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Why a Christian in the White House Felt Betrayed


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Why a Christian in the White House Felt Betrayed

By DAVID KUO

For Republicans who fear that the Foley scandal might keep Evangelicals away from the polls in November, here comes another challenge--in hardcover format. A new memoir by David Kuo, former second-in-command of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, has the White House on the defensive with its account of an Administration that mocked Evangelicals in private while using them at election time to bolster its support. In this exclusive adaptation from the book, Kuo writes about how his White House experiences left him disillusioned about the role religion can play in politics.

I stepped into the Oval Office to find President George W. Bush prowling behind his desk looking for something. "Kuo!" he said without looking up. "Tell me about this meeting."

It was June 2003, and I was deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office had opened in the West Wing in 2001 to support the President's campaign promise of $8 billion a year in new funding for both religious and secular charities that helped the poor. That money never materialized, however, and I was increasingly stuck with the task of explaining to religious groups why the White House was so bad at helping them do good. This meeting, with a group of prominent African-American pastors who had supported Bush's plan, promised to be no different.

I began to brief the President on the pastors, recommending that he talk about the administrative reforms we had implemented, and the tax credits we were still fighting for ...

He interrupted. "Forget about all that. Money. All these guys care about is money. They want money. How much money have we given them?"

I never doubted the President's own faith or desire to help those who, like him, had once been lost in a world of alcohol or, unlike him, had struggled with poverty or drugs. Because I shared his faith and his vision of compassionate conservatism, I had been a very good soldier. When members of his senior staff mocked the plan as the "f___ing faith-based initiative," I didn't say a word. When his legislative-affairs team summarily dismissed our attempts to shoehorn our funding into the budget, I smiled and continued trying to work neatly within the system. When I heard staff privately deriding evangelical Christians because they were so easily seduced by White House power, I raised an eyebrow but not a ruckus. Like everyone else in the small faith-based office, I didn't speak too loudly or thunder too much. We were the nice guys.

Today, however, I decided to choose honesty over niceness. Two months earlier, I had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that required intensive surgery and rehabilitation. This was my first meeting with the President and Karl Rove since my return. Something about undergoing brain surgery had made me reflect about whether I had really been doing a public service by pretending that our office had been living up to its commitments.

I glanced over at Karl and turned to look the President in the eye. "Sir, we've given them virtually nothing," I said, "because we have had virtually nothing new to give."

The President had been looking down at some papers about the event, but his head jerked up. "Nothing? What do you mean we've given them nothing?" He glared. "Don't we have new money in programs like the Compassion Fund thing?"

I looked again at Karl. He seemed stunned at what I was saying. "No, sir," I told the President. "In the past two years we've gotten less than $80 million in new grant dollars." The number fell shockingly short of the $8 billion he had vowed to deliver in the first year alone.

The President's staff didn't just bad-mouth the faith-based office behind closed doors. Their political indifference also kept us from getting the funding we needed so badly. No episode captured that more clearly than the 2001 negotiations over the President's $1.7 trillion tax cut. In those final negotiations with the Senate and House, the White House voluntarily dropped a centerpiece of the President's compassion promise: a provision to allow 80% of Americans to get credit for their charitable contributions.

Now the President seemed shocked at the news that the Compassion Fund was a pittance. "What?! What do you mean?" he asked. Karl, still caught off guard, protested. "But what about the other money? You know, the money we've opened up to new charities."

I hated any clash with Karl. Especially now. The morning after my tumor diagnosis, Karl was among the first people to call. "I know what you are going through," he said. "I've spent more days and nights of my life than I can count in a cancer ward." He explained that his wife was a double breast-cancer survivor, encouraged me for the fight ahead, and offered any assistance I needed. Now, less than two months later, I was standing in front of the President exposing an ugly truth that Karl would rather not have discussed: after two years in office, we had actually spent less than 1% of what Bush had promised.

I was also contradicting our office's own spin. In an effort to divert attention from all the money that wasn't being given to faith-based groups, we had come up with the idea of highlighting the amount of money now "available" to faith-based organizations because of particular administrative reforms announced six months earlier. It was one of those wonderful Washington assertions that is simultaneously accurate and deceptive and just confusing enough to defy opposition. On the one hand, we had eliminated some ancient and patently absurd regulations, many of them promulgated under seemingly faith-phobic Democratic Administrations, that discriminated against faith-based groups simply because they might have a religious-sounding name. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, for instance, was once denied the chance to apply for a federal grant even though it was an entirely secular organization.

