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A Faith-Based Battle for Voters

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The very fact that it took David Kuo's book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," to put President Bush's faith-based initiative back into the news proves that the author's thesis is right.

His argument -- Kuo went on the record with it long before this book appeared -- is that the White House never put much money or muscle behind Bush's "compassionate conservatism." It used the faith-based agenda for political purposes and always made tax cuts for the wealthy a much higher priority than any assistance to those "armies of compassion" that Bush evoked so eloquently.

As a result, the faith-based initiative has largely been off the public radar for years. And after Sept. 11, 2001, the president made the war on terrorism his central cause, both for substantive reasons and because (until now, at least) it proved to be a great vehicle for winning crossover votes. Compassionate conservatism gave way to martial conservatism.

The headlines that have come Kuo's way have focused on the author's claims that White House staffers ridiculed some of their evangelical supporters as "nuts" and "goofy" and that public events surrounding Bush's faith-based initiative were geared toward Republican electoral fortunes. As a former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Kuo has a fair claim to knowing what he's talking about.

Exposés of hypocrisy are the mother's milk of Washington journalism. Yet the most useful thing that could flow from Kuo's revelations would not be a splashy exchange of charges and countercharges but rather a quiet reappraisal by rank-and-file evangelicals of their approach to politics.

I hope Kuo's book promotes serious discussions in religious study groups around the country about whether the evangelicals' alliance with political conservatism has actually made the world, well, more godly from their own point of view. What are evangelicals actually getting out of this partnership? Are they mostly being used by a coalition that, when the deals are cut, cares far more about protecting the interests of its wealthy and corporate supporters than its churchgoing foot soldiers?

Kuo is being cut up by some administration loyalists. That's not surprising, but it's painful for me. I met Kuo in the 1990s through a conservative friend and was impressed by the power of his religious faith and his passion for developing a conservative approach to helping the poor that would be as serious as liberal efforts but, in his view, more effective.

The faith-based initiative was one of the few Bush policies I defended against liberal attacks during the administration's early months -- before I concluded that it was not really an administration priority. Kuo and I are both friends of John DiIulio, who briefly headed the faith-based office and brought Kuo in. DiIulio and I collaborated on research into religiously inspired social service work in the 1990s.

All of which is to say that I once hoped -- and, for the future, still hope -- that left and right might meet in some compassionate center to offer support for expanded government help to the needy while also fostering the indispensable work of religious and community groups.

Kuo has always thought that nongovernmental groups could carry a larger share of the load in fighting poverty than I do. Kuo, you see, really is a conservative, although he does acknowledge that not all past efforts by government to help the poor are failures.

Despite our disagreements, I have always shared Kuo's view that liberals who care about the poor should be less squeamish about building stronger alliances between government and religiously based social action work. Government can do things the religious and community groups can't, but the religious and community groups can do things government can't.

Kuo's book comes on the eve of an election in which the odds suggest that voters will administer a strong rebuke to Republicans and the administration. It will thus be read as another argument for why such a reproach is merited.

But the power of his case should be felt after the election. Kuo suggested on "60 Minutes" that evangelical Christians take "a fast from politics." Personally, I don't favor "fasts" from political participation, even if the one Kuo proposes might help the sort of candidates I support. Instead, I hope Kuo's reflections will encourage a less rigidly partisan approach to the role of religious faith in our public life.

When Kuo says there's something wrong with "taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy," he sounds a trumpet that makes you want to follow him into the battle.

postchat@aol.com


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