Tempting Faith:An Inside Story of Political Seduction
There are so many religious pimps, hustlers, and con-men in David Kuo’s account of his political career that it reads like a novela picaresca, the Spanish literary genre in which a young man takes to the road and by pluck and luck avoids the adversity embodied in the fascinating but mostly reprehensible characters he encounters along the way.
In Kuo’s case, the road led to the White House, where he served as a special assistant to George W. Bush, tending the administration’s alliance with the religious right from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
There really are two journeys in Tempting Faith. Kuo’s religious journey begins when he arranges an abortion for his college girlfriend. A parallel political journey unfolds after a meeting in Colorado with James Dobson, the self-righteous psychologist who monitors the nation’s morals through his Christian group Focus on the Family.
Religious journeys are of genuine interest when told by deeply reflective thinkers such as Thomas Merton, Martin Buber, or Hans Küng, whose belief systems transcend religion to work on a spiritual plane. I exploit this obviously unfair comparison to make a point. Kuo is an evangelical Christian. The circumscribed nature of his belief system ensures that it will produce no Seven Storey Mountain, no I and Thou, and no On Being a Christian. It is a transactional Christianity: Acceptance of Christ as a personal savior equates to individual salvation. A long way from the Christianity of Merton and Küng, and meager material for a writer.
I saw the two systems collide last year in a courtroom in Pennsylvania, where federal District Judge John E. Jones declared the intelligent-design biology curriculum promoted by religious fundamentalists unconstitutional, religion masquerading as science. An expert witness for the plaintiffs, Georgetown University theologian John Haught, described a God that rem ains beyond the grasp of most evangelicals.
The God of intelligent design seems to be … a kind of tinkerer or meddler who makes ad hoc adjustments to the creation, whereas what I would want a child of mine to think when he or she thinks of God is something more generous, much more expansive, a God who can make a universe which is, from the start, resourceful enough to unfold from within itself in a natural way all the extravagant beauty and evolutionary diversity that, in fact, has happened.
To put it very simply, a God who is able to make a universe that can somehow make itself is much more impressive religiously than a God who has to keep tinkering with the creation.
Put simply, this generous and expansive God is not evident in Kuo’s faith tradition, so his subplot is a believer’s road trip rather than a spiritual journey. A high school friend dies in a car accident just after he and Kuo were urged to accept Christ. Kuo’s college girlfriend has an abortion, leaving the couple bereft. A handsome youth minister pushes Kuo toward accepting Christ. Kuo accepts Christ as his personal savior, backslides, then returns to Christ’s fold. Which is not to suggest that David Kuo isn’t a devout believer, only that the religious subplot in his book isn’t interesting.
The political picaresca set against the backdrop of Kuo’s faith is a far better story.
On his road to enlightenment and disenchantment, Kuo encounters hustlers like Dobson; Pat Robertson, who founded the Christian Coalition and the Christian Broadcast Network; Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition; and William Bennett, who left Reagan’s cabinet to become Minister of National Morality.
None is without sin, but all are cast-the-first-stone guys. A “thug,” is how former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey correctly describes Dobson. The Colorado televangelist routinely threatens to unleash his multimillion-dollar radio and direct-mail operation on elected officials who refuse to promote his religious worldview.
Bennett, a former University of Texas philosophy professor and secretary of education, wrote a primer on morality that sold 3 million copies. He’s also been up to his rather ample ass in casino debt that doesn’t square with the simple virtues he is marketing.
Reed got a cut of fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s Indian casino deals. Robertson is neither a crook nor a croupier, but he’s so batshit that most evangelicals go out of their way to avoid him—in particular after his claim that the tragedies of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were God’s wrath visited upon a sinful nation for embracing homosexuality and abortion.
Kuo’s entanglement with this crowd begins with Dobson’s making Bush president. Or at least making him the Republican candidate in 2000. At the time, Kuo was swept up in the evangelical resurgence that followed the movement’s collapse when two of its brightest national lights, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, were caught in sex scandals. After less than a year at the CIA, Kuo is hired to be what might be described as a Christian content provider for Bennett. When the two men visit Dobson’s corporate offices and studios in Colorado, Dobson urges Bennett to run for president. “I sense that God may be calling you,” Dobson says. When Bennett later announced that he could support a Colin Powell presidential candidacy, even if Powell wasn’t “pro-life,” Dobson and God changed their position. Dobson used his radio program to attack Bennett as a “sellout” to the Christian cause and urged evangelical leaders to find a presidential candidate who would do their bidding.
“They would find their man in George W. Bush,” writes Kuo.
