be controlled.'" I don't know the context for any of these statements, though in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (during Kuo's tenure in the White House) such sentiments regarding Robertson and Falwell might have crossed many people's minds. I don't doubt that some religious conservatives in politics aren't easy to deal with. (Just ask Dick Armey.) Of course, at that level of political life, most people aren't easy to deal with. And I don't doubt that, at times, tempers flared. We're talking, after all, about flawed human beings, who I'm sure Kuo would regard as sinners (as we all are). That they say things that they shouldn't, that they express frustration, ought not to surprise us.

So what are we left with? In the end, Kuo's complaint amounts to this: there's politics in Washington, D.C. Christians, he suggests, should stay away. But then they should stay away from every human institution that doesn't meet their (his) fastidious standards. I guess, then, they should also stay away from churches. And, indeed, they should avoid undertaking anything whatsoever with their fellows. No good works, no engagement with the culture.

All that would be left, pace Rod Dreher, is a kind of crunchy monasticism. About that Dreher may on some level be serious. Kuo, I think, is not.

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About the Author

Joseph M. Knippenberg teaches at Oglethorpe University.