Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction
By David Kuo
(Free Press, 283 pp.,
Tempting Faith is the story of how David Kuo, an unassuming ifambitious young man, discovered the wonder-filled joy flowing fromdevotion to a force more powerful than himself. I don't mean thathe found God, although Kuo, by his own account, first encounteredJesus in high school. When Kuo tells us how he got "hooked," theobject of his reverence lived not in Nazareth, but in Austin. "Heseemed not just charming, but weighty, seductive yet pure, likeablebut mysterious," he writes of his first meeting with then-governorGeorge W. Bush. "I couldn't tell whether his disclosures wereprivate revelations to someone he liked or just part of a pitch tosomeone he might need. I didn't much care. I loved him."
Neither theological brilliance nor grace-earning humility on thegovernor's part caused Kuo to succumb. It was all about the bottle."Watching him, I couldn't miss the evidence of the former drunk,the lost soul who had fallen to his knees sobbing before God; thesinner who had become God's own." For Kuo, being a Christian meanssharing your journey. "When Christians like me share the stories ofhow we came to believe in Jesus and what his presence means in ourlives," he writes, "it is called a testimony. It is deeply personal,deeply intimate, and shared with fellow Christians as well as withthose we hope are open to accepting Jesus." Bush's testimony--howhe lost his way, how Billy Graham pointed him in the rightdirection--established his sincerity. My goodness, Kuo goes on, youjust had to see the man when his path crossed with that of anaddict. "Any swagger disappeared. Something softer and perhaps moregenuine took its place. He listened to each story and nodded. Heseemed more like a counselor than a politician. When thishappened--just a few times I was around--he didn't hurry and didn'trush. It was one of the more Christ-like things I have ever seen apowerful man do." This is Noonanism with a born-again face. ForKuo, Karl Rove is "nice" and has "a soft heart," Karen Hughes isfilled with "sensitivity," and even Dick Cheney has "a surprisingjocularity." Surprising, indeed.
The hoopla surrounding Kuo's book focuses on his tell-all tidbitsabout what the insiders in the Bush administration really thoughtabout all those crazy Christians who happened to make Bushpresident. These believers, Kuo tells us, were seduced by power.They put aside their religious ideals--especially the elusive truththat Jesus speaks to deeper and more permanent things than tax cutsand tariffs--in return for trinkets: presidential paperweights thatthey could show their friends, or, for the most influential souls,private meetings in the Oval Office. In so doing, says the penitentKuo, they got their priorities all wrong. They should have rankedspirit and family over political power. Because they did not, theyalienated themselves from others who shared their faith in Christbut not their political agenda.
Yet Kuo's story of political seduction is, in the final analysis, astory about himself. Even after he left the White House, where heserved as deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based andCommunity Initiatives, his God never failed. Invited back toWashington to attend the first National Faith-Based Conference, Kuolistened as Bush lied through his teeth, claiming credit for makingfaith-based initiatives central to his presidency (when the subjecthad been relegated to the back burner for fear of offendingmoderates) and citing wildly inflated figures for how much theadministration was spending on the poor (when Kuo had told Bushthat spending on faith-based initiatives had actually declinedsince the days of Clinton and Gore). But none of this shook Kuo'sfaith in the man. Although claiming to have been "crushed" byBush's "deception," Kuo quickly brushes aside such disturbingthoughts. "Did he ever care about his antipoverty agenda?" hewrites of Bush. "Personally, I doubt he could have cared more. Hisempathy couldn't be faked." He was, after all, a recoveringalcoholic. "George W. Bush loves Jesus. He is a good man."
Tempting Faith is in its way a significant book, not for what itteaches about the Machiavellians in the White House--surely thereare no longer any surprises to be had on that front--but for whatwe learn about young, idealistic, and phenomenally naive Christianssuch as David Kuo. It is not an analysis of a mentality, but adocumentation of it. To be sure, there is no doubting Kuo'ssincerity. His faith in God is unwavering. He is truly committed togood work on behalf of the poor. He did eventually leave the WhiteHouse, and with the publication of this book he testifies to thecynicism that he found there. But his recovered righteousness isitself a kind of alibi. For people like him served as enablers forone of the most immoral presidencies Americans have ever endured.If we are to know what makes Bush so bad, we need to know moreabout why people who are so good could ever have been seduced byhim.
