Busted: David Kuo

The former Bush staffer discusses his book Tempting Faith and the mutually seductive (and destructive) relationship between faith and politics

By the age of thirty, David Kuo was already a seasoned veteran in the highly specialized political warfare that takes place inside the beltway. First as an assistant to Bill Bennett and then later as a policy adviser to John Ashcroft and speechwriter for Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and Bob Dole, Kuo, a committed Christian, helped to articulate the vision and values that were at the core of the Religious Right’s agenda. But his devotion to politics took its toll and by the late 90s Kuo’s life began unraveling. His marriage had ended and he had left politics.

After a detour working for a dot.com and an unsuccessful attempt to start a charity to help the poor, Kuo was contacted to write speeches for then Governor George W. Bush. His meeting with the future President was a revelation. In Bush he’d finally found the Republican who was truly committed to heeding Jesus’ command to help the poorest among us. He was thrilled by the idea that the new Bush administration would fund faith-based initiatives that could really make a difference in people’s lives.

Political Will

After the 2000 election, Kuo was named a Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Well before the events of 9/11 had changed the nation’s priorities, he recognized that, despite the rhetoric, the political will behind the program was practically non-existent. In fact, less than one percent of the $8 billion dollars of funding that was promised was actually delivered. Adding insult to injury, among many of his colleagues in the White House there was a complete lack of respect for the Faith-Based program as well as many of the religious leaders who had helped put the George Bush in office.

After surviving a brain tumor in April 2003, Kuo lost his desire to continue grinding away for a program that had no support and quietly left his job at the White House. The disillusionment and bitterness he had experienced when he left politics for the first time years before was replaced this go-round by a hard-earned wisdom that suggested his desire to do God’s work through politics was misplaced. The blending of politics and faith is dangerous and God’s work must instead be done with our own hands.

Like Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul, Kuo’s book Tempting Faith:
An Inside Story of Political Seduction
is a political memoir with a religious core. Our post-election conversation with the author serves as a bookend to our interview with Sullivan which came a week before the Democrats reclaimed the House and the Senate. As the Washington editor for Beliefnet, Kuo, 38, now keeps a safe distance from the partisan politcal fray; but as a former politcal warrior he has some provocative insights into how we should interpret the election results and what the relationship between faith and politics could be in the future.

BustedHalo: Both you and Andrew Sullivan are conservatives who have written books in which you admit to being disillusioned with this administration and conservatism in general. What’s it been like to read the reaction to your book from both your longtime conservative allies or friends and those on the other side of the aisle?

David Kuo: You know, it’s been mixed. I think that I want to focus on the good. And the good is that I’ve got so many positive responses from so many people, just the people I wouldn’t have expected, friends, people in politics, people outside of politics, that it was a far better response than I could have imagined. I just think it resonates with a lot of people.

BH: Has reaction been different since the election. I’m just imagining that some of the people on the Republican side would be frustrated with your book.

DK: Yeah I know but I was focusing on the good side. You know the bad side is there was a horrendously awful response that continues. I mean there are people who view what I have to say not just as criticism but literally as an act of heresy.

BH: Which brings up a point in the book: the notion that some people have gone too far in equating Christianity with a political party’s platform. I think that a portion of America agrees as evidenced by the results of the recent election. What is your sense of that?

DK: I think that is absolutely true. I increasingly think, however, that the divide is mostly between…most of it is fostered by the Christian political powerbrokers because I think that part of the confusion that exists among rank and file Christians is that they look to the Dobsons or the Robertsons or the Falwells as primarily spiritual leaders and when they start talking politics, the followers follow because they have the sense that is a spiritual requirement. And I think that that is part of the problem that we have run into spiritually is that these Christian political leaders have not stopped to say, ‘Hey, I’m taking off my Christian hat now. I’m pulling off my hat where I’m talking about the Bible and the life of Jesus and I’m putting on a political hat. And this is my opinion that these are important moral issues and they need to be addressed.’ And I think there has been this blending or blurring of the two that has primarily come from those Christian political leaders who are seen as Christian pastors if you will. I think that nowhere is that more clear than the way that the White House has presented President Bush over the last seven years beginning when he started running for president. They portrayed him as this sort of pastor-in-chief, which is a very shrewd, smart political decision but again it is a very dangerous one spiritually.

BH: After the 2004 election when the country felt enormously divided, I remember trying to discuss politics with some people and I realized that it was difficult, if not impossible, to have a dialogue with someone if they believed that God was on their side. It sounds like in your life, you’ve struggled with that as well. Can you tell me what the breaking point of that was for you and where you realized that the two didn’t coincide?

