Book Review: Tempting Faith by David Kuo
When Politics Seduces Faith
Review by Melissa Rogers
October 18, 2006
Book: Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, by David Kuo
This review first appeared at TomPaine.com
Melissa Rogers is an attorney who currently serves as visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School.
Some Christians are pretty ticked off at former White House official David Kuo right now for what he has written in his new book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction . If his book causes more Christians to reevaluate the hard-wiring of faith into partisan politics, however, it will have done a great service to the Gospel.
In his book, Kuo documents the three years he worked for President George W. Bush (2001-2003) in the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.
One of the book’s themes is that the White House repeatedly and quite intentionally manipulated faith for partisan political gain. This certainly isn’t the first time such a charge has been leveled, but the fact that an insider does so buttresses those charges and provides previously unreported details. It also may give the charges a hearing with entirely new audiences.
For example, Kuo describes how he and the White House “laid out a plan whereby we would hold ‘roundtable [faith-based] events’ for threatened [Republican] incumbents with faith and community leaders” during the 2002 election season. He also reports that White House senior advisor Karl Rove's office was happy to help track down about $100,000 for each of a series of subsequent faith-based conferences in politically important states.
Meanwhile, Kuo describes a White House that was breaking promise after promise to deliver new money for social service programs. To mask that fact, Kuo says it used a host of tactics, such as borrowing from some programs to pay for others, spinning budget baselines and subdividing certain funds into smaller grants. Perhaps most significantly, Kuo says the White House sacrificed tax measures that would have benefited charitable endeavors for ones that hurt them. And, as Kuo now admits, the White House practiced an approach that was not fact-based when it said the faith-based initiative was needed to end a pattern of governmental hostility toward religion. All the while, the White House frequently “played the religion card,” Kuo says, using Bush’s religious credentials to encourage blind faith in the president and his administration.
The charge that the White House has cynically used religion in these ways isn’t surprising. The surprise, and the deep disappointment, is when religious leaders don’t push back. This book portrays a segment of the conservative Christian community as having lost its way. “Christian conservatives seemed especially vulnerable to [the seductive power of the White House] and everyone working with them knew that,” Kuo says. He describes a variety of White House perks that were regularly doled out, including phone calls and passes for Air Force One landings as well as trinkets like presidential cufflinks and pens. The White House did so “knowing the Christian leaders could give them to their congregations or donors or friends to show just how influential they were.” Kuo says the White House realized that “[m]aking politically active Christians personally happy meant having to worry far less about the Christian political agenda.”
As Kuo points out, that agenda sometimes appears to be shaped more by ideology or partisanship than Christian principles. For example, the issue of poverty often has been missing from this agenda even though it is unquestionably at the core of Christian concern. Of course, Christians may differ over how to tackle poverty, but it’s legitimate to question a Christian’s silence on issues Jesus addressed again and again.
Some Christians also have exhibited a disturbing pattern of shutting down dissent or even questions that could damage the Republican party, Kuo says. For example, “[a] friend in a major pro-family organization said that in their regular polling they wouldn’t even ask other Christians if they were disappointed with the president,” he says. Why? “They didn’t want to know.” When Kuo left the White House and began to voice some criticisms of the faith-based initiative, he asked a friend in Christian media why she thought there was so little coverage of his commentary. “ ‘Because,’ she said, ‘the White House was going to cut off anyone who gave you coverage.’ ” Again, I’m not surprised to hear Kuo say this. I am surprised when Christian organizations let a partisan agenda dictate their activities.
What is the price of such distortion and exploitation? The most important one is that it undermines faith itself and thus the ability to reach and minister to those around us. It also harms our nation. When religion ceases to be a fiercely independent prophetic voice, our country loses an important source of moral guidance and vision.
I should note that I disagree with Kuo’s assessment of a number of church-state matters, and I’m not vouching for all of his claims. I’m also not endorsing his idea of a “fast” for religion from political engagement. I am saying, however, that Kuo makes a persuasive case on the broad themes described here.
Kuo’s book is cause for disappointment, not joy, among Christians who aren’t right-wing Republicans. Christians with different political perspectives should regard these matters as a cautionary tale, a pit into which any politically active religious community may fall if it loses focus and fails to practice accountability. Political parties organize around doing what it takes to win elections. When religious communities participate in policy and politics, however, they should be guided by principle rather than partisanship.
Of course, the big question in Washington right now is how Kuo’s book will affect the midterm elections. That is neither my focus nor my time frame. To me, the most important question is whether more Christians will reevaluate the relationship between their faith and partisan politics. If a sufficient number of Christians do so, it may or may not be good for the fortunes of one or another political party. But it will be good for our faith and good for America.