And not just seduced. Kuo, whose goodness is as self-evident as itis a tad creepy, continues to defend Bush after this mostself-professed of Christian presidents robbed the poor to pay therich, broke his covenant with the Framers who wrote theConstitution of the United States, launched the first war of choicein our history since Polk attacked Mexico or McKinley attackedSpain, justified torture without a qualm of conscience, and, to topit all off, wound up treating his Christian supporters with acontempt that would put the most determined secular humanist toshame.
So much has been written about the role that religion plays inpolitics that we tend to forget that there is no such thing as"religion." There are, rather, religions, each of which has its owngod or gods, prophets, holy texts, commandments, ways of worship,theories of interpretation, inventories of sins, and conceptions ofthe afterlife. Kuo's religion is of a very particular kind.Born-again Christians tend not to be liturgical in their religiouspractices; spontaneity of expression takes priority overnever-changing ritual. They are not given to excessive theologicalexegesis; the text of the Bible tells them all they need to know.They generally prefer their rock music to Bach and Handel. Comparedwith Catholics, they are distrustful of hierarchy. Compared withJews, they emphasize belief over observance. Compared with theirmainline Protestant brethren, they worship with enthusiasm. Andcompared with every other religion on the face of the earth, theyjudge sincerity by the power of the stories that they tell eachother.
Early in his career, Kuo found himself in the presence of JohnAshcroft, who had been elected a senator from Missouri and neededpeople to work on his staff. During the interview, Kuo toldAshcroft how his father, an immigrant from China, was twicerejected for a visa to enter the United States. On his thirdattempt, a man came out of a side office and whispered somethinginto the ear of the consular official who decided these things, andsuddenly his dad was approved for entry. "My father never saw theman's name, never saw him again," Kuo informed the senator. "Hebelieved it was an angel. I told Ashcroft I believed it, too." AndAshcroft replied, "How could you not?"
Then Ashcroft offered a testimony of his own. His father, a ministerin an Assemblies of God church, came to see his son sworn in as asenator. The idea was proposed that for an event as solemn as thisone, Ashcroft should be anointed with oil. Some Crisco was found,and Ashcroft's father, ailing heart and all, tried to rise from hissofa to conduct the ceremony. "You don't need to stand," Ashcrofttold him. "John," his father replied, "I am not struggling tostand. I am struggling to kneel." Kneel he did, and, having anointedhis son, he flew back to Missouri and died the very next day.
One of the most interesting aspects of these stories is that theyare not true. As it happens, Kuo knew full well that no angel hadintervened on behalf of his father; the elder Kuo had made a friendduring World War II whose wife was a rich and powerful heiress, andit was through her connections that Kuo's father got his visa.Ashcroft is a bit more truthful: he was sworn into the Senate onJanuary 3, 1995, and his father died on January 5--two days later,not one. But why obsess about the details? The point of testimony isto wonder about the wonder of it all. You are not supposed tointerrupt Kuo's narrative to ask if human beings have moreinfluence than angels. Telling a few pious white lies is fine solong as the larger truth about God's power to direct our lives ismade.
Kuo's book concerns the way religious leaders were seduced by power,but it is clear from the stories he tells that evangelicals, giventhe role testimony plays in their lives, are far more seduciblethan most. John DiIulio, the political scientist who served asKuo's first boss in the White House, provides an interestingcontrast. To be sure, DiIulio, after leaving the White House andsaying the first truly damning things about the Bush administration,soon thereafter praised the president as "a highly admirable personof enormous personal decency"; but this resembled a Rubashov-likerecantation more than it did Kuo's wide-eyed innocence. Naivete isjust not something we associate with the streetwise Catholicism inwhich DiIulio was raised. Catholics have had seventeen hundredyears of direct involvement with government: they are not easilysurprised by political power and how it works. A realist if thereever was one, DiIulio allowed himself to be recruited by Bush,worked on his plan for faith-based initiatives for six months,correctly read the less-than- enthusiastic handwriting on the wall,and returned to academia. He never lost his innocence, because hehad no innocence to lose.
