Unshaken Faith in George Bush
Below is the best article I’ve ever read explaining why evangelical Christians continue to naively trust in Bush and their self-proclaimed religious leaders, even as these leaders routinely abuse these good, religious people for their own ends.
I’ve always found the curious thing about a preacher grasping for money to enrich himself or a snake-oil salesman is not the greed of the preacher or salesman. That’s easy to understand. The curious thing is those hard-working people of faith that routinely fork over large amounts of money, tithe their incomes, or give their last dime to these charlatans. The article below, a book review of David Kuo’s new book Tempting Fatih: An Inside Story of Political Seduction is one of the best explanations I’ve heard of this troubling and all too common phenomenon. The full article is found in the blog below.
A GOLDEN AGE OF CREDULITY, IN POLITICS AND IN RELIGION
The God That Never Failed
by Alan Wolfe
Post date: 10.30.06
Issue date: 11.06.06
Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction
By David Kuo
(Free Press, 283 pp., $25)
Tempting Faith is the story of how David Kuo, an unassuming if ambitious young man, discovered the wonder-filled joy flowing from devotion to a force more powerful than himself. I don’t mean that he found God, although Kuo, by his own account, first encountered Jesus in high school. When Kuo tells us how he got “hooked,” the object of his reverence lived not in Nazareth, but in Austin. “He seemed not just charming, but weighty, seductive yet pure, likeable but mysterious,” he writes of his first meeting with then-governor George W. Bush. “I couldn’t tell whether his disclosures were private revelations to someone he liked or just part of a pitch to someone he might need. I didn’t much care. I loved him.”
Neither theological brilliance nor grace-earning humility on the governor’s part caused Kuo to succumb. It was all about the bottle. “Watching him, I couldn’t miss the evidence of the former drunk, the lost soul who had fallen to his knees sobbing before God; the sinner who had become God’s own.” For Kuo, being a Christian means sharing your journey. “When Christians like me share the stories of how we came to believe in Jesus and what his presence means in our lives,” he writes, “it is called a testimony. It is deeply personal, deeply intimate, and shared with fellow Christians as well as with those we hope are open to accepting Jesus.” Bush’s testimony–how he lost his way, how Billy Graham pointed him in the right direction–established his sincerity. My goodness, Kuo goes on, you just had to see the man when his path crossed with that of an addict. “Any swagger disappeared. Something softer and perhaps more genuine took its place. He listened to each story and nodded. He seemed more like a counselor than a politician. When this happened–just a few times I was around–he didn’t hurry and didn’t rush. It was one of the more Christ-like things I have ever seen a powerful man do.” This is Noonanism with a born-again face. For Kuo, Karl Rove is “nice” and has “a soft heart,” Karen Hughes is filled with “sensitivity,” and even Dick Cheney has “a surprising jocularity.” Surprising, indeed.
The hoopla surrounding Kuo’s book focuses on his tell-all tidbits about what the insiders in the Bush administration really thought about all those crazy Christians who happened to make Bush president. These believers, Kuo tells us, were seduced by power. They put aside their religious ideals–especially the elusive truth that Jesus speaks to deeper and more permanent things than tax cuts and tariffs–in return for trinkets: presidential paperweights that they could show their friends, or, for the most influential souls, private meetings in the Oval Office. In so doing, says the penitent Kuo, they got their priorities all wrong. They should have ranked spirit and family over political power. Because they did not, they alienated themselves from others who shared their faith in Christ but not their political agenda.
Yet Kuo’s story of political seduction is, in the final analysis, a story about himself. Even after he left the White House, where he served as deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, his God never failed. Invited back to Washington to attend the first National Faith-Based Conference, Kuo listened as Bush lied through his teeth, claiming credit for making faith-based initiatives central to his presidency (when the subject had been relegated to the back burner for fear of offending moderates) and citing wildly inflated figures for how much the administration was spending on the poor (when Kuo had told Bush that spending on faith-based initiatives had actually declined since the days of Clinton and Gore). But none of this shook Kuo’s faith in the man. Although claiming to have been “crushed” by Bush’s “deception,” Kuo quickly brushes aside such disturbing thoughts. “Did he ever care about his antipoverty agenda?” he writes of Bush. “Personally, I doubt he could have cared more. His empathy couldn’t be faked.” He was, after all, a recovering alcoholic. “George W. Bush loves Jesus. He is a good man.”
