If the three great arenas of Christian temptation are money, sex, and power, J. David Kuo has now written compelling books about two of the three. His first book, Dot.Bomb, was a memoir of greed and fear as an executive at a doomed Internet company, ValueAmerica. His latest book, Tempting Faith, recounts the story of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. It has turned heads with Kuo's claim that the office courted and exploited evangelicals and ethnic minority Christians while delivering very little of its original agenda for "compassionate conservatism," and with Kuo's call for Christians to take a two-year fast from political action (though not from voting). Amy Black reviewed Kuo's book for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture; here CT contributing editor Andy Crouch talks with Kuo about faith, power, and tell-all memoirs.
Let's begin by talking about the response so far to Tempting Faith.
Well, one MSNBC reporter got an early copy of the book, and his piece defined the coverage. Every single piece, every column, every comment for the first several days after the book was released was based on a very few passages he pulled out, saying that people in the White House called religious leaders "goofballs."
I never expected that would be the thing that would end up defining media coverage, because frankly anybody who is honest and has done Republican politics inside Washington for the last 20 years knows that social conservatives and evangelicals are mocked. This is much like expressing shock over gravity. But that's the stuff that got picked up.
Honestly, when I read the book, none of that struck me as particularly surprising at all. But there is a sense that it was surprising to you. Is it too strong to say that you come across as somewhat naïve?
If I'm naïve, I'm probably the only person who's worked for the CIA, Bill Bennett, and John Ashcroft who's naïve. Perhaps I come across as a naïf. I've heard that accusation, but whether I was naive or not does not undercut the central argument that I am trying to make: Believers have been sold on this idea of George W. Bush as Pastor-in-Chief.
But initially it seems like you, too, related to him as Pastor-in-Chief and were very taken with his personal piety. You talk about sitting in the waiting room to the West Wing and imagining what important things people are doing behind the doorsthere's something wide-eyed about that.
You know what? I am honestly relating how every single person feels the moment they enter the White House. If I come across as naïve, perhaps it's because everybody else paints themselves as more sophisticated than they are.
What could the churchthe Christian communities you were part of at various stages of this storyhave done better to prepare you for your time in the White House? There is a Christian tradition of political reflection, drawing especially on Augustine's ideas of original sin and a human City that always will be compromised. But it seems like the formation you had as a Christian helped you love Jesus, but gave you no formation in how to be part of political structures.
It's a profound point. Show me the church that talks about the City of God and the City of Man. I don't know very many churches right now that are preaching Niebuhr over Max Lucado. And listen, I love Max Lucado's stories, don't get me wrong. But they are easily digestible.
They're sentimental, right? And it seems like you went in with a kind of sentimentality about what devotion could do, what sincerity could do. It would have served you better, and would have served evangelicals in America better, if we had a more chastened view of what human beings can accomplish when they're embedded in these kind of structures.
That's absolutely right. Perhaps there needs to be an ordination process for Christian political leadership. Maybe you have to have a certain level of knowledge, of instruction, in human political historynot just history taught from a partisan point of viewto understand the City of God and the City of Man. Because at the end of the day, how many of us have read Augustine? We may quote Augustine, but how many of us have read him? Wilberforce is the patron saint of many religious conservatives, but how many have actually read anything he's written?
And there's another problem: Augustine does not fit well with our standard of life, our economy, of anything we are as a people. We love the idea of St. Francis, right, as the guy with the birds, but really, do we want to be imitating St. Francis? Do we want to be confronted with the gravity of our corporate sin? I don't.
What could the President have done to advocate for faith-based legislation in 2002 and 2003 that he didn't do? It stalled over the objections of some powerful senators. And other agendas that weren't there at the beginning of his presidency were suddenly at the top of the list.
Absolutely, but so were the numerous domestic policies that he had been advocating in 2002 and 2003. It's not as if the White House domestic policy shop shut down. But here's what it came down to: the realization that the faith-based initiative was more politically powerful not having passed the Senate than having passed. The President could go out and say, "I call on the Democrats to pass the faith bill," while doing nothing behind the scenes. That was among the more disturbing things of my whole experience. One day he would be advocating repeatedly for the Senate to do something, and the next day we'd be trying to get the White House to do anything to make it happen, and they wouldn't do it.
It's just way too convenient to say, hey, the Democrats wouldn't give it to uswhen in late 2002 [Tom] Daschle had a proposal on the table, late one evening, for it to happen. But it would have cost the White House a couple hundred million dollars, and the decision was, no, we're not going to do it.
You talk almost exclusively about specific faith-based initiatives, but those are a tiny fraction of what the government does, and Christians should care about the whole thing, right?