Kuo, on the other hand, stayed on in the White House long afterDiIulio left, repeatedly insisting to himself that he was not goingto fall for the tricks being played on him every day--and then fellfor all of them, one after another. Even after a car crash nearlycost him his life and led to the discovery of a brain tumor, Kuoremained sweetly on the job, only to be used again. The Bushies,now interested in mobilizing their base, wanted proof thatreligious groups were being treated unfairly because they were notallowed to discriminate in hiring. Kuo dutifully carried out theresearch, only to discover that almost no one ever sued a religiousorganization on grounds of discrimination. "Honey," a female blackminister told one of Kuo's colleagues, "if you can't figure outsomeone's religion without asking them the question, well, then youjust stupid." (Evidently, streetwise African American Protestantsare just as practical in affairs of state as world-wearyCatholics). Finally Kuo, exhausted and dispirited, turned in hisresignation. His wife "was waiting for me in the West Wing lobby. Itook her hand, left the building, looked back at the beautifulplace where I had been blessed to work, gave her a kiss, and wewalked through the gates back into life."
Unlike people from religious traditions with long histories ofinvolvement with politics, evangelicals have no firm foundation inhistory, theology, or experience against which they can judge thewords that so easily come out of the mouths of politicians.Sincerity, for them, is everything, which is another way of sayingthat facts are nothing. The proof of their faith is its credulity.After he went to work for Ashcroft--yes, he got the job--Kuo, likemany young evangelicals recruited by Republican conservatives,began to hear about that governor down in Texas with the famousfirst and last names. Bush, these enthusiastic idealists told eachother, was born-again just like they were. Kuo relates a storyabout how, on a visit to a prison, Governor Bush had heard some ofthe inmates singing "Amazing Grace" and immediately joined in,swaying arm- in-arm with a convicted murderer. Lo and behold, sixyears later the convict, now a janitor in a Houston church, showsup at the White House to meet the president. Once he has foundJesus, Kuo preaches, "even the most `hopeless' person could beforever changed."
Skeptical people will read this tale and wonder how a convictedmurderer found himself released from prison in hard-nosed Texas.They might also ask why Bush never met with another Texasinmate--the axe-wielding Karla Faye Tucker, who had been changedforever by her born-again conversion--or showed even the slightestinterest in her redemption; if anything, Bush, according to TuckerCarlson, mocked her pleas for mercy. But these are not matters thatKuo, the puerile anti-skeptic, addresses. Bush begins and ends hisday with prayer, and that, for Kuo, settles the matter. "As aprofessing fellow believer in Jesus," he writes of Bush, "I trustedhim." A majority of Americans no longer do, but then a majority ofAmericans are not evangelicals.
"Everyone comes to politics," Kuo remarks, "with a particular set ofspiritual or philosophical beliefs motivating them--beliefs aboutthe nature of man and the nature of government, whether derivedfrom Jesus or David Hume, Moses or Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Camus, orHomer Simpson." This is nonsense. Hume--or, for that matter, HomerSimpson--demanded proof. Kuo never does. A lying Christian? It isjust not possible. A man who oozes sincerity but is about asinsincere as a man can be? The ironic stuff of literature, perhaps;but such complications, such truths, play no role in Kuo's happyimagination. Born-again Christians are not merely biblicalliteralists. If Kuo is any example, they are existentialliteralists, too--so totally lacking in irony that not to hoodwinkthem would be to leave them disappointed.
Without foundations for making judgments, evangelicals such as Kuocan persuade themselves about matters of significance that cannotpass even the most basic historical or philosophical tests. Kuo's"patron saint" is William Wilberforce, the evangelical leader ofthe Clapham sect who did so much to bring about the abolition ofthe British slave trade. "If slavery had been the moral issue forChristians in the nineteenth century," he writes, "abortion was thesame for many late twentieth-century Christians." Abortion was theissue that brought about Kuo's political awakening. While studyingat Tufts University, Kuo had helped his girlfriend obtain one, onlyto feel so guilty that he helped create a pro-life group at theschool. Even as he accepted an internship with Senator EdwardKennedy--"I loved him," Kuo characteristically gushes--he startedmoving to the right. "Just like William Wilberforce, I became anadvocate for the ultimately forgotten, in this case, the unborn."
The fact that Kuo saw an equivalence between opposition to slaveryand opposition to abortion says volumes about the difficulty thatso many evangelicals have in making sharp distinctions. Manyevangelicals insist to this day that their campaign againstabortion is the moral equivalent of the abolitionist campaignagainst slavery. Those leaders were evangelicals, too; they pointto such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose father was indeedthe leading evangelical preacher of his era. They also sided withthe weak against the powerful. They were as uncompromising withrespect to their principles as leaders of the religious right aretoday. Regrettably, some anti- abortion activists resort toviolence, but so, after all, did John Brown. Right- wingRepublicans today are finishing the business begun by yesterday'ssocial reformers.
