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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Tempting Faith’ Reveals Cynicism of Bush White House Staffers Toward Faith-Based Initiatives, Dedicated Religious Believers Like Author David Kuo

Posted by kinchendavid on October 30, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – In his eye-opening account of a pilgrim’s progress – or rather a lack of it – inside the Beltway, David Kuo’s “Tempting Faith” (Free Press, $25, 304 pages) confirms to me something that I believe is obvious: Politics and religion shouldn’t be mixed.

In fact, at the end of the book, evangelical Christian Kuo seems to come to that conclusion, suggesting a two-year “fast” from engaging in politics for his fellow believers, who should instead support charities that help the poor and the sick. Fasting, he points out, is an integral part of Christianity, it’s good for the soul and body and Jesus was a strong believer in fasting.

The book’s subtitle – “An Inside Story of Political Seduction” – tells a lot about Kuo’s experiences both before and after working for the George W. Bush administration. From 2001 to 2003, he was second in command – deputy director — at the President’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, working closely with the director of the organization, John DiIulio, and with Dilulio’s successor.

As a matter of fact, Dilulio, quoted in a Dec. 4, 2002 Esquire magazine story by Ron Suskind gave more than a hint that the Bush White House was using believing Christians as part of a Karl Rove-designed scheme to secure the voting base of that group. In the article, according to Kuo (Page 219) Dilulio “critiqued the Bush White House for its lack of a serious policy apparatus. Policy wasn’t made by philosophy, John said, but by politics. ‘There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus…’” Kuo said the article went on at “length detailing Karl Rove’s perceived power.”

The cat wasn’t totally out of the bag, but its whiskers were showing in the Suskind article on “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove. Dilulio, whom Kuo describes as being a dead-ringer for the Newman character on “Seinfeld,” resigned as director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiative in August 2001, after the six months he had promised to stay were up. He moved back to Philadelphia where he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. Kuo worked under Dilulio’s successor, Jim Towey, before leaving in 2003. Towey was Mother Teresa’s U.S. lawyer (I’m not making this up, it’s right there on Page 197!).

“Tempting Faith” is a memoir of the son of a refugee from Communist China, born in 1922, and a devout Christian woman from the Deep South who hated the oppression of minorities of her region. Kuo tells of his brush with death when he discovered he had a brain tumor at the age of 34 – he’s 38 now. It occurred while he and his second wife, Kim McGreery Kuo, were driving home from a party on Washington’s scenic Rock Creek Parkway. Kim managed to avoid traffic and bring their SUV which Kuo was driving to a crashing halt which didn’t harm her. David Kuo was diagnosed with a tumor and was told after surgery that it could reappear at any time.

Second wife for an evangelical Christian? Yes, Kuo says it happens to believing Christians, especially those in workaholic DC. He and his first wife Jerilyn drifted apart and amicably divorced in the late 1990s; but he’s close to the two daughters from the marriage. This is a tell-all book about the cynicism of the staffers in the Bush Administration toward believing Christians, but it’s also an engaging and readable look at Kuo’s life, with only a little about his dot-com interlude (he wrote a book a few years ago called “Dot.Bomb” and is currently the Washington, DC editor of the Beliefnet web site) and his love of fishing, especially professional bass fishing.

He says his father more or less went along with his United Methodist religion, but his Georgia-raised mom was the major influence in making him a devout evangelical. His mother studied nursing at Atlanta’s Emory University, where she grew to hate a profession that discriminated against blacks in the segregated South. She met Kuo’s dad in California while attending college.

About the seduction of Washington, Kuo says (Pages 250-251) that it’s “not just because of the perks, which are nice, but because of the raw power of the place hidden in a true desire to save the world. It is the ring of power from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’ The longer anyone holds the ring the more he loves it, the more he hates it, and the more desperate he is to hold onto it. It becomes the most precious thing in his life…The ring owns, it is not owned.”

That’s one of the most eloquent paragraphs I’ve ever encountered about the seduction of power and is a useful corollary to Lord Acton’s oft-quoted aphorism about the corruption of power (“All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”).

Before joining the White House, Kuo was shaped completely by a faith he rediscovered and completely accepted during his high school years. He tells of attending college and the the pregnancy of a college girlfriend that ended in abortion (didn’t I say this is a tell-all book??!!). His acceptance of Jesus as a personal savior led him to the nexus of religion and politics, working with William Bennett, John Ashcroft, Jack Kemp, Bob and Elizabeth Dole and Ralph Reed, among others, as a speech writer and policy wonk.

Kuo met George W. Bush while the future president was governor of Texas and was impressed with Bush’s acceptance – at the age of 40 when he was a down-and-out alcoholic — of Christ. I get the impression that Kuo believes that Bush is not acting in his Christianity, that it is the fault of White House staffers who thought “evangelical leaders were people to be tolerated, not people who were truly welcomed. No group was more eye-rolling about Christians than the political affairs shop. (Page 229). Kuo adds that “Political Affairs was hardly alone. There wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t hear someone in middle – to senior-levels making some comment or another about how annoying the Christians were or how tiresome they were….”

Bush doesn’t completely get off the hook, to use a fishing image that Kuo might appreciate as he sits on his bass boat. He says (also Page 229) that “George W. Bush loves Jesus. He is a good man. But he is a politician; a very smart and shrewd politician….if the faith-based initiative was teaching me anything, it was the President’s capacity to care about perception more than reality. He wanted it to look good. He cared less about it being good.”

This combination of staffer cynicism and Bush’s wanting “it to look good” led to the activities of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives being blatantly used to elect Republicans in both the mid-term 2002 elections and the 2004 campaign, Kuo charges.

Reviewer disclosure: Like many, if not most journalists, I’m a thoroughgoing secularist, a person who believes religion and politics don’t mix. I approached “Tempting Faith” with an open mind, but the information Kuo supplies confirms my view: Religion and politics not only don’t mix, they shouldn’t.

“Tempting Faith” is an important book for religious true believers and secularists alike.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.simonsays.com (Free Press is a division of Simon & Schuster).

Kuo’s web site: http://www.beliefnet.com


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