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Author Discusses Bush Administration’s Faith-based Initiatives

October 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: When the Bush administration came to office in 2001, it touted its faith-based initiative as a top domestic priority. The agenda included more money and improved access to federal funding for faith-based organizations and tax credits to spur charitable giving.

The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was created to oversee the agenda and still exists. But a new book by David Kuo, who served as the second-in-command in that office, argues that the administration often used its faith-based initiative for political gain. David Kuo joins me now.

You write in your book, “I fell in love with my fusion of Christianity and politics in 1987.” So, really, this is also the education of a movement conservative.

DAVID KUO, Author, “Tempting Faith”: It absolutely is. I mean, in some ways, the title, “The Story of Political Seduction,” it’s a story of my political seduction, which I trace throughout the book, making a journey from being more of a social gospel liberal when I was growing up to being very much a card-carrying member of the religious right.

RAY SUAREZ: When you got to what became the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, you went there wanting it to work, didn’t you?

DAVID KUO: Yes. I went there — I entered the Bush White House after having thought I was done with politics. You know, I got a call to go in from a friend, and I went in because of the extraordinary promise that Governor Bush had made, this $8 billion-a-year promise to help the poor, I mean, this extraordinary new political philosophy of compassionate conservatism that he articulated so eloquently throughout the campaign.

I felt like being able to fight for that was this fulfillment of my Christianity and politics, the opportunity to really fight on behalf of the poor, which is something I very much felt that Jesus would probably like.

Doling out the money

RAY SUAREZ: The legislative and statutory tracks were laid down. The office was established. Did you ever give away that $8 billion bucks a year?

DAVID KUO: No. We worked very hard to give the illusion that there was something that happened, and that's part of the sadness of the book, which is that this great promise became primarily something that we had to maintain the illusion was occurring.

And it's part of that, that the whole political question that's come up was raised, because, you know, we tried to use politics in the White House to advance our agenda, to try and build up chits so that, when it came down to funding time, to the battle time, we might be able to call on something, but that never really came through, either.

RAY SUAREZ: After you joined what would become the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, did it dawn on you only slowly that there wasn't going to be that much emphasis on getting the money out and, over time, a lot emphasis on politics?

DAVID KUO: You know, it's something that occurred gradually. When I entered, I knew, of course, that there was going to be opposition. I've been in politics for a long time. I know that agendas for the poor aren't exactly the top of most politicians' agendas.

And I experienced that very quickly in the White House, that for most of the West Wing staff this wasn't something that was a huge priority. But it really was over time that I began to see the clear pattern of, you know, really grand announcements, very well-done, great messaging, great visuals, but then, when it came to follow-up, you know, there really wasn't any.

And what was, in many ways, the most disturbing part of that was that it was indicative of sort of a larger administration the way of doing business. And that was they understood the media cycle. They understood how quickly it turns; they understand people's short attention spans, reporters' short attention spans.

And the assumption was that, if you can put something up there that looks really good and you can do just enough on the back-end to make it defensible, that was the way things got done.

The White House treatment

RAY SUAREZ: I found it fascinating that a lot of the attention on this book has gone to how operatives in the White House felt about organized religious conservatives. But much less attention has gone to what you write -- and extensively so -- about what those groups made of the treatment they were getting by the White House. It seems like they weren't as offended as you were.

DAVID KUO: No. And that's, again, part of the reason for writing the book is a spiritual reason. I think that Christians are in grave danger of casting down a very important, beautiful, eternal gift, and that is the message of God, and trading it in for something very temporal, and that is political gain, the perception of power.

You know, it's something that Chuck Colson talks about and wrote about extensively when he talked about his own time in the Nixon White House when he worked with religious conservatives. And he said, you know, really of all the people, they were the easiest to control. And he said there's just such a huge danger in that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you say this is a story of your political seduction. Did you see them being seduced, as well?

DAVID KUO: Absolutely. You know, there's such grand power in the White House, in politics in general. In some ways, I liken it to Tolkien's ring of power from "The Lord of the Rings." When you slip on the ring, it seems dazzling and wonderful and great, but over time it becomes very deteriorating. It very much changes your sense of priorities, and it's a very distorting and corrupting thing.

RAY SUAREZ: Why wouldn't the White House have used this branch the way politicians always use the levers of power, to reward their friends and punish their enemies? At some points, you seem almost shocked that organizations favored by the White House would move right to the head of the line when it came time to give out the funds.

DAVID KUO: It's interesting. A lot of reporting has been that the White House has funneled just bunches of money to their friends. The problem is: There really wasn't a lot of money to funnel.

You know, if we were sitting here now six years into the administration and $48 billion had been distributed, you know, I think then we might be able to have some serious, significant issues about how that money was used. But really, Ray, up until this point in time, the appearance of the money is what's mattered.

And has some ended up in the hands of religiously conservative groups? Absolutely. Has that been part of a concerted effort to get it there? No, it really hasn't, simply because of general apathy.

Timing of the book

RAY SUAREZ: Now, granted, there's a long lead time when you're writing a book, but it was completed and now hits bookstore shelves with just a few days to go until the midterm elections. Why now?

DAVID KUO: I'm glad that it's coming out now. People pay attention now to the issues that I talk about, to faith, to politics, to issues of the poor, and I'm very happy about that.

Now, that's a tough thing to say, because of the criticism I've gotten from the right, which is, you know, that somehow I'm simply releasing this book now to try and damage conservatives, trying to suppress the Christian vote and, frankly, criticisms from the left or fears from the left that this book is going to be used somehow to ignite Christian voters in backlash and that it will hurt Democratic chances.

RAY SUAREZ: You don't doubt the sincerity of the people you worked with and for in their belief in religion or the sincerity of the people from the Christian communities that you interacted with, do you?

DAVID KUO: Oh, no. No, no. And, again, when I talked about this, what I talk about is the power of political seduction. You know, I don't doubt the faith at all. What I try and expose or what I talk about is the danger of politics taking even the most noble efforts, the greatest efforts, and reducing them to something far less noble.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is "Tempting Faith" by David Kuo, "An Inside Story of Political Seduction." Thanks for joining us.

DAVID KUO: Thank you for having me.