J. David Kuo, an evangelical Christian conservative and former top official of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative who attracted wide attention when he accused the administration of failing to live up to the values it espoused, died April 5 in Charlotte. He was 44.
He had brain cancer that was diagnosed a decade ago, his wife, Kimberly, said.
The arc of Mr. Kuo’s life and career had taken him from liberal to conservative, from hard-edged Republican activism in the 1990s to disillusionment with the idea that politics could serve as an extension of his faith.
After leaving his post as deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2003, Mr. Kuo became an open critic of that operation. He faulted the administration for failing to supply the office with anywhere near the $8 billion in federal spending that Bush, as a candidate, said would finance “armies of compassion.”
Mr. Kuo’s criticism echoed that of the first director of the office, John J. DiIulio Jr., who resigned in August 2001, only seven months after it was formed.
A comprehensive 2009 report on the faith-based office conducted by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, at the State University of New York at Albany, said the office helped change “the ‘culture of resistance’ that had existed in the federal government toward faith-based organizations’ participation in social service contracts.” But the report concurred with Mr. Kuo that hundreds of millions of dollars was spent, far less than promised.
The faith-based office, which Bush created with his first executive order as president, had been a controversial initiative. It allowed overtly religious groups to receive federal funding for providing social services. Critics said it blurred the line between church and state.
Mr. Kuo said the Bush White House lacked a genuine commitment to Bush’s presidential campaign promise of “compassionate conservatism.” Bush reaped political benefits — a more sympathetic image and a mobilized base of evangelicals — through the faith-based initiative. But Mr. Kuo said the White House failed to help religious organizations receive the taxpayer money they needed to serve “the least, the last and the lost.”
Mr. Kuo wrote a memoir of his political and personal evolution, published in 2006 and titled “Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.” His criticism provoked the White House to respond through a spokesman that the faith-based office was a “top priority” for the president.
In a “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. Kuo said the problem, as he saw it, was much larger than the White House and the faith-based initiative. As he wandered around a hall at a conservative gathering, he saw display booths for all types of social issues but none concerning poverty.
“You’ve got homosexuality in your kid’s school, and you’ve got human cloning and partial-birth abortion and divorce and stem cell,” Mr. Kuo remarked. “Not a mention of the poor.”
John David Kuo was born June 26, 1968, in New York. His father, John T. Kuo, was an immigrant from Hangzhou, China, and is a professor emeritus of geophysics at Columbia University. His mother, the former Marilyn Dunlap, is a homemaker originally from Phoenix.
An evangelical Christian since high school, the younger Mr. Kuo considered himself a liberal when he was attending college in the late 1980s at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He interned for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
After his girlfriend became pregnant and the couple opted for an abortion, Mr. Kuo said, his remorse led him to become an anti-abortion activist. He was also drawn to the political energy of the religious right in those years.
He moved to Washington after his college graduation in 1990, and he briefly worked for the CIA. Then he became a speechwriter and policy adviser for prominent conservatives, including then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), televangelist Pat Robertson and former education secretary William J. Bennett.
Former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, another up-and-coming young activist of the era, recalled collaborating with Mr. Kuo on speeches and books during the 1990s.
“David had one of the most brilliant minds I ever encountered,” said Reed, who now heads a political organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “David loved others because God first loved him, and that included those who did not share his political or theological views, as well as the poor, the marginalized, the outcast and the vulnerable.”
Mr. Kuo had left the political world by the late 1990s, and he became a public relations executive at Value America, a Charlottesville-based online retailer of computers, office products and consumer goods. He was motivated by the promise of its rising stock price, getting in at $72 a share and “assuming it was still going to go to $100,” he later wrote.
Moreover, the company seemed to share his moral values. It promised to return 1 percent of its revenue to charities and was a place where daily morning prayer sessions were welcomed. The Rev. Jerry Falwell made frequent visits, and Bennett was a board member.
The company, founded by Craig Winn, soared briefly in the late 1990s before plummeting into bankruptcy. Mr. Kuo’s 2001 book, “Dot.Bomb: My Days and Nights at an Internet Goliath” (2001) was about his loss of faith in corporate America and Wall Street. He described needless internal bickering at Value America that caused customers to flee.
“I saw great things there, people professing devotion,” he once told The Washington Post, “and then I saw people turn on each other. I saw godly people do very ungodly things. It was this unbelievably tangled web of personalities and emotions and everything else.”
Not long afterward, he became a domestic policy aide at the Bush White House.
Mr. Kuo learned that he had a brain tumor on Palm Sunday 2003, after he suffered a seizure while driving on Rock Creek Parkway in Washington. He wrote in “Tempting Faith” that his wife “grabbed the wheel and somehow managed to jerk the SUV, which was going eighty miles an hour, to the left so we wouldn’t crash through the rock barriers and into the creek below.”
Later that year, Mr. Kuo left the White House — in part because of his health and in part because he believed his work had become, as he described in his memoir, “a sad charade, to provide political cover to a White House that needed compassion and religion as political tools.”
After leaving the White House, Mr. Kuo moved to Charlotte in 2009.
His first marriage, to Jerilyn Scott, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, the former Kimberly McCreery, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage; two children from his second marriage; and his parents.
Mr. Kuo continued to write, and he became, among other things, a professional bass fisherman.
His mortality was a frequent subject of his commentary. He described, in unsparing terms, how his cancer was advancing. But he also marveled at his new appreciation for such moments as lying on his back on the family’s trampoline and watching the sky, which he described as “perfection.”
And then there was his Facebook posting on Jan. 30.
“Headed over to ucla for surgery — kicks off at 830 local,” Mr. Kuo wrote. “Favor? Do something outrageous today — give way more than reasonable to a homeless person, take the family out for an ice cream dinner. . . . And serve only ice cream, call someone you hurt and ask forgiveness, call someone who hurt you and give forgiveness . . . And send me a pic.”
One after another, the photos began filling his Facebook page — many of them the faces of children delighted at the unexpected treat of having ice cream, only ice cream, for dinner.