Tempting Faith is in its way a significant book, not for what it teaches about the Machiavellians in the White House–surely there are no longer any surprises to be had on that front–but for what we learn about young, idealistic, and phenomenally naÃƒÂ¯ve Christians such as David Kuo. It is not an analysis of a mentality, but a documentation of it. To be sure, there is no doubting Kuo’s sincerity. His faith in God is unwavering. He is truly committed to good work on behalf of the poor. He did eventually leave the White House, and with the publication of this book he testifies to the cynicism that he found there. But his recovered righteousness is itself a kind of alibi. For people like him served as enablers for one of the most immoral presidencies Americans have ever endured. If we are to know what makes Bush so bad, we need to know more about why people who are so good could ever have been seduced by him.
And not just seduced. Kuo, whose goodness is as self-evident as it is a tad creepy, continues to defend Bush after this most self-professed of Christian presidents robbed the poor to pay the rich, broke his covenant with the Framers who wrote the Constitution of the United States, launched the first war of choice in our history since Polk attacked Mexico or McKinley attacked Spain, justified torture without a qualm of conscience, and, to top it all off, wound up treating his Christian supporters with a contempt that would put the most determined secular humanist to shame.
So much has been written about the role that religion plays in politics that we tend to forget that there is no such thing as “religion.” There are, rather, religions, each of which has its own god or gods, prophets, holy texts, commandments, ways of worship, theories of interpretation, inventories of sins, and conceptions of the afterlife. Kuo’s religion is of a very particular kind. Born-again Christians tend not to be liturgical in their religious practices; spontaneity of expression takes priority over never-changing ritual. They are not given to excessive theological exegesis; the text of the Bible tells them all they need to know. They generally prefer their rock music to Bach and Handel. Compared with Catholics, they are distrustful of hierarchy. Compared with Jews, they emphasize belief over observance. Compared with their mainline Protestant brethren, they worship with enthusiasm. And compared with every other religion on the face of the earth, they judge sincerity by the power of the stories that they tell each other.
Early in his career, Kuo found himself in the presence of John Ashcroft, who had been elected a senator from Missouri and needed people to work on his staff. During the interview, Kuo told Ashcroft how his father, an immigrant from China, was twice rejected for a visa to enter the United States. On his third attempt, a man came out of a side office and whispered something into the ear of the consular official who decided these things, and suddenly his dad was approved for entry. “My father never saw the man’s name, never saw him again,” Kuo informed the senator. “He believed it was an angel. I told Ashcroft I believed it, too.” And Ashcroft replied, “How could you not?”
Then Ashcroft offered a testimony of his own. His father, a minister in an Assemblies of God church, came to see his son sworn in as a senator. The idea was proposed that for an event as solemn as this one, Ashcroft should be anointed with oil. Some Crisco was found, and Ashcroft’s father, ailing heart and all, tried to rise from his sofa to conduct the ceremony. “You don’t need to stand,” Ashcroft told him. “John,” his father replied, “I am not struggling to stand. I am struggling to kneel.” Kneel he did, and, having anointed his son, he flew back to Missouri and died the very next day.
One of the most interesting aspects of these stories is that they are not true. As it happens, Kuo knew full well that no angel had intervened on behalf of his father; the elder Kuo had made a friend during World War II whose wife was a rich and powerful heiress, and it was through her connections that Kuo’s father got his visa. Ashcroft is a bit more truthful: he was sworn into the Senate on January 3, 1995, and his father died on January 5–two days later, not one. But why obsess about the details? The point of testimony is to wonder about the wonder of it all. You are not supposed to interrupt Kuo’s narrative to ask if human beings have more influence than angels. Telling a few pious white lies is fine so long as the larger truth about God’s power to direct our lives is made.
Kuo’s book concerns the way religious leaders were seduced by power, but it is clear from the stories he tells that evangelicals, given the role testimony plays in their lives, are far more seducible than most. John DiIulio, the political scientist who served as Kuo’s first boss in the White House, provides an interesting contrast. To be sure, DiIulio, after leaving the White House and saying the first truly damning things about the Bush administration, soon thereafter praised the president as “a highly admirable person of enormous personal decency”; but this resembled a Rubashov-like recantation more than it did Kuo’s wide-eyed innocence. NaÃƒÂ¯vetÃƒÂ© is just not something we associate with the streetwise Catholicism in which DiIulio was raised. Catholics have had seventeen hundred years of direct involvement with government: they are not easily surprised by political power and how it works. A realist if there ever was one, DiIulio allowed himself to be recruited by Bush, worked on his plan for faith-based initiatives for six months, correctly read the less-than-enthusiastic handwriting on the wall, and returned to academia. He never lost his innocence, because he had no innocence to lose.
