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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

David Kuo's credulous Evangelicalism.

I haven't read David Kuo's book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, but I've been fascinated by the conversation surrounding it. Tom Ashbrook interviewed Kuo on NPR's On Point (one of my favorite podcasts), where he came across as sweet, thoughtful, and naive. Two recent reviews draw particular attention to the Evangelical roots of that naiveté. Alan Wolfe writes:

Tempting Faith is in its way a significant book, not for what it teaches about the Machiavellians in the White House — surely there are no longer any surprises to be had on that front — but for what we learn about young, idealistic, and phenomenally naive Christians such as David Kuo. It is not an analysis of a mentality, but a documentation of it. To be sure, there is no doubting Kuo's sincerity. His faith in God is unwavering. He is truly committed to good work on behalf of the poor. He did eventually leave the White House, and with the publication of this book he testifies to the cynicism that he found there. But his recovered righteousness is itself a kind of alibi. For people like him served as enablers for one of the most immoral presidencies Americans have ever endured. If we are to know what makes Bush so bad, we need to know more about why people who are so good could ever have been seduced by him.

And not just seduced. Kuo, whose goodness is as self-evident as it is a tad creepy, continues to defend Bush after this most self-professed of Christian presidents robbed the poor to pay the rich, broke his covenant with the Framers who wrote the Constitution of the United States, launched the first war of choice in our history since Polk attacked Mexico or McKinley attacked Spain, justified torture without a qualm of conscience, and, to top it all off, wound up treating his Christian supporters with a contempt that would put the most determined secular humanist to shame.

Wolfe suggests that Evangelicals were seduced by George W. Bush's false piety because of their religious preference for "testimonies": "[C]ompared with every other religion on the face of the earth, they judge sincerity by the power of the stories they tell each other." (And what a story-teller Bush has been.) Wolfe puts it even more sharply later in the review: "Sincerity, for them, is everything, which is another way of saying that facts are nothing. The proof of their faith is its credulity."

Peter Steinfels offers a less barbed review in the New York Times, but he makes the same point. Steinfels writes:

Mr. Kuo's religious forthrightness itself raises another intriguing question about evangelical culture. Evangelicals frequently demonstrate a verbal facility and emotional warmth in articulating their faith — in spontaneous prayer, for example, or in personal testimonies — that other believers envy. But does that put a premium on words and feelings rather than on actions and results?

Steinfels concludes his essay with a response to Kuo's call for a religious "fast" from politics:

Ultimately the lesson Mr. Kuo hopes his fellow evangelicals learn goes far beyond this president and his policies. "At the end of the day," he said, "politics is easy; God is hard." Politics, by setting up very tangible enemies to be defeated, "gives the illusion of a solution," he said, while God demands personal transformation. "What," he asked, "is harder than to be transformed by unconditional love?"

This very contrast between political change and personal transformation has deep evangelical roots, of course. Secular progressives might counter with the mirror image of his formulation: God is easy; politics is hard.

And then there is another possibility: God is hard, and so is politics — at least the politics practiced with a good deal of skepticism, with an anticipation of compromises and setbacks, and with a recognition of the pride and egoism, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, that infects even (or perhaps especially) humanity's most faith-based initiatives.

("David Kuo on Tempting Faith," Tom Ashbrook, On Point [NPR] 10.18.06; "The God that never failed: A golden age of credulity, in politics and in religion," Alan Wolfe, New Republic 11.6.06; "The disillusionment of a young White House Evangelical," Peter Steinfels, New York Times 10.28.06, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 31 October 2006 at 7:52 AM

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Bill Baar:

October 31, 2006 08:28 AM | Permalink for this comment

How about a sweet, thoughtful, and naive lad cashing in on folks who'll buy off on,

If we are to know what makes Bush so bad, we need to know more about why people who are so good could ever have been seduced by him.

Scott Wells:

October 31, 2006 09:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thirty-something Republican staffer, the specter of brain cancer, confessions and repentance. Has anyone compared, contrasted Kuo with Lee Atwater?


