David Kuo is dead – what we can learn from his life

On the same day that I heard that Margaret Thatcher had passed away, I also learnt of the death of David Kuo.  Whilst Baroness Thatcher made the news around the world, David Kuo’s did not, but despite this he had something to say that I feel is worth sharing here.

David Kuo died on April 5th aged 44 from a brain tumour.  He was an American Evangelical Christian who had worked in George W. Bush’s government as deputy director of  Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) from 2001 to 2003, but later became a critic of it.

During the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1999, Bush promised to invigorate “a civil society,” saying that he would encourage churches and charities to be “little armies of compassion.” The faith-based office was a result of that promise.  The initiative represented one of the key domestic policies of Bush’s campaign promise of “compassionate conservatism” with the intention of strengthening faith-based and community organisations and expanding their capacity to provide federally-funded social services, with the idea having been that these groups were well-situated to meet the needs of local individuals.

Kuo though left the administration after two years, frustrated and disillusioned.  He later wrote that the faith office did not receive the billions of dollars that George W. Bush had pledged. He said the White House had used the office as a political prop.

“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,’ ” wrote Mr. Kuo in his memoir.  In an article for The New York Times in 2006 he wrote:

Beliefnet.com’s post-election [2004] online survey of more than 2,000 people revealed that nearly 40 percent of evangelicals support the idea of a two-year Christian “fast” from intense political activism. Instead of directing their energies toward campaigns, evangelicals would spend their time helping the poor.

‘Why might such an idea get traction among evangelicals? For practical reasons as well as spiritual ones. Evangelicals are beginning to see the effect of their political involvement on those with whom they hope to share Jesus’ eternal message: non-evangelicals. Tellingly, Beliefnet’s poll showed that nearly 60 percent of non-evangelicals have a more negative view of Jesus because of Christian political involvement; almost 40 percent believe that George W. Bush’s faith has had a negative impact on his presidency.

‘There is also the matter of the record, which I saw being shaped during my time in the White House. Conservative Christians (like me) were promised that having an evangelical like Mr. Bush in office was a dream come true. Well, it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. The administration accomplished little that evangelicals really cared about.

‘Nowhere was this clearer than on the issue of abortion. Despite strong Republican majorities, and his own pro-life stands, Mr. Bush settled for the largely symbolic partial-birth abortion restriction rather than pursuing more substantial change. Then there were the forgotten commitments to give faith-based charities the resources they needed to care for the poor. Evangelicals are not likely to fall for such promises in the future.

‘C. S. Lewis once warned that any Christian who uses his faith as a means to a political end would corrupt both his faith and the faith writ large. A lot of Christians are reading C. S. Lewis these days.’

In his 2006 memoir, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, Kuo felt that the relationship between the Christian faith and politics had become so messy and corrupted that he advocated that Christians take part in a two-year fast from all political activities besides voting in order to start afresh without the accumulated baggage that has brought the religious right into disrepute.

When you delve into David Kuo’s story you begin to see how the relationship between church and politics in the US is vastly different to the UK, but it also highlights the dangers of pursuing what you wish for.  Kuo was desperate to see a Christian president in office who would give power and funding to church-based community initiatives and threw himself into seeing that happen.  In the end he got his fingers burnt and came away feeling he had compromised his faith too much in the process.  Having George W. Bush being counted as an Evangelical Christian, was in Kuo’s eyes a poor advertisement for the Christian faith, doing more harm than good.  Critics of the OFBCI claimed that millions in government grants went to ministries operated by political supporters of the Bush administration, or were given to minority pastors who had recently committed their support to it.

David Kuo’s experience and writings remind us that the relationship between faith and politics is never simple.  Wanting a strong Christian presence in government that supports the work of churches may be the hope of many Christians, but it also carries plenty of dangers with it.  As Kuo noted, the seduction of power and influence in the realm of politics can be as distracting and corrupting for church leaders as it can be for politicians as they seek to influence and gain support from government leaders.  It demonstrates that Christians who choose to engage with politics have chosen a hard road to walk upon.  Kuo in his memoir wrote, “Politics is easy; God is hard.”

I agree with David Kuo that Christians attempting to take their faith into the political arena in an active way face all sorts of dilemmas and decisions that those of no faith do not face.  I along with other commentators have frequently criticised the way that our political leaders deal with faith communities and sometimes show scant respect for the Christian values and heritage that our society is built upon.  If we think though, that the answers for our society’s ills lie in giving more political power to the churches, then we’re looking for the wrong solutions.  The experiences of the Evangelical churches in the US who have become party political are testament to this.  My line would be, “Politics is hard and God is hard, but combining the too is harder still”.

I believe that Christians need to be engaged with the political process.  That’s the reason after all why I write this blog.  We need more Christian politicians not less.  We need churches and Christian organisations to be in dialogue with government and local authorities, because our leaders have much to learn from the Christian faith and there is much that can benefit our society by working together effectively.  But (and this is a big but) politics and faith can only be mixed so much and the wisdom needed is knowing where these boundaries lie.  Politicians and faith groups will inevitably have conflicting aims and objectives.  David Kuo expected much from politics that talked of embracing  faith, but realised as he worked high up in government that this was only according to certain agendas, with faith in the Bush administration actually being just another political football.  He was left disheartened and demoralised.  I too am looking for a government that will seriously acknowledge and engage with religious faith in our society, but as Kuo’s experience demonstrates, getting this to work well is far from straightforward or easy.

It still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try though.

Categories: Faith in society, Government, Party politics

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