Remembering David Kuo: Refocusing Religious Groups On Faith
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. David Kuo died Friday of brain cancer at the age of 44. We're going to hear an excerpt of my interview with him. When President Bush created the office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, Kuo, a conservative, evangelical Christian, became its deputy director. When he left the office in 2003, he accused the Bush administration of manipulating conservative Christians to get the Christian vote.
He also criticized conservative Christian leaders for being seduced by power and acting as if Jesus' main goal was advancing a particular policy agenda. I spoke with David Kuo in 2006 after the publication of his memoir "Tempting Faith." He told me that when he joined the office, he hoped it would lead an impassioned charge for the poor.
David Kuo, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you think that the office was used as a way to energize the evangelical vote. You write: I wasn't just a Christian trying to serve God in politics. Now I was a Christian in politics looking for ways to recruit other Christians into politics, so that we would have their votes. What's an example of how you think the office of Faith-Based Initiatives was used to actually recruit Christian votes?
DAVID KUO: You know, Terry, that's a really important section there, and it strikes at the deepest spiritual part of me and of the book, and that is, you know, I had been a Christian. I had been in politics. And I had struggled with, you know, the nexus of the two.
And, you know, I then found myself in the White House, having come there to fight for the poor, in a position of really recruiting and using evangelical voters - any Christian voters - trying to recruit African-American pastors, trying to use, frankly, the initiative of the poor purely for political ends.
GROSS: You said the president would announce faith-based initiatives that he was funding, and it would sound very impressive, but the money would never actually get spent. Give me an example of that.
KUO: Oh, the money would actually never get even fought for. This was the thing that was the most common thing I saw within the Bush administration on compassion programs. You know, a big grand announcement was made, you know, in front of a minority audience or with minorities in the background and big banners, you know, of drug treatment or, you know, trying to help youth violence or gangs or prisoners, and just an extraordinary presentation.
The problem was with follow-up. There wasn't any. You know, after the grand announcement, what the White House knew was it didn't have to follow up. The White House understood the media cycle. And it understood that if it made a grand announcement on compassion, it would look good for the evening news and it would give the impression that compassion was important and the president was committed to compassion.
But in terms of following up, you know, how many people follow up on budget numbers? How many people follow up on appropriations? How many people follow up on how much money gets spent? And they knew the media cycle was so frenzied and so rushed, that no one would follow it.
GROSS: Another example you give in terms of funding is a gang prevention initiative. And the funding for that was supposed to total $50 million over three years. And you say the obvious inference was that the money would be new spending, but it wasn't new spending. The money was taken out of something else. Where was the money coming from?
KUO: This is one of the things that really set me over the edge in terms of, you know, my willingness to speak out. This was a grand announcement in the State of the Union. You know, he did this great lead-up to, you know, a gang violence initiative, talked very beautifully and movingly about it and announced - was it $50 million or $90 million, whatever it is - over three years.
And I called in the next day to listen to the conference call to describe it by the people who were with the administration. And by the end, a reporter asked: OK, well, where is the money coming from? Where is it in the budget? You know, is it new money, is it this? And they hemmed and they hawed, and finally, one of them said, well, now, it actually comes out of this thing called the Compassion Capital Fund.
Well, I just sat there and I just - I mean, that was just, you know, it's like one of those cartoon characters where, you know, the anvil drops on his head or smoke comes out of his ears, or both. And, you know, it was everything personified. Because the Compassion Capital Fund itself - which had been this grand promise of $200 million a year - you know, had been pitifully funded.
And now they were cannibalizing this pitifully funded program to announce another grand new program. You know, the president appeared the next day in Pittsburgh with the first lady and spoke movingly about this gang violence initiative, and it was all, really, a charade. And, you know, years later now, you know, a very small part of that has been funded, as well.
And, you know, it just strikes me that, you know, for my own motivations in politics, what I care about, what I think Jesus cares about in politics - the poor - it's a betrayal.
GROSS: You're calling for a fast from politics. You think it's time for religious groups now to disconnect from politics so that they are no longer used for political ends. And they could remain more purely committed to the principles of their faith and what their faith tells them to do. Why are you calling for this fast?
KUO: Well, as I recount, you know, this journey of mine has been a journey from - of God and politics from the time I was a kid, up until now. And one of the things that's most disturbing is the way God has been perceived now. You know, if I say Jesus, I think most people at the end of the radio will go - will think, oh, OK: abortion, homosexuality, the Iraq War, maybe the estate tax.
And that's really actually not what Jesus talked about. And, you know, I think for, you know, the moms and dads out there, the people who give money to Christian advocacy groups, to the RNC, what they want is something really, you know, important. They want to try and make America better. They've been led to believe that somehow all of that can be achieved through politics. All of it can be achieved, particularly, through conservative politics.
And you fast from something not because it's evil, but because you want to step away and focus on something more spiritual. And I really would love to see a period of time for a couple of years where evangelical voters stopped giving to all of these political groups and started giving to the poor, you know, started giving their time to afterschool programs, started, you know, doing things that Jesus said, like loving your neighbor and, again, redirecting that money towards the poor. Then I think that it would provide some needed perspective on the political environment.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
KUO: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: David Kuo, recorded in 2006. He died of brain cancer Friday. He was 44.
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