Kuo, on the other hand, stayed on in the White House long after DiIulio left, repeatedly insisting to himself that he was not going to fall for the tricks being played on him every day–and then fell for all of them, one after another. Even after a car crash nearly cost him his life and led to the discovery of a brain tumor, Kuo remained sweetly on the job, only to be used again. The Bushies, now interested in mobilizing their base, wanted proof that religious groups were being treated unfairly because they were not allowed to discriminate in hiring. Kuo dutifully carried out the research, only to discover that almost no one ever sued a religious organization on grounds of discrimination. “Honey,” a female black minister told one of Kuo’s colleagues, “if you can’t figure out someone’s religion without asking them the question, well, then you just stupid.” (Evidently, streetwise African American Protestants are just as practical in affairs of state as world-weary Catholics). Finally Kuo, exhausted and dispirited, turned in his resignation. His wife “was waiting for me in the West Wing lobby. I took her hand, left the building, looked back at the beautiful place where I had been blessed to work, gave her a kiss, and we walked through the gates back into life.”
Unlike people from religious traditions with long histories of involvement with politics, evangelicals have no firm foundation in history, theology, or experience against which they can judge the words that so easily come out of the mouths of politicians. Sincerity, for them, is everything, which is another way of saying that facts are nothing. The proof of their faith is its credulity. After he went to work for Ashcroft–yes, he got the job–Kuo, like many young evangelicals recruited by Republican conservatives, began to hear about that governor down in Texas with the famous first and last names. Bush, these enthusiastic idealists told each other, was born-again just like they were. Kuo relates a story about how, on a visit to a prison, Governor Bush had heard some of the inmates singing “Amazing Grace” and immediately joined in, swaying arm-in-arm with a convicted murderer. Lo and behold, six years later the convict, now a janitor in a Houston church, shows up at the White House to meet the president. Once he has found Jesus, Kuo preaches, “even the most ‘hopeless’ person could be forever changed.”
Skeptical people will read this tale and wonder how a convicted murderer found himself released from prison in hard-nosed Texas. They might also ask why Bush never met with another Texas inmate–the axe-wielding Karla Faye Tucker, who had been changed forever by her born-again conversion–or showed even the slightest interest in her redemption; if anything, Bush, according to Tucker Carlson, mocked her pleas for mercy. But these are not matters that Kuo, the puerile anti-skeptic, addresses. Bush begins and ends his day with prayer, and that, for Kuo, settles the matter. “As a professing fellow believer in Jesus,” he writes of Bush, “I trusted him.” A majority of Americans no longer do, but then a majority of Americans are not evangelicals.
“Everyone comes to politics,” Kuo remarks, “with a particular set of spiritual or philosophical beliefs motivating them–beliefs about the nature of man and the nature of government, whether derived from Jesus or David Hume, Moses or Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Camus, or Homer Simpson.” This is nonsense. Hume–or, for that matter, Homer Simpson–demanded proof. Kuo never does. A lying Christian? It is just not possible. A man who oozes sincerity but is about as insincere as a man can be? The ironic stuff of literature, perhaps; but such complications, such truths, play no role in Kuo’s happy imagination. Born-again Christians are not merely biblical literalists. If Kuo is any example, they are existential literalists, too–so totally lacking in irony that not to hoodwink them would be to leave them disappointed.
Without foundations for making judgments, evangelicals such as Kuo can persuade themselves about matters of significance that cannot pass even the most basic historical or philosophical tests. Kuo’s “patron saint” is William Wilberforce, the evangelical leader of the Clapham sect who did so much to bring about the abolition of the British slave trade. “If slavery had been the moral issue for Christians in the nineteenth century,” he writes, “abortion was the same for many late twentieth-century Christians.” Abortion was the issue that brought about Kuo’s political awakening. While studying at Tufts University, Kuo had helped his girlfriend obtain one, only to feel so guilty that he helped create a pro-life group at the school. Even as he accepted an internship with Senator Edward Kennedy–“I loved him,” Kuo characteristically gushes–he started moving to the right. “Just like William Wilberforce, I became an advocate for the ultimately forgotten, in this case, the unborn.”