At Empower America, the advocacy group founded by Bennett and former U.S. Sen. Jack Kemp, Kuo and Mike Gerson perfect the craft of writing evangelical Christian subtext into political speeches. Gerson would serve as Bush’s White House speechwriter for almost six years. Kuo, whose mother worried about his drift toward evangelical Christianity, makes it to the majors by reaching into the Old Testament to sell Kemp to the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 14 words written by Kuo, Kemp told 10,000 Baptist ministers gathered for their annual convention all they would need to know. “A politician among pastors,” said Kemp, who is usually uncomfortable with public pronunciations of his faith. “I feel like a lion in a den of Daniels.” Kuo’s speechwriting attracted the attention of Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who invited Kuo to Austin to meet Bush early in his first presidential campaign. Rove was determined to convince evangelicals that Bush was one of them, without scaring away secular voters. Kuo’s “lion in a den of Daniels” represented a métier Rove knew would work for his candidate. In a fast-paced book rich in anecdotal detail, it’s easy to overlook Kuo’s vivid recollection of his first meeting with Bush.
In 1999 Bush has political power figured out. He knows what it means to run for the presidency. He knows what it means to win. He’s seen it all up close. He learned it from the old man. “He had a lot of political capital after Iraq. He didn’t use it,” Bush tells Kuo. “You’ve got to use it up and use it up for something that matters … [T]he old man had a problem with the vision thing. Never used his political capital on political matters after the Gulf War. I would never make that mistake. I believe in the vision thing.”
Bush isn’t yet sure he will run for president, even though he has a campaign operation in place. That, he tells Kuo, is something “he would have to hear from God.”
If God had not yet made his decision, for Kuo it was love at first sight:
“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 and dreamed of being … I got up, floated back to my car, and headed toward Texas A&M University, a few hours away. I was in love.”
Readers might get lost in the homoerotic moment, as Kuo confesses to babbling like “a young girl who had just seen the Beatles.” But Kuo’s up-close and personal thumbnail of Bush is insightful. Bush has been described by former aide David Frum as “incurious” and by former Texas Observer editor Molly Ivins as “demonstrating no interest in governing.” Kuo touches on something deeper. He describes a man who is a finished product in his early 50s. There was little left for Bush to know. Decisions for this decider would be uncomplicated. When the president tells reporters he sleeps soundly while Baghdad burns and American solders die, he’s telling them the uncomplicated truth.
Kuo worked only briefly on Bush’s first campaign. Then he accepted a position in the White House, working on the faith-based initiative Bush promised in his campaign. By now the story of public policy scholar John DiIulio signing on to direct the White House faith-based initiative, only to depart with the complaint that the entire operation was run by Mayberry Machiavellians, has been widely reported. Kuo brings fresh insight and new information to a story informed by his own tale of personal betrayal. When DiIulio asked why the $1.5 billion program he was promised was described in Bush’s first speech to Congress as a $70 million program, he was told: “It just changed.” When every other White House office was up and running except the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, Rove and Karen Hughes decided the program had to be “rolled out” in less than a week—even if there was no director, no staff, and no budget. Don Willett was the Texas lawyer Bush brought with him to get the program off the ground. It was late January 2001, every other White Office was open for business, and Willett wanted to know how he could “roll out” a program with no staff that was still operating in the nearly vacant transition offices. Rove was straightforward: “I don’t know. Just get me a f*%#ing faith-based thing. Got it?”
There is something naïve about plucking characters from the upper case of the upper row of a keyboard to spell “fuck” in a way that accommodates Christian sensibilities. But there’s something naïve about Kuo’s work in the Bush White House and the book it produced. Did he actually believe a political operative like Rove was as committed to the Christian right as he was to promoting the interests of his boss? Perhaps it was easier for a Christian whose faith provides simple answers to complex questions to believe the promises of an administration headed by a man who offered up a simple answer: that he loved Jesus. Kuo might be an innocent. But the cynicism involved in the evangelicals’ dealings with the White House wasn’t limited to the White House political staff.
In the end, because of his religious belief and because he believed what he wanted to believe about Bush, Kuo got f*%#ed. But he walked away from the White House and toward the bitter, if evident, realization that evangelicals are exploited by the Republican Party. He got a book contract out of the deal. And he left with his faith intact—if not in politics, at least in the God who led him in and out of the Bush White House and to the realization that contemporary American electoral politics have only served to debase contemporary American religion.
Lou Dubose is a former editor of The Texas Observer. Dubose and current editor Jake Bernstein co-authored Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency which was released by Random House last fall.