December 2006 Church & State | Featured

When former White House faith-based office staffer David Kuo wrote a tell-all book recounting how the Bush administration used the “faith-based” initiative to shill for votes among religious conservatives, he might have thought he was doing devout Christians a favor.

After all, if religious conservatives were being exploited by the GOP for votes, they would surely want to know that, right?

Apparently not. Two months after the publication of Kuo’s book Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, it’s painfully obvious that the Religious Right has decided to attack the messenger. Kuo’s stories of how conservative Christians were warmly welcomed by the Bush administration in public and scorned behind their backs have failed to give pause to Religious Right leaders. In fact, many of them have spent the last eight weeks blasting Kuo and impugning his credibility.

The revelations in Kuo’s book hit the country like a shock wave in mid October. Generating headlines just before national elections, Kuo’s claims were just what the Religious Right did not want: further evidence that the faith-based initiative was always more focused on partisan politics than providing for the poor.

Unfortunately for the far right, Kuo’s claims are not so easily dismissed. Kuo, the number two staffer in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2001-03, was a true believer. Far from a liberal operative, he has been a reliable conservative since the 1980s and worked for conservative luminaries like John Ashcroft, William Bennett and Robert Dole.

As Kuo makes clear in Tempting Faith, he wrote the book not because he wants to tear down the faith-based initiative but because he wants to purify it. Kuo really valued the initiative and was incensed that the White House’s political capital was spent on tax cuts for the well-to-do. He believed the initiative was a way to help those in need; he hated to see it become another vehicle for partisan sniping.

Yet that is what Kuo alleges it became. Central to his book is the assertion that the initiative was used by White House strategists in 2002 and ’04 to help the Republican Party solidify control of Congress. In one pivotal scene, Kuo writes about a meeting with James Towey, then director of the faith-based office, and Ken Mehlman, then White House political director. The three discussed ways to use the initiative to excite religious voters.

“We laid out a plan whereby we would hold ‘roundtable events’ for threatened incumbents with faith and community leaders,” Kuo writes. “Our office would do the work, using the aura of our White House power to get a diverse group of faith and community leaders to a ‘nonpartisan’ event discussing how best to help poor people in their area. Though the Republican candidate would host the roundtable, it wouldn’t be a campaign event. The member of Congress was just taking time away from his or her campaign to serve the community. It would be the perfect event.”

But all of this was a cover. The events were intended to promote endangered GOP candidates, and along those lines, a list of 20 House and Senate targets was drawn up. These included Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, Wayne Allard in Colorado and Tim Hutchinson in Ark­ansas, all seeking Senate seats. House candidates included Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania, Shelley Cap­ito in West Virginia, John Shimkus in Illinois and Anne Northup in Kentucky.

Towey subsequently appeared alongside many of the candidates at the events, and during the “conferences,” local clergy members were led to believe that they could qualify for significant government grants. A special outreach was made to African-American clergy.

On Election Day, 19 of the 20 targeted candidates won.

The scheme worked so well it was duplicated in 2004. As Kuo observes, “More than a dozen conferences with more than 20,000 faith and community leaders were held in 2003 and 2004 in every significant battleground state, including two in Florida, one in Miami ten days before the 2004 election. Their political power was incalculable. They were completely off the media’s radar screen.”

Kuo’s revelations surprised many readers but were not news to Americans United. In 2002, AU noticed a strange pattern: Towey and other faith-based office staffers were appearing with GOP candidates locked in tight races. Church & State ran a four-page report about the politicking thrust in October of 2002.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in his recently published book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, summarized AU’s findings about the partisan nature of the initiative.

Lynn noted that John J. DiIulio, the first director of the faith-based office, criticized Karl Rove and other White House strategists for politicizing the initiative.

After leaving the office, DiIulio told Esquire magazine, “What you’ve got is everything – and I mean everything – being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”

Noted Lynn in his book, “In 2004 Towey and his staff just happened to pop up in swing states putting on seminars telling pastors how to get their slice of the faith-based pie. Are we supposed to believe it was just a coincidence that Towey and his staff just happened to appear in states or districts with close races – every time?”