Are they really? Equating abortion and slavery is the kind ofanalogy that appeals to people who prefer sincerity to reality. Letus grant that today's anti-abortion activists are as sincere intheir desire to prevent the destruction of fetuses as William LloydGarrison was in his desire to abolish the South's peculiarinstitution. But everything else about the analogy falls apart.Slavery was a social system that trapped its victims throughcoercion and custom; abortion is the result of a decision made byan individual. People argue about whether a fetus is a full humanbeing; but no one, as Abraham Lincoln liked to point out, disputedwhether a slave was. Abortion represents a clash between two goods,the right of personal autonomy and the potential birth of a humanbeing; slavery was evil and represented no good at all. Pro-lifeactivists have every right to mobilize themselves on behalf of theirpolitical beliefs, but they do not have the right to claimhistorical predecessors so different from themselves. True of anycontemporary group in general, this is especially true ofevangelicals in particular. White Southerners whose favoritepoliticians appeal to latent Confederate sensibilities are notexactly in the best position to claim the moral mantle of those whounderstood, quite correctly, that the existence of slavery in theSouthern states was a rebuke to every principle for which Americastood.
Eventually Kuo would realize that the analogy that inspired hisright-wing activism was inappropriate. "I suppose that as much as Iwanted to be an American Wilberforce by ending abortion, I couldn'tequate abortion and slavery, " he writes. "Yes, I was stillpro-life. But abortion wasn't slavery and it certainly wasn't, assome suggested, like the Holocaust. It simply wasn't murder." Kuo'saccount of his transformation on this issue is drearily matter-of-fact. There is no sudden moment of revelation, no blinding newinsight, no shedding of the old ideas to take on the new. This isnot the way Catholics break with their church, or communists withtheir party. One day Kuo believed one thing about a potent moralissue, and the next day he believed something else. One day heworked for Teddy Kennedy, the next day he found a position withJohn Ashcroft. One day he believed that Christians should jump intopolitics, the next day he did not. "It is easy to say that I becamea Republican because I went through a religious conversion, feltguilty about an abortion, or just needed a job," he writes. "Thesethings are all true." Kuo is above all else an evangelical, and hefeels no obligation to explain why he changed his mind in any waythat relies on logic, fact, or analysis. His testimony alone shouldsuffice.
In the concluding chapter of his unwittingly revealing book, Kuoproposes that Christians should engage in a "fast" from politics.Fasting, he points out, has long been associated with the life ofthe spirit. Christians should simply take a break from politicalinvolvement; two years--no more, no less--will do. While fasting,they can rediscover that "Christ alone is the answer and ourdesire." America will not lose its soul while they are going hungry,and once the fast is over they can return to public life with abetter sense of how to balance the spiritual and the political.
The idea of a two-year fast from politics is pure Kuoism. Byproposing it, Kuo need never address the intellectually challengingquestion of whether politics and religion corrupt each other insome ultimate sense. His fast simply represents a temporary leaveof absence from the already low level of thinking that evangelicalssuch as himself have given to the dance of politics and religion.Two years is perfect in this regard--long enough to seemsacrificial, short enough to guarantee that no serious reflectionwill take place (and that one can still get back in the game). Iffurther proof were required that Kuo lacks the mental gravity todeal with the profound questions stemming from his own experience,this stunt should furnish it.
Before he wrote Tempting Faith, Kuo should have read Darryl Hart'srecently published book Secular Faith. Hart is an evangelicalscholar who thinks seriously and eloquently about the dilemmas thatKuo glibly avoids. His book offers the single best critique of thereligious right's involvement in politics that I have read, atleast in part because it comes from a man whose credentials as aconservative Christian are impeccable. Yes, evangelicals weredeeply involved in social reform in the nineteenth century, as Hartacknowledges--but then he brings to life the ideas of StuartRobinson (1814- 1881), a Presbyterian from Kentucky who argued thatthey should not be so involved, and that politics and religionshould be kept apart for their mutual benefit.