DK: I think there have been so many different points in time where I felt that. And I think the first time was when I left Senator Ashcroft’s office back in ’96 or ’97 and went to start a charity. That was just one of those times, and in the year and a half or two that followed where I just went through a deep spiritual valley where I had reaped the fruit of so much that I had sown in my own life like divorce and withdrawal from politics, realizing the kind of drug that it was. It was me taking my own self-induced walk away from God. That was one [instance]. When I was able to step back, I could see things more clearly. I could see the political corruption of our souls, I could see how deep it was; not just for me but in general. So that was a big one.

You know Mrs. Clinton helped me see that, frankly, as shocking as it was.

[In his book, Kuo recounts apologizing at a Washington event to Hillary Clinton for of all the hateful things he had written about her and the president in speeches he had prepared for other politicians. The First Lady was taken off guard by the sentiment but later used the incident as an opportunity to publicly apologize for her own less-than-charitable behavior toward her political opponents.]

Because of her response. It was an extraordinary example of the political versus the spiritual because after spending so much time hating and attacking the Clintons, here I had an opportunity to sow the spiritual seed of forgiveness that blossomed so quickly in her life, just in her seeking her own apology. Now, you can obviously look at the years that followed, and you can see very clearly that she is the parable of the seed and sower and in my life and in the political life of Washington how something can sprout up quickly and then fade away.

BH: Those seeds don’t always fall on fertile soil. Have you been in touch with her since?

“I believe in the counterintuitive nature of God…a God who says ‘die that you may live’ may well be the God who says, ‘Fast from politics and I will bring you your desires.’ Maybe the spiritual act of humility that a fast involves can bring about the kind of change that we need and we all long for, frankly.”

DK: You know, it’s funny. When I was recovering from my brain tumor, she sent me a sweet note. It’s funny because on the same day, I got a sweet note from her and a sweet note from White House Chief-of-Staff Andy Card. And I’m sitting there looking at it and saying, ‘now this is not typical.’

But now I’ve run into her on various occasions and I deeply admire and appreciate who she is, which, again, a lot of people gag when they hear that but I just mean her as a person. You know she pursues what she wants to pursue and she believes it and she has to be respected for that.

BH: This seems to be a theme in your life: the struggle between political differences and how they extend into the spiritual realm. You’ve been advocating in your book and in your recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that Christians fast from politics for the next two years. You’re calling on people to continue to vote but instead of getting caught up in political campaigning they need to place the energy usually reserved for politics and use it for prayer, learning, service to the poor etc. Do you think taming those political instincts is possible? Is two years even enough time?

DK: (laughter) Gosh, that’s a hard question. I chose 2 years not because I felt like I had some divine revelation but because it seemed a natural period of time, considering releasing the book in ’06 and then in ’08 there’s the presidential election which is going to be the most crazy insane election that there is.

But also, frankly, because I believe in the counterintuitive nature of God. And so, the God who says ‘Blow your trumpets to take down a city,’ a God who says ‘die that you may live’ may well be the God who says, ‘Fast from politics and I will bring you your desires. I will give you what you want.’ Maybe it is the act of humility, the spiritual act of humility that a fast involves that can bring about the kind of change that we need and we all long for frankly. It was best encapsulated in that little story that I told about a guy who came up to me after I spoke at a church and said, ‘Hey, hey. Tell President Bush to fix the Supreme Court.’ And I was like, ‘Maybe, maybe we need to fix ourselves.’

BH: The Republicans have had control of the Supreme Court for decades and they’ve also controlled the executive and legislative branches for a long time and yet so much of the ‘conservative’ far right’s agenda hasn’t really come to pass.

DK: Yeah, you look at the social statistics over the last 30 years and you see fluctuations up, fluctuations down, but the number of abortions today is if not the same, a little bit higher than it was in 1973. Certainly, cohabitation among heterosexuals is through the roof, rates of marriage are down, divorces are certainly up from where they were in 1973 although down from their peak in the 1980’s. But part of the reason they are down is because people are not getting married. (laughter)

You’ve got teen pregnancy, teen suicide, a really large host of social pathologies here and they are impervious to political calculations but we have made politics God and we have substituted the hard work of God for the relatively easy work of politics. At the end of the day, it is easy to fight a political fight, because it is clear. It is defined. You raise money, you attack your opponent, you turn out to vote, you win, and you lose. It’s clear. It’s defined. But God…it’s that line from Blake, ‘We are here to learn to endure the meanings of love.’ How much harder is it to sit in stillness in a secret place and to receive the unconditional love of God? I know I just suck at it. I know I need it desperately. But how hard is it? You talk about having intimacy issues? Hello!

BH: Would you identify yourself as an Evangelical Christian?