Americans United tried to get the word out in 2002. The organization tipped off The Washington Post, which put political reporter Tom Edsall on the case. In Tempting Faith, Kuo writes that when Edsall called the office, the staff quickly began spinning its response, expressing indignation that anyone would dare suggest that the initiative had been politicized.

“Our press shop responded with a statement: ‘The bottom line is that Jim [Towey] travels all over the country to talk about the president’s faith-based initiative,’ and he visits with people regardless of political affiliation,” wrote Kuo. “This was true in general. It was certainly not true of the roundtables. Demo­cratic candidates weren’t invited. Yet no one else picked up on Edsall’s piece, and our work remained covert in the final weeks of the campaign.”

But even as the White House pumped evangelicals for votes to retain power, staffers were ridiculing them behind their backs.

Kuo writes, “For most of the rest of the White House staff, 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. They knew ‘the nuts’ were politically invaluable, but that was the extent of their usefulness.”

Continues Kuo, “National Chris­tian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy.’ The leaders spent much time lauding the president, but they were never shrewd enough to do what Billy Graham had done three decades before, to wonder whether they were just being used. They were.”

Kuo made a round of media appearances to discuss the book, including a high-profile interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” His allegations failed to impress the Religious Right – in fact, they infuriated the movement’s leaders.

“I feel sorry for him, because once you do something like this, you get your 15 minutes in the spotlight, but then after that nobody will touch you,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told The Washington Post. “These kiss-and-tell books do more damage to the author than to the people they attack.”

Perkins’ boss, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, labeled Kuo’s book “a mix of sour grapes and political timing.” Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship said he was “shocked and disappointed by what appears to be political timing to sell a book, and a very unfair characterization of the parties involved.”

Asked about Kuo’s allegations by The Wall Street Journal, longtime Religious Right strategist Paul Weyrich said dismissively, “David Kuo? Who is he? The person at the White House I talk to every week is Tim Goeglein. I know he does not ridicule us.”

Right-wing journalist Jason Christy, in a perhaps desperate bid to use the controversy to generate some media attention, went so far as to issue a press release headlined, “David Kuo: An Addition to the Axis of Evil.”

Christy, publisher of a magazine called The Church Report, blasted Kuo’s revelations as “nothing more than the ramblings of a disgruntled former employee looking to sell a few books” and accused him of “being used to try and prop up the liberal left, to breathe life into lifeless campaigns and his master literary work is a mere smokescreen.”

Former and current administration officials also lashed out at Kuo. Towey, now serving as president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., denied Kuo’s account, telling The Post, “It sounds like he worked at a different White House than the one I worked for.”

Rove was also dismissive, telling The Wall Street Journal, “It’s David Kuo and George W. Bush, and who do you think has greater credibility in the evangelical community?”

Tempting Faith, however, is not so easily dismissed. The sections about conservative Christians being called names sparked a lot of media interest, but they account for just a few paragraphs in what is otherwise a highly detailed recounting of how the faith-based initiative was conceived, executed and manipulated. The portrait Kuo paints is often devastating.

Kuo, for example, writes about how the initiative was constantly portrayed to religious groups as a source of new grant money when, in fact, it involved no new outlays of cash.

Administration figures frequently asserted that the initiative involved as much as $8 billion in public funds. Kuo says this figure was arrived at by examining existing social-service programs that were, in theory, now more open to faith-based organizations.

He recounts one stormy meeting at the White House during which President George W. Bush, eager to show a visiting group of black pastors what he had done for them, demanded to know how much money religious groups had been given under the initiative. When Kuo named a low figure, Bush balked and Rove brought up the $8 billion number.

Kuo pointed out that those funds were available theoretically, at which point Bush interjected, “Eight billion in new dollars?”

Replied Kuo, “No, sir. Eight billion in existing dollars for which groups will find it technically easier to apply. But faith-based groups have been getting that money for years.”