October 31, 2006 04:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

And if secular progressives regard God as easy and politics as hard, than I guess I'm glad I'm a UU. We don't mind admitting that God-questions are hard.

Bill Baar:

October 31, 2006 05:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kuo was a Deputy Director for Faith Based Initiatives in the White House. Not exactly a staffer, but not exactly SecState either.

My experience with these workplace Evangelical moments of repentance is their apologies far at of proportion to the crimes.

Atwater apologized to Dukakis but Dukakis was a pro and understood the game. Atwater over sold his importance. It's what makes these confessions so embarrassing is the inflated sense of self-importance...

Kuo had a small program that at least in Chicago did some good. We have a homeless shelter for veterans joined with a VA Clinic at space leased from the Catholic Church. Republicans sure can no political advantage from it... at least directly.

The problem for people who Kuo's book is it's another example of avoiding debate and argumentation by just dismissing opponents as seduced.

It's the whole problem with Lakoff and frames. Check Reason Online, The Man Who Framed Himself, or E. J. Dionne's review of Hofstaders biograpy in A Wrong Turn for Liberalism,

The late Christopher Lasch, one of Hofstadter's students and an admiring critic, noted that by conducting "political criticism in psychiatric categories,'' Hofstadter and his intellectual allies excused themselves "from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation.''

That's what Kuo's given us here: a dismissal as immoroal without much judgment or argumentation.

Pat McLaughlin:

November 1, 2006 11:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

Wolfe puts it even more sharply later in the review: "Sincerity, for them, is everything, which is another way of saying that facts are nothing. The proof of their faith is its credulity."

As long as credulousness is the measure of the depth and strength of their faith, the evangelicals will continue to be marks. The Bakkers, Falwells and other sharp-eyed carnies will take them again and again--and apologize, testify their temptation, sin and fall and go back to do it again. So will politicians, like Bush--and so many others who pander to the evangelicals (just enough to get them choked up and "seduced").

A member of my congregation tells me that his father--a bitter, hard-bitten fellow, apparently--told him, as a child that "once you can fake sincerity, you can do anything."

So it would seem. Certainly Bush is a master of that; false sincerity.

And people believe.

Because they want to believe.

There's nothing wrong with belief or trust, but one should always check and verify. Honest politicians won't mind showing you the facts, the books, the evidence. It won't be classifed and kept even from those who have top-drawer security classifications (but who aren't Kool-Aid drinkers).

When someone says "Trust me, and trust me that you can trust me," be very afraid. For almost without doubt, a devil is before you.

And that's where the evangelicals get suckered. For them, doubt is treated as a sin, a moral weakness, a failing to be expunged. And those without doubt or question are simply sheep... awaiting any shepherd. Alas, history shows that shepherds usually are guiding the flock somewhere to be shorn--or slaughtered--for the shepherd's benefit.


November 1, 2006 12:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for posting on this book and bringing in the reviews. I saw it among the masses of releases and it looked interesting, but I wanted a little more information to know if it is worth my time. Combined with the reviews, there is much food for thought.

Richard W:

November 7, 2006 02:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

I've read extracts of the book on line and his piece on Beliefnet. I am astonished that someone with a sincere belief (not mine, but sincere nonetheless) could continue to work for and support someone who betrayed every value that one believed in for as long as he did. An admonition to us, how tempting is evil, with pay, perqs, power.

Doug Muder:

November 9, 2006 07:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

I read the book. It's a quick read, the writing is engaging, and he tells a good story. You could probably finish it on one long plane trip.

The most interesting thing in the book to me was the point that Rove and the White House WANTED polarization. Kuo talks about proposals that both Bush and Gore had endorsed in 2000, and that could have passed Congress with bipartisan support if Bush had pushed it.

Politically, though, that wouldn't have served the purpose of convincing Evangelicals that Bush was good and the Democrats were evil. So provisions were put in the bill that the Democrats couldn't accept, the ACLU denounced it, and Rove got his polarization.

The Evangelicals figured that if Bush was pissing off the ACLU, he must really be fighting for them. The bill stalled in committee and nothing happened, but the political effect was perfect.

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