On the other hand, faith-based groups had actually been getting chunks of that money for decades, and the regulations we put in place really didn't tackle the biggest problem facing secular and religious nonprofits. That problem was the general bureaucratic unfriendliness of the Federal Government to small, local organizations--precisely the kind that compassionate conservatives like Bush (and I) thought could do the best job tackling ingrained poverty and hopelessness on the community level. We were supposed to give these small groups their first shot, but without any money, our office was resigned to making mostly symbolic changes.

None of that had stopped the White House from trumpeting the changes as hugely significant and leading religious conservatives to believe they were highly consequential. Christian conservatives trusted President Bush. After two years in the White House, I had come to realize that regardless of where the President's heart lay on the matter, the back-office Republican political machine was able to take Evangelicals for granted--indeed, often viewed them with undisguised contempt--and still get their votes. G.O.P. operatives trusted that Christian conservatives would see the President more as their Pastor in Chief than anything else. Bush had long used the podium as a pulpit, telling voters that above all he was an evangelical Christian who had been saved from his drinking by Jesus and rebuilt his life around his faith. That inspirational story was carried throughout the country by a network of prominent evangelical pastors who had been quietly working since 1998 to recruit thousands of other pastors to join the Bush team. After the election, however, those same pastors became accomplices in their own deception by not demanding that the President's actions in office match their electoral fervor.

This White House is certainly not the first Administration to milk religious groups for votes and then boot them unceremoniously back out to pasture. In his days as a notorious "hatchet man" for President Richard M. Nixon, before he had allowed Jesus to transform his life, Chuck Colson used to oversee outreach to the religious community. "I arranged special briefings in the Roosevelt Room for religious leaders, ushered wide-eyed denominational leaders into the Oval Office for private sessions with the President," Colson later wrote. "Of all the groups I dealt with, I found religious leaders the most naive about politics. Maybe that is because so many come from sheltered backgrounds, or perhaps it is the result of a mistaken perception of the demands of Christian charity ... Or, most worrisome of all, they may simply like to be around power."

I finished the briefing. Yes, I told the President, because of new regulations there was technically about $8 billion in existing funding that was now more accessible to faith-based groups. But, I assured him, those organizations had been getting money from those programs for years and it wasn't that big a deal.

"Eight billion in new dollars?" he asked.

"No, sir. Eight billion in existing dollars where groups will find it technically easier to apply for grants. But faith-based groups have been getting that money for years."

"Eight billion," he said. "That's what we'll tell them. Eight billion in new funds for faith-based groups. O.K., let's go."

We headed out of the Oval Office, down a flight of stairs and over to the Old Executive Office Building, where the pastors awaited us. The President walked into the room, traded a few jokes and told the group that because of the faith-based initiative, billions of dollars in new funds were now available to faith-based groups like theirs. The pastors listened respectfully. Before the President left, they prayed for him.

Karl stayed behind to share some thoughts and answer questions. "Before I get started, I want to say something. This initiative isn't political," he told them. "If I walked into the Oval Office and said it was going to be political, the President would bash my head in."

Then the questions began. "Since the President brought up money, where, exactly is that money?" asked one pastor. "We've talked to the Cabinet Secretaries, and they say there isn't any new money." They peppered him with questions for several minutes. Finally he smiled at them and said, "Tell you what, 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." He left confidently.

At the meeting's end, several of the pastors said they wanted to pray for my healing. They placed their hands on my shoulder and called on God to hear their prayers on my behalf. I listened and loved it and said a prayer of my own: that I would have the courage to tell them what was really going on at the White House.

That was more than three years ago. Their prayers have worked on my body. I am still here and very much alive. Now I am finding the courage to speak out about God and politics and their dangerous dance. George W. Bush, the man, is a person of profound faith and deep compassion for those who suffer. But President George W. Bush is a politician and is ultimately no different from any other politician, content to use religion for electoral gain more than for good works. Millions of Evangelicals may share Bush's faith, but they would protect themselves--and their interests--better if they looked at him through the same coldly political lens with which he views them.

Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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