But this is emblematic of the White House's approach on virtually every domestic issue. The same basic pattern emerged: great grand announcements, held in very beautiful and media-friendly environments. But the follow-up on all of this was trivialjust enough to provide justification that something had happened. And the reason I focused on this areabeside the fact that I have the most knowledge of this areais that I believe that when a politician makes a promise to the poor, it is a particularly sacred kind of promise. Because it is a promise that is enforceable only by his own character.
There's not going to be any pressure to follow through.
Right. It's not like the media is going to be spending a huge amount of time focusing on policies for the poor. I think the failure of this promise is a cautionary tale for Christians, not only in all of government, but unfortunately a cautionary tale about this administration. Because this administration, by setting up George W. JesusI meanhow's that for a Freudian slip? By setting up George W. Bush and Jesus in such close terms, this administration also set itself up for particularly strong scrutiny.
Evangelicals themselves were never united on the value of public support for faith-based charities to begin with, right? Wasn't that also a crucial flaw that made it hard to consolidate political support for it?
That's a good point, but it also underscores that for Christian political power brokers, the poor are not of significant interest. Go look at the Family Research Council's 2006 State of the Union address and look at their top ten issues. The poor are nowhere mentioned. So yes, part of the reason this didn't succeed was because evangelicals didn't support it, but that also speaks to what I believe are misplaced political priorities. Because I don't know how anyone could be a Christian in politics and not be moved to think about matters of economic justice and social justice and racial justice.
Your first book was called Dot.Bomb, and I have to say that reading both books makes me think; this Kuo guy tends to be infatuated with big dreams and charismatic people. "We'd made a magical connection. I liked him. I was drawn to him. I wanted his blessing. He liked me. I was infatuated by the vision and by the visionary." That describes your meeting with Internet entrepreneur Craig Winn, but it could have come out of Tempting Faith.
No, I don't think it could have in terms of George W. Bush. I obviously talk about how moved I was by our meeting in Austin, and about Joe Klein warning me not to fall in love with him, but the two experiences couldn't be more different. It's not accurate in any way to liken that moment meeting Craig Winn to the moment of meeting George W. Bush.
Becausethe difference was?
What impressed me about Bush was a commitment to a particular agenda. What impressed me about Winn was a charismatic force of personality.
But couldn't one wonder: Does David have a bit of a judgment problem? Getting involved in things that are huge visions, but not fully aware of how difficult it's going to be to actually achieve these things?
If there's anything I've learned in the last several weeks, it's that anyone can say anything. But I want to explore this; it's a great question. I met both George W. Bush and Craig Winn at a point in my life when I was spiritually, by my own admission in both books, just swirling. I hadn't come back to faith.
But I recently stumbled across a journal entry that I wrote the night before I entered the White House, and it's very much a realist's journal entry. I think the answer to your question is no. I have a very sober sense of politics. I had been in politics at that point for more than a decade. I know what it takes to get something done; I know that politics is the art of compromise. But what I found shocking in the White House is the deception.
It sounds like what was really disillusioning was, not that there was compromise involved, but that there was no effort to get to the table to do the compromising.
I don't want to sound too strong here, but what's shocking is deception. It's not disillusioning. It's shocking. Because when you have someone who is saying one thing and doing another thing, while wrapped in the mantle of Jesus, and while you have Christian political leaders bowing at his throne and telling other Christians that they are to bow at his throne because he's reading My Utmost for His HighestI think it is just fundamentally wrong for there to be this much deception. I don't say this lightly, and I don't say it happily.
If I were Steve Waldman [of Beliefnet, Kuo's current employer], I would be thinking, "Gee, I hope David never leaves my company and writes another book!" You talk about a private meeting with John Ashcroft where you say he looked like he was trying to decide whether to tell you something or notand then you tell us.
I talked to John about that.
It would have been helpful to know that as a reader.
I talked to everybody. Look, this book is neither inerrant nor infallible. This is one man's truly prayerful attempt at trying to sort through his life. It's a cautionary narrative.
Well, I do think that you come off looking the worst of anybody in the book, on the whole, and that's admirable in a way.
I hold myself up as an example of what not to become. There are twelve places I can list without thinking where I could have spared myself.
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Tempting Faith is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Amy Black reviewed Kuo's book for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture.
Kuo blogs at Beliefnet, where he is Washington editor.
The New Republic has published several pieces on Tempting Faith, including a review from Alan Wolfe. The book also spurred an online debate between Amy Sullivan and Joe Loconte on evangelicals and the Bush administration.
Charles Colson criticized Kuo on his Breakpoint broadcast. Other commentaries are available from Amy Sullivan, Jim Wallis, the NRB (National Religious Broadcasters), E.J. Dionne, Marvin Olasky, and Stanley Carlson-Thies.