Devil’s Bargain?
Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction
by David Kuo
Free Press. 286 pp. $25.00

On the eve of this past November’s elections, David Kuo, a former aide to President George W. Bush, leveled a sensational charge. The administration, he claimed, had never really backed its own “faith-based initiative,” the plan to provide government aid to religiously-oriented social-service agencies that it had announced with great fanfare in the early days of Bush’s first term. Rather, as he tells the tale in Tempting Fate: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, the President himself paid only lip-service to the program, while his staff treated it as a cynical ploy to bolster Bush’s standing among Christian voters.

This “revelation” was an election-eve gift to the Democrats, and was taken as such by many in the media. “[C]ultural conservatives who fell for the GOP’s pious propaganda now look like dupes,” wrote the New York Times’s Frank Rich, one of a number of commentators on the Left who delighted in the book’s debunking of Bush’s agenda of “compassionate conservatism.” An additional gift, one that may well have contributed in a small way to November’s Republican losses, was Kuo’s plea to Christian voters to cleanse themselves of the falsehoods that had been visited upon them. He recommended they take a two-year “fast” from politics, a diet that might have induced some to stay away from the polls on election day. As someone who was deeply involved in the initial phases of Bush’s faith-based initiative, Kuo would seem to know what he is talking about. Does he?

A good portion of Tempting Faith is about Kuo himself, recounting his spiritual development and charting his progress, as a talented and ambitious young man, with a gift for writing speeches. He started his political career as a lowly intern in the office of Senator Edward Kennedy. Over the years, he went to work for a string of conservative political luminaries, including Jack Kemp, William J. Bennett, Ralph Reed, and John Ashcroft.

Throughout, Kuo claims, his Christian beliefs animated him to pursue a single cause: using the tools of government to bring aid and comfort to the poverty-stricken, the wretched, and the helpless. Along the way, he came to see that if public policy were to be properly aligned with the biblical injunction to care for the needy, it would be necessary to change the rules controlling how the government provided financial assistance to social-service agencies. Although religiously sponsored charities supplied a great deal of assistance to the poor, they received only a small share of government grants. In order to get these, moreover, they had to abide by numerous restrictions, including abstaining from displaying religious symbols on their premises or conducting prayer meetings with those they sought to help.

Yet, to Kuo and others, it was plain that these religiously sponsored charities did a superior job of delivering social services—superior not just in providing help, but in helping the needy to help themselves. The problem was therefore to find a way of circumventing the constitutional ban on “establishing” religion so as to allow deserving organizations to receive federal support.

In 1996, Kuo helped then-Senator Ashcroft to design a measure known as “charitable choice.” While passing constitutional muster, this would enable government support to flow to religious charities without their having to abandon or cover up their most deeply held convictions. In exchange for funds, recipient organizations had only to agree to help anyone who asked. What they could not do was insist on the acceptance of particular religious beliefs as a condition for obtaining assistance.

Although the idea of “charitable choice” drew a measure of criticism from both Left and Right, it was endorsed by the Clinton administration and was incorporated in its major 1996 welfare-reform bill. With this accomplishment under his belt, Kuo left government for a spell. He returned after the 2000 election, lured by George W. Bush’s apparent commitment to a cause he held dear. Indeed, in the early months of the administration, before the attacks of September 11, 2001, few issues defined the Bush presidency more than the faith-based initiative. It was a prominent theme of Bush’s first inaugural address, which in stirring language called on Americans to become “citizens, not spectators” and take an active role in creating “communities of character.”

A week into his first term, Bush established a new White House office to implement the program, putting a noted academic expert, John DiIulio, in charge and asking the former mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith, to help elaborate policy and chair the board of one of the lead agencies, the Corporation for National and Community Service (of which I was to become the CEO a few months later). Kuo was invited to join DiIulio’s office not long after it opened. There he discovered that the program was in turmoil. But contrary to what he now alleges, lack of enthusiasm for it in the White House was not the reason.