The fact that Kuo saw an equivalence between opposition to slavery and opposition to abortion says volumes about the difficulty that so many evangelicals have in making sharp distinctions. Many evangelicals insist to this day that their campaign against abortion is the moral equivalent of the abolitionist campaign against slavery. Those leaders were evangelicals, too; they point to such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose father was indeed the leading evangelical preacher of his era. They also sided with the weak against the powerful. They were as uncompromising with respect to their principles as leaders of the religious right are today. Regrettably, some anti-abortion activists resort to violence, but so, after all, did John Brown. Right-wing Republicans today are finishing the business begun by yesterday’s social reformers.
Are they really? Equating abortion and slavery is the kind of analogy that appeals to people who prefer sincerity to reality. Let us grant that today’s anti-abortion activists are as sincere in their desire to prevent the destruction of fetuses as William Lloyd Garrison was in his desire to abolish the South’s peculiar institution. But everything else about the analogy falls apart. Slavery was a social system that trapped its victims through coercion and custom; abortion is the result of a decision made by an individual. People argue about whether a fetus is a full human being; but no one, as Abraham Lincoln liked to point out, disputed whether a slave was. Abortion represents a clash between two goods, the right of personal autonomy and the potential birth of a human being; slavery was evil and represented no good at all. Pro-life activists have every right to mobilize themselves on behalf of their political beliefs, but they do not have the right to claim historical predecessors so different from themselves. True of any contemporary group in general, this is especially true of evangelicals in particular. White Southerners whose favorite politicians appeal to latent Confederate sensibilities are not exactly in the best position to claim the moral mantle of those who understood, quite correctly, that the existence of slavery in the Southern states was a rebuke to every principle for which America stood.
Eventually Kuo would realize that the analogy that inspired his right-wing activism was inappropriate. “I suppose that as much as I wanted to be an American Wilberforce by ending abortion, I couldn’t equate abortion and slavery,” he writes. “Yes, I was still pro-life. But abortion wasn’t slavery and it certainly wasn’t, as some suggested, like the Holocaust. It simply wasn’t murder.” Kuo’s account of his transformation on this issue is drearily matter-of-fact. There is no sudden moment of revelation, no blinding new insight, no shedding of the old ideas to take on the new. This is not the way Catholics break with their church, or communists with their party. One day Kuo believed one thing about a potent moral issue, and the next day he believed something else. One day he worked for Teddy Kennedy, the next day he found a position with John Ashcroft. One day he believed that Christians should jump into politics, the next day he did not. “It is easy to say that I became a Republican because I went through a religious conversion, felt guilty about an abortion, or just needed a job,” he writes. “These things are all true.” Kuo is above all else an evangelical, and he feels no obligation to explain why he changed his mind in any way that relies on logic, fact, or analysis. His testimony alone should suffice.
In the concluding chapter of his unwittingly revealing book, Kuo proposes that Christians should engage in a “fast” from politics. Fasting, he points out, has long been associated with the life of the spirit. Christians should simply take a break from political involvement; two years–no more, no less–will do. While fasting, they can rediscover that “Christ alone is the answer and our desire.” America will not lose its soul while they are going hungry, and once the fast is over they can return to public life with a better sense of how to balance the spiritual and the political.
The idea of a two-year fast from politics is pure Kuoism. By proposing it, Kuo need never address the intellectually challenging question of whether politics and religion corrupt each other in some ultimate sense. His fast simply represents a temporary leave of absence from the already low level of thinking that evangelicals such as himself have given to the dance of politics and religion. Two years is perfect in this regard–long enough to seem sacrificial, short enough to guarantee that no serious reflection will take place (and that one can still get back in the game). If further proof were required that Kuo lacks the mental gravity to deal with the profound questions stemming from his own experience, this stunt should furnish it.
Before he wrote Tempting Faith, Kuo should have read Darryl Hart’s recently published book Secular Faith. Hart is an evangelical scholar who thinks seriously and eloquently about the dilemmas that Kuo glibly avoids. His book offers the single best critique of the religious right’s involvement in politics that I have read, at least in part because it comes from a man whose credentials as a conservative Christian are impeccable. Yes, evangelicals were deeply involved in social reform in the nineteenth century, as Hart acknowledges–but then he brings to life the ideas of Stuart Robinson (1814-1881), a Presbyterian from Kentucky who argued that they should not be so involved, and that politics and religion should be kept apart for their mutual benefit.
