Breach of faith

Former White House insider David Kuo talks about how the Bush administration used its most loyal voters, evangelical Christians, for political gain.

Published October 17, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

The No. 2 man in the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2001 to 2003, Christian conservative David Kuo grew disillusioned with the Bush administration's attempt to solve social problems with large helpings of federally funded religion. In his new book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," Kuo tells the story of an administration that used evangelicals for purely political purposes, and that often revealed disdain for the very bloc of voters most responsible for recent Republican success. Kuo, who has also been an aide to William Bennett, an advisor to John Ashcroft, and a speechwriter for Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Bob Dole (as well as a chronicler of the dot-com bust), claims members of the administration often disparaged fundamentalists in private; Karl Rove, he says, referred to the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as "the fucking faith-based initiative." Kuo says this cynical attitude was reflected in the way the administration actually dealt with evangelical groups, promising sweeping change and billions of dollars and never quite delivering.

Since his book was discussed on MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" last week, and since he was interviewed on CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday, Kuo has become a target for the ire of Republicans and Christian conservatives. Focus on the Family's James Dobson has called "Tempting Faith" a "mix of sour grapes and political timing," and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told the Washington Post that he "felt sorry" for Kuo. "Once you do something like this," said Perkins, "you get your 15 minutes in the spotlight, but then after that nobody will touch you."

Kuo spoke with Salon about his book, his time in the White House, and why he thinks evangelicals should take a break from politics.

In April of 2003 you were diagnosed with, and had successful surgery for, a brain tumor. Did that play any role in your leaving the White House?

I was planning on leaving the White House before any of that happened. It changed me, in a way. I went into a period of deep soul-searching, seeking God. I was, frankly, probably less willing to put up with all the stuff I saw at the White House.

Why did you leave the White House?

I left because my time was done. I left because I'd been there for two and half years and it was just time to go. I talk about in the book that my heart wasn't in it anymore, and I suppose when your heart isn't in it it's time to go. The other reason I left is because I was tired, tired of being someone who supported compassion politically while we weren't really giving much compassion in terms of dollars and cents and effort.

Why did you decide to write this book?

There's the personal, the political and the spiritual reason for it. The spiritual reason is that I think Christians need to understand that politicians want them for their votes and not for anything else, and they need to view politicians through the same wholly political lens that the politicians view them. I think Christians have gotten to this point where politics have become a sort of God. The political reason is I hope that it can make a change; I hope that because of this the compassion agenda will receive more attention. The personal reason is I have three very young daughters, and I face my mortality every day -- heck, we all do, but I think I have a more acutely aware sense of that -- and I want them to know more about their dad's life, in case when they're older I'm not there, and in case they're really bored and someday want to read it.

Obviously, the main topic of discussion about your book has been the administration's attitude toward the evangelical community, your contention that many members of the Bush team felt disdain for fundamentalists. Can you tell me about what you saw while you were in the administration?

I think the administration's attitude toward evangelicals was the administration's attitude toward any other constituent group. They viewed them as necessary, but it wasn't like they shared any particular affinity for them. I think that's something Christians need to understand. There's been this image perpetuated of President Bush as "pastor in chief," and I think Christians have fallen into that. What they need to understand is that President Bush is a politician, a very good politician. He's the head of the GOP, he's the head of government, but he's not a pastor. I think that this pastoral sense of him that has been perpetuated is preventing Christians from being more critical, objectively critical -- in Jesus' words, "wise as a serpent." And I also think that it contributes to this sense of political seduction by Christians. When you get to the point where when I mention Jesus people think they know my politics, that I'm pro-life and anti-gay and pro-Iraq war, as opposed to identifying Jesus as someone who will bring life and has good news, I think that's troubling.

You're talking about the president as a politician, not a pastor. Do you think that some of his public displays of religion aren't entirely authentic?

I think it's a really bad idea to judge someone else's public displays of religion. In general, I'm not gonna go there.

One of the things that I write is that George W. Bush's religious orientation was probably among the most closely managed aspects of his public persona. It may be one of the most important things that, from the 2000 campaign on, people have managed. The strategic focus on evangelicals in 2000 was to convince them of George W. Bush as pastor in chief, because as pastor in chief he would be held to a different standard. People give their pastors more slack than their politicians, and I think that's important to talk about. One of the ways that it was possible was because they shrewdly understood the media, how the media would talk about things and what they would ignore. One of the things I mention in the book is the Saturday night and the Sunday morning he announced for president in 1999 he gave two sermons -- two very Christian sermons -- in a church in Houston, while everyone was staked out in Austin. Nobody from the national media covered them, which is amazing. It's amazing that no one would cover something like that.

Why do you think the media didn't cover the sermons?

Listen, the reality is we used the media, but I don't know, actually. I think the media can just get in their mind just one or two certain stories, and I know that was true with faith-based. We counted on how the media would report on stories to further our agenda, because we knew that what the media would report on, and wanted to report on, was story lines like "George W. Bush wants to establish theocracy," "George W. Bush wants to require students to accept Jesus before graduating high school." I'm obviously being silly, but in some quarters the frenzy was almost like that. But from our perspective, that allowed us to really give messages to our evangelical base, because the more that he was criticized for those sorts of things, the more that the conservative base and the evangelicals would like it. They wanted to see him in those ways. I think in general the media doesn't get religion, I think that they don't understand it -- not [because of] hostility, more [from] lack of personal experience. You write about what you know.