Almost from the start, the faith-based initiative faced trouble on several fronts. On the one hand, critics on the Left accused Bush not only of trying to violate laws barring the intermingling of church and state, but of aiming to hand over lucrative government programs to his allies in the evangelical Christian world. But, on the other hand, many of these same allies were themselves unhappy, fearing that governmental support of religious groups would inevitably be followed by greater governmental control, especially when it came to their ability to hire people who shared their spiritual or moral values.1

The program also ran up against the normal constraints that any new administration faces. Instead of the staff of 25 envisioned by its planners, the new White House office had to bow to congressional insistence on many fewer. At the same time, DiIulio and his colleagues had little direct influence over federal grants, instead having to maneuver through a labyrinth of cabinet departments and agencies, each operating under its own rules. Funding was in short supply. Although the faith-based initiative was an important presidential commitment, Bush had made other pledges, too, while running for office. A major one—cutting taxes—required the White House to make arduous choices in setting its legislative agenda.

Not least important, the Bush administration felt it had to show quickly that it was serious in its desire to help “the armies of compassion.” As a result, rather than take the time-consuming and low-profile approach of working through the federal bureaucracy to increase aid to faith-based groups, as DiIulio and Goldsmith had recommended, it proposed legislation that would simply relax the rules concerning religious affiliation in most of the government’s existing social programs. Under renewed assault from those who felt the White House was going too far and those who thought it did not go far enough, the centerpiece of the initiative stalled in Congress.

Kuo recounts these developments with an insider’s perspective, but, as I have already hinted, it is often difficult to gauge when he is reporting accurately and when he is settling old scores with political adversaries; a number of his former White House colleagues have already challenged his version of events.

Moreover, even by Kuo’s own telling, the Bush administration’s efforts to get political mileage out of the faith-based initiative proved useful to many religious charities. A series of White House-sponsored conferences, which Kuo charges were held only to help Republican operatives cultivate Christian voters, actually gave valuable guidance on working with the federal government.2 While new programs to recruit mentors for addicts and the children of prisoners might well have been proposed, as Kuo suggests, to bring “compassionate conservatism” before the public eye, such efforts were nonetheless found to be promising not only by religious groups but also by social scientists who studied them.

In any case, because of a serious illness, Kuo left the White House at the end of 2003, just as the Bush administration was embarking on the very steps originally favored by the architects of charitable choice. A series of presidential decrees cleared away some of the more onerous rules that had kept religious charities from trying to obtain government grants. A growing number of Washington agencies were enlisted to participate in the program. State governments, which often have authority for implementing federal programs, were encouraged to develop their own versions of the initiative. By the start of 2006, 32 states had done so, along with more than 100 cities.

The benefits that religious charities have derived from all this activity are still being debated. According to the Pew Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, faith-based groups may actually be receiving less money now from the federal government than when the Bush administration took office. But the White House insists otherwise, claiming that funding increased by 21 percent between 2003 and 2005.

However one sorts out these discrepancies—they appear to hinge on which programs are being counted in which time-frame—the aim of the faith-based initiative was never to replace one set of government grantees with another. Rather, the important principle has always been that financial support should go to those organizations most likely to be effective in delivering social services. What is incontestably clear is that the Bush administration has reduced the barriers that stood in the way of some highly effective organizations that had religious affiliations. By all accounts, Bush himself remains committed to his faith-based initiative, even telling as- sociates that, along with the war on terror, he expects “compassionate conservatism” to be the main theme of his presidential library.

Measured against the high expectations that accompanied the program’s launching, its accomplishments may seem modest to some of its supporters, including David Kuo. But politics rarely works miracles; more typically, it leads to an accumulation of incrementally useful steps. If some Christian voters failed to cast a ballot in November out of the belief that the White House did not deliver on “compassionate conservatism,” they were the ones who were duped.

1 For an analysis of the political and legal issues, see my “Funding the Faithful: Why Bush is Right,” COMMENTARY, June 2001.

2 In a case that will soon be heard before the Supreme Court, these conferences are now under challenge for giving too much help to religion

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