DK: Yeah, except I hate what both the words ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Christian’ evoke these days. They evoke political images. That’s part of my problem. If you say you’re Evangelical, if you say Christian, people think that they understand a particular political perspective about you and I don’t much like that.

BH: Do you think the fast will help people find common ground on seemingly intractable issues relating to abortion and homosexuality that inspire such incredible animosity?

DK: You know, I think it’s really our best shot. I really do. Going down this continued road of political idolization and increasing fractionalization and hate, I really don’t think that is going to get us where we need to go.

BH: Now that you’re in your late 30s do you have any sense whether younger Christians have different approaches or different perspectives on these divisive issues?

DK: Yeah, I really do. I think that kids coming out of college are tired of the same old same old. I think they are tired of what I have experienced and what people have experienced in terms of what Evangelical denotes. I think they look at the world and go, ‘Well, you know, AIDS, global warming, starvation…let’s tackle those.’

BH: Do you think they will have any sway with the churches they are a part of?

DK: I think so because there is nothing as powerful as the passion of youth. In the church that I go to, the 20-somethings whom I’ve gotten to know are so passionate about God, so knowledgeable about God. I mean they shame me with their biblical knowledge their concern tends to be far less about politics than it is about trying to live a righteous and holy life and really trying to make an impact for God’s kingdom first, figuring if you make an impact for God’s kingdom and the fruit of that will be good.

BustedHalo: What do you think are some greatest misconceptions about Evangelical Christians in terms of their political concerns?

David Kuo: I think the misconception is that most Evangelicals are like their Evangelical leaders or their political leaders because I think that at core, most Evangelicals are not. You know my pastor said-and we were a little church-‘I love the fact that if Hilary Clinton walked into this church, she would be as loved as if George Bush were to walk through the doors of this church,’ or in our case, a little auditorium that we rent on Sunday mornings. I think that is one misconception. It’s that they are not Falwell.

BH: Do you think this may be specific to your little congregation or do you think it would be true around the country?

DK: I hope and think it’s true around the country. I also think that by and large, with the voting block, they don’t think about politics as much as people think. Politics to [Evangelical Christians] is something that is a secondary or tertiary issue. But part of the reason that I think the fast is important is that I think the fast is easy for the people at the grassroots because I think they have the sense that perhaps things are going the wrong way, that things have gone too far. I think most Evangelicals really care most about God. I really, really truly do.

BH: And discerning what God wants—as opposed to having a direct pipeline to understanding what they believe God is all about—requires a greater humility I would think…

DK: Yeah, yeah. I think that is right. I mean, you hear the hesitation in my voice. It’s hard to speak to these generalities. I mean it’s too hard to say broadly to an entire group of people without lapsing into stereotypes.

BH: I understand. Well, in a more concrete area then, what was your reaction to the election? There are a lot of people that were trying to interpret what happened. What do you think was going on with voters?

DK: I don’t think it is as complicated as people have made it. I think that people were angry about scandal, angry about Iraq and voted against Republicans. Really, I don’t think that it was much more complicated than that. I don’t think that it signaled some sea change. I don’t think that things are going to be remarkably different now and it portends this fundamental shift in American political life. I just think that they were angry and upset. They don’t like being lied to, don’t like having corrupt congressmen or like being misled on matters of war and they said, ‘We’re tired of that. Enough. Period.

BH: It’s interesting that you mentioned scandal first. Hendrick Hertzberg wrote a piece in The New Yorker after the election saying that most of us assumed that Iraq was the number one issue with voters and yet some of the polls have seemed to show that the Ambramoff scandal and the Foley and the Haggard scandal, have also played into that.

DK: I think scandal is huge. I think Ted Haggard was huge. I mean even if it doesn’t poll as well. I just think that that was one of those things that just hit a lot of people and they just said, ‘oh my gosh.’ I think it is one of the reasons why you have a lot of Evangelicals, even serious Evangelical leaders, saying ‘maybe we’ve gone too far.’ I just think that you can’t underestimate the significance of what John White of the Rutherford Institute wrote and that’s who I referred to in my New York Times piece, saying politics, too much too far, materialism, too much too far. Coming from the group that once represented Paula Jones, this is pretty serious.

Just the recognition that when a spiritual leader gets involved in politics, when he falls, politics only accelerates it, only magnifies the intensity and significance of the fall. If Ted Haggard were just a spiritual leader who fell, the story is fundamentally different than if Ted Haggard, who lobbied against gay marriage amendments and who is the President of the National Association of Evangelicals and who was part and parcel with these Justice Sunday initiatives…It’s a very different thing.

I think it may be even more significant because he embodies this intersection of God and Politics and who you worship first? Do you worship first at the altar of politics or do you worship first at the altar of God?