You're saying "we" and "our" when you talk about the Bush administration, and yet you're very critical of how the administration has used the evangelical community for political ends. Do you feel any sense of personal responsibility for that?

Yes, I do. I did not write this book from a holier-than-thou perspective; I wrote this book from years of very painful personal experience. I know what it's like when politics becomes God. I know what that does to personal relationships, to family. I know what it does to one's own soul. I've been part of that world.

Anybody in politics who goes after the evangelical vote, I think, has a measure of spiritual accountability, especially when you invoke the name of God. Invoking God's name to get anything can be a very dangerous thing spiritually. So, yes, I do think that I have responsibility, and I think one of the reasons to speak out, to write, is to confront that, to say to others: I know of what I speak.

How do you think the Christian right will respond to your book?

It's rather extraordinary. I saw one evangelical political leader [Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council] say that no one will touch me now, which I found just an amazing phrasing. That's the way the lepers were treated in Jesus' time, and what Jesus was known for was going to the lepers: [Jesus wanted] to be where the sickest, most hurt people [were]. It's amazing to me that someone in politics would say that anyone, anywhere, would become untouchable. That is extraordinary to me, and sad confirmation, frankly, of the political seduction that Christians are going through. I think that's true of the Christian political leadership class, but my hope is that the tens of millions of people out there who aren't controlled by these particular people will see this, read this, hear about this and think, "Wow. You know what? Maybe I need to rethink this. Maybe this makes some sense." And frankly, that's why I say we need to have this fast from politics, which I think is absolutely vital.

I think that evangelicals have gotten so involved in politics that it's the way people primarily identify them, and I think it's important for us, for them, to take a step out of politics for a while. Obviously vote, but don't give money to these organizations. The problem is that Christians have been so invested in evangelizing politics that they have politicized their religion, and they've bought into an us-and-them mentality, so that frankly we -- they -- can no longer even communicate with people who happen to have different political views. Jesus sought out people who were prostitutes, outcasts and lowlifes. I fear that Christians are forgetting to invest in these very people and in the process isolating themselves by focusing too much on politics. I hope that by taking a step back we can give some of those hundreds of millions of dollars that are spent on attack ads, give it to the poor, give it to an after-school program, spend time with neighbors. As hokey as that may sound, it's what Jesus said to do, and I think it's more important right now than politics.

You're not happy with the way Tony Perkins talks about you, but one of the most discussed things about you and your book has been your claim that the Bush team ridiculed Christian conservative leaders. You told CBS, for example, that "people in the White House political affairs office referred to Pat Robertson as 'insane'" and "Jerry Falwell as 'ridiculous.'" Is there any validity to the administration's criticisms of the evangelical leaders they were dealing with?

(Laughs.) Wow. Um, that's a good question.

You know, I go back to something that Chuck Colson wrote after he left the White House. Colson tells the story about his own experience working for Nixon, and he says in the early 1970s, working under Nixon, he was in charge of, basically, seducing these Christian leaders. He closes the story saying, "On the whole, of all the groups I dealt with, I found the religious leaders the most naive about politics. Maybe that is because so many came from sheltered backgrounds, or perhaps it is a mistaken perception of the demands of Christian charity ... Or, most worrisome of all, they may simply like to be around power.

I think that's the best answer to your question.

So you think they like the power too much, is that what you mean?

I think White House power is kind of like Tolkien's ring of power. When you put it on, it feels good and dazzles. After a while it becomes imminently and remarkably distorting. I think everyone is subject to the negative influence of that power, and that's true of anybody. It's true of me, it's true of anyone that's worked there, it's true of anybody in politics after a while.

Now, you took "60 Minutes" to an evangelical conference and were pointing out how no one there was talking about the poor. Were the faith-based anti-poverty programs the reason you got involved in politics?

Yeah, that's the reason I went to the White House, that's what I care most about, these anti-poverty compassion programs.

What are your views on the wedge issues, like abortion and gay marriage, that the administration tries to use to appeal to conservative Christian voters?

I'm taking a fast from politics. I'm not doing politics now. What I want to focus on is not political issues, what I want to focus on is, personally, in my life, caring for the poor and working with other people, and so I don't want to say what my views are on one particular thing or another particular thing. It becomes, ultimately, spiritually divisive, and that's not what Jesus is about. I don't think that Jesus was particularly passionate about any particular political agenda, and I don't want to be either.

Are you at all concerned that your politics and your motivation will be called into question by the White House in response to this book?

Many things about me will be called into question by the White House because of this book. I don't suffer from any false notions about that. I know the lines of attack, they've already sort of -- I've heard some of them, some of them are obvious. And I know what they'll try and do. They're doing what they feel like they need to do, and perhaps if I were them, in the same position, I might do the same thing. But that's part of what I am talking about; that's not a really good way to be, that's not a good way to live.

One of the lines of attack that I've seen used against you is that you're naive, that you didn't understand the realities of working in the White House. What do you think of that accusation?

I'm an optimist. I hope. I believe in the possibility of change. I think if you don't have those things, you should get your butt out of anything you're involved in. But I also -- I've worked for the CIA, I've worked in politics for more than a few years, I've had to deal with my own health issues, my own mortality. You can't go through those things, you can't work those places, and be some starry-eyed, naive naif. Do I believe in promises? Yeah, absolutely. But this idea that I'm some starry-eyed naif is just silly.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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