Unfazed, Bush responded, “Eight billion. That’s what we’ll tell them. Eight billion in new funds for faith-based groups. Okay, let’s go.”

Bush duly went forth, told the ministers about the $8 billion that was available and departed. He left Rove behind to field questions. Several pastors soon began badgering Rove about this money: where was it and how could they get it? One even mentioned that he had talked to cabinet-level secretaries and been told there was no new money.

“Tell you what,” Rove responded, “I’m going to get those guys in a room and bash some heads together and get to the bottom of this. I’ll be back in touch with you.”

Some heads might have been bashed, but that was apparently the last the ministers heard from Rove.

Kuo also debunks a long-standing claim of initiative backers: that rampant discrimination exists against faith-based groups when it comes to tax funding, and these groups are routinely hog-tied by their inability to hire only members of their own faith.

He writes about the office’s general counsel, Rebecca Beynon, who re­searched the matter and found just a few examples of overreaching laws and policies.

“[R]eligious groups had encountered very few instances of actual problems with their hiring practices,” writes Kuo. “Alarmed, we looked under every rock and rule and regulation and report. Finding these examples became a huge priority. Without them, the powerful political rhetoric of government discrimination against faith-based groups of religious hiring would have to disappear.”

Kuo concludes that the situation in regard to hiring “really wasn’t that bad at all. One of the reasons was that most of the faith-based groups that did contract with the federal government were large and well lawyered. They had long ago figured out how to deal with pesky rules and bureaucrats.”

Kuo points out, for example, that Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services receive $1.5 billion annually in social-service money between the two of them – hardly evidence of discrimination against religious groups.

Finally, Kuo’s book provides evidence that much of what money was made available under the initiative was directed toward Christian groups allied with the president. He writes about grants doled out to religious groups under the Compassion Capital Fund, a White House slush fund for faith-based and community groups. Bush and other administration officials routinely insisted that the $30 million in this fund would be available to a wide range of religious groups. Kuo says most of it ended up in the hands of Bush’s evangelical backers.

The problem began with the review panel pulled together to examine the applications. Panel members were, Kuo writes, “an overwhelmingly Christian group of wonks, ministers, and well-meaning types. They were supposed to review the application in a religiously neutral fashion and assign each applicant a score on a range of 1-100. But their biases were transparent.”

The result, Kuo writes, was that many groups got high scores because they were “politically friendly to the administration.” Bishop Harold Ray of Florida who had publicly backed Bush in 2000, got a score of 98 for his National Center for Faith-Based Initiative – even though it was a recently created entity with no track record of success. TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing, though dogged by ethical concerns, received a 95.67 and was subsequently awarded a $1.5 million grant. Nueva Esperanza, a Hispanic group whose leader, Luis Cortes, had backed Bush, got a 95.33.

Meanwhile, a well-established organization like Big Brothers/Big Sisters scored only an 85.33. At the same time, an outfit in California called Jesus and Friends Ministry, which Kuo describes as “a group with little more than a post office box,” scored 89.33.

Kuo’s suspicions were confirmed after he left the White House. He describes socializing with some friends and acquaintances, one of whom learned that he used to work in the faith-based office. The woman said she had been on the review panel for the Compassion Capital Fund and frankly admitted, “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.”

When Kuo asked if other reviewers had done the same, the woman replied, “Oh sure, a lot of us did.”

Kuo continued making media appearances even as Religious Right leaders and administration officials rushed to discredit him. On “60 Minutes,” he disclosed that he has an inoperable brain tumor that will probably take his life within five to 10 years.

Commenting on what he has learned, Kuo told National Public Radio Oct. 19 that while he believes every citizen has a duty to vote, he is recommending that religious conservatives go on a type of “fast” from politics.

“And I think now, especially for evangelicals who have gotten so involved in politics to the point where it really seems inseparable, where Jesus and George W. Bush seem inseparable to them, I think [there should be] a temporary step back from the political arena,” Kuo said. “Not to do nothing, but to serve the poor, but to give money to after-school programs, to programs that feed the poor and the hungry I think would be a good thing.”