BH: So you don’t think we’re looking at any great sea change as far as where Americans are going or what will happen in 2008 politicall? Do you have any predictions on all of that?

DK: I don’t have any dramatic predictions that we’re suddenly going to see this or that or the other thing. My hope is that you are going to see a lot of Evangelicals voting like they want to, like everyone should. I also hope that you are going to see a lot of Christians who just give less time and less money to the political fray and who spend so much more of their time practicing what Jesus preached in terms of caring for the sick and the poor than those who are going to spend so much of their time lobbying for politics.

BH: One of the things that I found really compelling in the book was the direct experience you had, one-on-one, with people who were suffering, people in low-income situations when you left politics the first time to start your charity in the mid 90s. It was no longer an abstraction. This was a reality and it seemed to also inform the way you approached your politics to a certain degree. Do you see yourself getting more deeply involved in that sort of work or are you still interested in politics?

“I hope that you are going to see a lot of Christians who just give less time and less money to the political fray and who spend so much more of their time practicing what Jesus preached in terms of caring for the sick and the poor than those who are going to spend so much of their time lobbying for politics.”

DK: Oh heavens. I am certainly not going to be involved in politics. I mean, the degree to which I am involved in politics now is that I am a writer and a commentator to try and advocate a case because I want to marshal the evidence that I find and make the case that we need to worship politics less and worship God more and that is the extent of my political involvement. Even when I came back to the Bush White House though, I went for a very specific purpose and that was to try and implement the promise to help the poor. And frankly, having had the experience of working in the charitable world, it made the power of that promise all the more compelling. It is in the one-on-one work with people who are hurting, helping people, being involved, loving your neighbor literally. That’s the stuff that stays in life. That’s the stuff that matters and lasts and has the capacity for long-term change. And that’s what I want to be involved in.

BH: Could you see yourself voting for a Democrat?

DK: Oh heck yeah.

BH: Which is a change for you, I imagine, from who you were 10 years ago.

DK: Yeah. Absolutely.

BH: So would you identify as Republican anymore?

DK: You know it’s interesting because I live in Virginia and Virginia doesn’t register by parties. So you just register independent. So I’ve never registered ‘Republican’ just because it is not an option but I would say that I’m an independent. But also, I haven’t become socially liberal. My views haven’t fundamentally changed. I’m not renouncing the conservative movement. I’m not saying socially conservative politics is bad. I just saying that it has had a tremendous spiritual price that far outweighs the political good and we need to pay attention to that and we need to pay more attention to the spiritual than the political.

BH: In the book you talk about the sad realization that a lot of conservatives didn’t really seem to care about the poor. I thought it was really powerful because you said that most of these organizations were staffed by liberals. There almost seemed to be a sense of envy in that.

DK: Now that’s interesting.

BH: No? Did I read that wrong?

DK: I don’t know. Maybe you read it far better than I understand it.

BH: Although there were some notable exceptions of Republicans who were deeply committed to the poor, on the whole, it sounded like you felt that the poor were less of a priority. It seemed to be a type of come to Jesus moment for you.

DK: I had lots of come to Jesus moments probably more than I had wanted but your point is a very, very good one. I think that the only way anyone really cares more about the poor is by getting involved with the poor and that is true of Republicans. I think that they fall into this pit of thinking that the poor just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and everything will be fine. The Democrats have their own problem with the poor of course. That is going beyond the idea that with enough money, everything will be fine. And, during my two and a half years there, there was hardly a deep passionate outcry from Democrats or Republicans to try and have this compassionate conservative agenda passed.

BH: It fascinates me that back in the mid 1960s President Johnson could declare war on poverty and that, 30 years later, if a politician tried to say something like that he would be laughed out the room. Poverty is not really on the agenda for either party. The fact that, somehow, we feel like we don’t need to address that problem anymore is baffling. Poverty certainly didn’t go away but as a political issue it doesn’t seem to have much traction.

DK: You know the poor are not a hugely powerful constituency but that’s why I think that promises made to the poor are promises that most especially need to be heeded. They are holy promises because at the end of the day, for the people making the promises, you are the only one who is going to be able to enforce it.

BH: : One last question. What is the biggest misperception about George Bush that liberals have.

DK: [They don’t see that] he has a deep, deep personal empathy for people.

BH: Really?

DK: Yeah. It’s just real.

BH: And yet you found his political will as far as poverty was concerned was very limited.

DK: Yes.

BH: Which was a difficult thing to take it sounds like.

DK: Yes, but again, I think it’s important that the question is what about him as a man?

BH: So there is a real sense of integrity with him?

DK: Yes. Absolutely.