Hart's book reminds us of the extent to which evangelicalProtestants, despite their current alliance with Catholics inopposition to abortion, once denounced Catholicism for itsclericalist proclivities, just as it warns that the enthusiasm withwhich so many Protestant sects welcomed democracy in the nineteenthcentury came at the cost of confusing the authority of God with theauthority of the people. "The state's purpose," writes Hart,summarizing the ideas of past Christian thinkers who have all butbeen forgotten, "is justice... . The church's purpose is mercy....To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) andthe good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hardto grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like thechurch to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who wouldlike politics to fill a spiritual void."
Hart may not be correct that the distinction between the one realmand the other is easy to grasp. David Kuo certainly fails to graspit, as do all those political opportunists masquerading asreligious leaders with whom he broke. Unlike Pat Robertson andJames Dobson, Kuo has parted ways with the Bush administration. Butjust like them, he confuses the realm of God with the realm ofpolitics. "History, mystique, and the palpable sense of power areinspiring, surreal, and wonder filled," he writes upon entering nota church, but the White House. "Everything felt different. Thecarpet felt plusher and the couches softer. I watched seriousstaffers stride purposefully through the doors and tried to imaginewhat important things they were doing." Stuart Robinson, J. GreshamMachen, and all the other conservative Christians about whom Hartwrites would have been appalled. Idolatry, for a believer, is agrave sin. Worshipping secular symbols is surely an idolatry.
Kuo's book does make one important contribution to America's currentdebate over evangelicalism's involvement in politics. Most warningsagainst the blending of religion and politics these days come notfrom Hart's position on the right, but from left-wing writers suchas Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming), Kevin Phillips (AmericanTheocracy), and Rabbi James Rudin (The Baptizing of America). Thegeneral theme of those books is that evangelicals are dangerousbecause of their sectarianism. They sneak stealthily into America'sliberal democratic institutions with a determination to overturnthem in favor of a Christian republic. Spewers of hate, they will,if given the chance, not only abolish America's commitment toseparation of church and state- -in some accounts, this issomething they have already achieved--but will use every legalpower at their command to suppress the rights of non-Christians,especially non-believers. When conservative religion swamps liberaldemocracy, fair play and pluralism yield to extremism andintolerance.
No doubt there are conservative Christians active in the RepublicanParty who could rightfully be called theocrats. Still, I have neverbeen convinced of the danger they represent, at least in partbecause the more exposure they receive, the more likely mostAmericans are to dismiss them as cranks. (Pat Robertson is one ofthe most unpopular public figures in this country.) Evangelicalismin politics, far from threatening the future of American democracy,seems already to have peaked. Whatever is stirring voters in 2006,it is not the issues dear to the religious right. Karl Rove may getout the base, but when you come right down to it, the base is justnot big enough to govern the country.
If theocracy is not a looming danger to our democracy, bathos mightbe. For every evangelical leader spewing hate, there are tenevangelical followers who believe that all you need is love. DavidKuo is one of them. He brought to the White House neither money normission, but only mush. No matter how much he came to disagree withthe ruthless operatives with whom he was working, he writes, "Icouldn't dislike them." After all, Harriet Miers, then White Housecounsel, had responded to his hospitalization by writing him a noteoffering love and prayers; and this, for him, counted far more thanher--or anyone else's--position on anything involving actualpolicy. "From the moment I found Jesus--or Jesus found me--in highschool, it was his peace I longed for. I didn't know what it meantor what it felt like. But wanting Jesus' peace made me ache." Mostpeople seeking peace would not march willingly into the middle of aculture war. But Kuo, the kind of person who could actually be movedby one of Harriet Miers's treacly notes, did. His intentions werenot malevolent. They were oblivious, which may be worse.
The last thing America needs now is more innocence. Most Americanshave wildly unrealistic expectations of what politics can do, and,expecting too much, they settle for too little. We need leaders whocan level with voters, offering good news when there is good news,but not afraid to share bad news when necessary. Religion may ormay not help in cultivating such leaders, but evangelical religionoffers precisely the wrong ingredients to make such leadershippossible. Testimonialism simply does not make for serious politics(or serious religion). It is not enough for us to absolve presidentsfor today's mistakes because they have confessed to yesterday'ssins. The one skill that policy-makers ought to possess is thewillingness to look beyond personal feelings in order to enactsensible programs. David Kuo's religious sensibility never allowedhim to do that. His book offers an acute warning of the dangersthat evangelicals pose to democracy, not because they are tooMachiavellian, but because they are not Machiavellian enough.
By Alan Wolfe