By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Conservative religious leaders described themselves as shocked yesterday by a new book's charge that Bush administration staffers privately dismissed evangelical Christian political activists as "nuts" and "goofy."
But their dismay was aimed at the book's author, former White House official David Kuo, rather than at President Bush or his senior advisers.
James Dobson, Charles W. Colson and other stalwarts of the conservative Christian movement defended the Bush administration and questioned the timing of the book's publication, a month before the midterm elections. Some suggested that Kuo had betrayed the White House.
"I feel sorry for him, because once you do something like this, you get your 15 minutes in the spotlight, but then after that nobody will touch you," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian advocacy group in Washington. "These kiss-and-tell books do more damage to the author than to the people they attack."
Kuo, who was deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in Bush's first term, alleges in the book, "Tempting Faith," that the Bush administration used its funding of religious charities to court evangelical voters in Machiavellian fashion.
The book is being published at a pivotal moment not just for Republicans who are battling to maintain control of the House and Senate but also for conservative Christian voters, whose support for the GOP has dipped in recent polls.
At 7 p.m. Sunday, evangelical leaders including Perkins and Dobson plan to broadcast a 90-minute television special from a Boston church to hundreds of other churches across the country in an attempt to keep religious conservatives from sitting out the election.
Called "Liberty Sunday," it will "highlight specific cases and stories where people's religious liberties have been threatened because of homosexual activism and gay marriage in Massachusetts," said Family Research Council spokeswoman Bethanie Swendsen.
At the same hour, CBS's "60 Minutes" will broadcast the first interview with Kuo about his book, which is scheduled to go on sale Monday. CBS and the book's publisher, Simon & Schuster, tried to keep a lid on the book's contents until the "60 Minutes" exclusive. But MSNBC host Keith Olbermann obtained a copy and began broadcasting excerpts Wednesday.
Conservative Christian leaders as well as present and former White House officials responded yesterday to the MSNBC report, noting that they had not yet seen the book itself.
White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters that the book's "assumption or insinuation seems to be that the administration takes lightly faith-based groups." That is "false," he said.
Asked whether the president's "faith-based initiative" was used for political purposes, Snow said flatly: "No." Snow also read from a letter Kuo wrote to Bush when he left the administration in December 2003, saying he was "proud of all the initiative has accomplished."
In the book, Kuo asserts that the faith-based office was hurriedly set up after Bush took office in 2001 by a transition volunteer who was given less than a week to roll out the initiative.
Kuo asserts that evangelical leaders were called "the nuts" by people in White House political strategist Karl Rove's office. "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,' " the book says, according to MSNBC.
Kuo previously has criticized the Bush administration for not carrying out the president's 2000 campaign promise to boost charitable giving at least $7 billion a year by extending charitable tax breaks to people who do not itemize income tax deductions.
In the book, he says the White House opted instead for cuts in the estate tax that eliminated the incentive for many wealthy people to make charitable donations. The "ultimate impact was to brutalize the very charities Mr. Bush once identified as his top priorities," Kuo says.
Beginning in 2002, the White House held ostensibly "nonpartisan" conferences about the availability of federal grants for religious charities. But Kuo alleges that the events were, in fact, designed to help vulnerable Republican incumbents.
Ken Mehlman, then the White House director of political affairs and now chairman of the Republican National Committee, "loved the idea and gave us our marching orders" to hold meetings in 20 congressional districts, the book says.
H. James Towey, who directed the faith-based office during Kuo's time there, said yesterday that "it sounds like he worked at a different White House than the one I worked for."
Towey added that he, not Mehlman, decided where to hold conferences. "If a congressman in a tight race invited me, I went," he said. "But that was true of Democrats as well as Republicans."
Dobson, the psychologist and radio host who heads the influential group Focus on the Family, issued a statement calling the book "a mix of sour grapes and political timing."
Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, said he was "shocked and disappointed by what appears to be political timing to sell a book, and a very unfair characterization of the parties involved."
Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, a Christian women's group in Washington, said she sees "no reason to question the sincerity of this president" based on the accusations aired so far.
"So, in Rove's office people of faith are mocked? Well, who in Rove's office did the mocking? It's easy to make allegations like that if you don't give the name, date, time," she said.
Perkins of the Family Research Council said he would not be surprised if derisive comments were made behind Christian leaders' backs.
"I have no misconceptions about how people in the Republican Party and the establishment view social conservatives. They are dismissive. I see how they prefer to work with fiscal conservatives," he said. "Having said that, I see it really as a marriage of convenience. We are not without significant gains by working with this administration."