Losing Faith in the President

Critical Book by Ex-Staffer in Religion-Based Effort Is Out

White House officials realized they had a problem, former staffer David Kuo writes in his new book, “Tempting Faith,” when they saw how a panel rated the first applications for grants under the “faith-based initiative,” President Bush’s vaunted effort to help religious charities.

On a scale of 1 to 100, respected national organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America scored in the mid-70s to mid-80s, “while something called Jesus and Friends Ministry from California, a group with little more than a post office box,” scored 89 and Pat Robertson’s overseas aid organization, Operation Blessing, scored 95, according to Kuo.

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“It was obvious that the ratings were a farce,” he writes, adding that he and other White House aides feared that if the list became public, “it would show once and for all that the initiative was purely about paying off political friends for their support.”

Portions of Kuo’s explosive book, which formally went on sale yesterday, were leaked last week by MSNBC. They brought heated denials from White House press secretary Tony Snow and other current and former Bush administration officials.

The book is full of insider anecdotes and details, many of which were not reported by MSNBC, and some of which can be read as defending rather than attacking the Bush White House.

In the case of the grant applications, for example, Kuo says that the ratings obviously favored conservative Christian groups but that the White House “really did have nothing to do with” it. The problem, he asserts, is that the “peer review” panel chosen by the Department of Health and Human Services came from the “faith-based policy world.”

“There are, at most, 100 people in think tanks, foundations, major nonprofits and the like who really work on these issues and who support the president. Virtually all of them are very compassionate and dedicated evangelical Christians who tend to be politically conservative,” Kuo writes. “They were supposed to review the application in a religiously neutral fashion. . . . But their biases were transparent.”

Kuo tells a story about meeting a member of the review panel at a party. He says she giggled as she recalled, “when I saw one of those non-Christian groups in the set I was reviewing, I just stopped looking at them and gave them a zero.” Kuo says he laughed but, at the same time, was aghast.

“Some in the press would later ‘expose’ that we in the White House had doled out grants to friends. They were technically wrong,” he writes. “We didn’t do it. We didn’t have to. The White House influence was so great that its will was carried out by other appointees in other departments without thinking.”

In addition to being a memoir of his three years in the White House, where Kuo was deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives until December 2003, the book is a saga of falling in, and out of, love with conservative Christian politics.

Kuo, 38, recounts that in college, he was a liberal who interned for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). But he got a girlfriend pregnant, and they went together to an abortion clinic. “We regretted it. We were relieved. I knew what we’d done. I had no idea what we’d done,” he writes.

Haunted, Kuo became an antiabortion activist. When he moved to Washington to work for the National Right to Life Committee and, later, for the CIA, he began attending First Baptist Church in Alexandria. It was there, he said in an interview yesterday, “that I learned that being a good Christian means being a conservative Republican.”

Before the age of 27, Kuo took William J. Bennett as a mentor, wrote speeches for Ralph Reed and Robertson, and was domestic policy adviser to then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.). In 1998, he joined George W. Bush’s campaign for president.

Kuo said he was “dazzled” by Bush’s talk of compassion. But in his telling, the administration’s actions never matched its rhetoric. During the scramble to win tax cuts, for example, the promise of $8 billion per year for charities was scrapped.

To try to climb up the White House’s list of priorities, Kuo said, he and others working in the faith-based office offered to politicize their efforts. The White House political affairs office gave them a map of battleground states in 2002, and they used it to plan conferences to win support for GOP candidates. “Smart politics, bad morals,” he said in retrospect.

In 2003, Kuo was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. It is still growing slowly, he said, giving him perhaps five or 10 years to live.

“I feel a pressing spiritual need to say what I think is important,” he said. “And I really think that what is important is to be able to warn Christians about politics, that they should not throw so much at politics, because they’re being used, and it will not answer the problems, and it corrupts the name of the God we’re trying to serve.”


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Alan Cooperman, The Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday October 18, 2006.
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