Hart’s book reminds us of the extent to which evangelical Protestants, despite their current alliance with Catholics in opposition to abortion, once denounced Catholicism for its clericalist proclivities, just as it warns that the enthusiasm with which so many Protestant sects welcomed democracy in the nineteenth century came at the cost of confusing the authority of God with the authority of the people. “The state’s purpose,” writes Hart, summarizing the ideas of past Christian thinkers who have all but been forgotten, “is justice…. The church’s purpose is mercy…. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill a spiritual void.”
Hart may not be correct that the distinction between the one realm and the other is easy to grasp. David Kuo certainly fails to grasp it, as do all those political opportunists masquerading as religious leaders with whom he broke. Unlike Pat Robertson and James Dobson, Kuo has parted ways with the Bush administration. But just like them, he confuses the realm of God with the realm of politics. “History, mystique, and the palpable sense of power are inspiring, surreal, and wonder filled,” he writes upon entering not a church, but the White House. “Everything felt different. The carpet felt plusher and the couches softer. I watched serious staffers stride purposefully through the doors and tried to imagine what important things they were doing.” Stuart Robinson, J. Gresham Machen, and all the other conservative Christians about whom Hart writes would have been appalled. Idolatry, for a believer, is a grave sin. Worshipping secular symbols is surely an idolatry.
Kuo’s book does make one important contribution to America’s current debate over evangelicalism’s involvement in politics. Most warnings against the blending of religion and politics these days come not from Hart’s position on the right, but from left-wing writers such as Michelle Goldberg (Kingdom Coming), Kevin Phillips (American Theocracy), and Rabbi James Rudin (The Baptizing of America). The general theme of those books is that evangelicals are dangerous because of their sectarianism. They sneak stealthily into America’s liberal democratic institutions with a determination to overturn them in favor of a Christian republic. Spewers of hate, they will, if given the chance, not only abolish America’s commitment to separation of church and state–in some accounts, this is something they have already achieved–but will use every legal power at their command to suppress the rights of non-Christians, especially non-believers. When conservative religion swamps liberal democracy, fair play and pluralism yield to extremism and intolerance.
No doubt there are conservative Christians active in the Republican Party who could rightfully be called theocrats. Still, I have never been convinced of the danger they represent, at least in part because the more exposure they receive, the more likely most Americans are to dismiss them as cranks. (Pat Robertson is one of the most unpopular public figures in this country.) Evangelicalism in politics, far from threatening the future of American democracy, seems already to have peaked. Whatever is stirring voters in 2006, it is not the issues dear to the religious right. Karl Rove may get out the base, but when you come right down to it, the base is just not big enough to govern the country.
If theocracy is not a looming danger to our democracy, bathos might be. For every evangelical leader spewing hate, there are ten evangelical followers who believe that all you need is love. David Kuo is one of them. He brought to the White House neither money nor mission, but only mush. No matter how much he came to disagree with the ruthless operatives with whom he was working, he writes, “I couldn’t dislike them.” After all, Harriet Miers, then White House counsel, had responded to his hospitalization by writing him a note offering love and prayers; and this, for him, counted far more than her–or anyone else’s–position on anything involving actual policy. “From the moment I found Jesus–or Jesus found me–in high school, it was his peace I longed for. I didn’t know what it meant or what it felt like. But wanting Jesus’ peace made me ache.” Most people seeking peace would not march willingly into the middle of a culture war. But Kuo, the kind of person who could actually be moved by one of Harriet Miers’s treacly notes, did. His intentions were not malevolent. They were oblivious, which may be worse.
The last thing America needs now is more innocence. Most Americans have wildly unrealistic expectations of what politics can do, and, expecting too much, they settle for too little. We need leaders who can level with voters, offering good news when there is good news, but not afraid to share bad news when necessary. Religion may or may not help in cultivating such leaders, but evangelical religion offers precisely the wrong ingredients to make such leadership possible. Testimonialism simply does not make for serious politics (or serious religion). It is not enough for us to absolve presidents for today’s mistakes because they have confessed to yesterday’s sins. The one skill that policy-makers ought to possess is the willingness to look beyond personal feelings in order to enact sensible programs. David Kuo’s religious sensibility never allowed him to do that. His book offers an acute warning of the dangers that evangelicals pose to democracy, not because they are too Machiavellian, but because they are not Machiavellian enough.
Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at The New Republic.