When Faith Goes Partisan: A Rant in Two Parts
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Oct 19, 2006 at 09:38:04 PM EST
Contrary to the hate mail I get with some regularity, I have no desire to silence evangelical Christians, Christians in general, or anyone else. I am a First Amendment kind of guy. I think that participation in public life is not only healthy, but that we all have every right and I would even say responsibility to do so.

I also see no reason to disconnect our religious belief's from our politics and I extend that belief to the conservative Christian theocrats I write about with some frequency.  

While I don't believe that our politics should be based on incivility, I also know that it cannot be based on milquetoastery. As that old time Southern Baptist, Harry S.Truman famously declared:  "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."  

Now that I have got that off my chest, here is some more heat.

The issue of religion and public life is not now, nor has it ever been, a matter of supposed secularists driving people of faith out of the public square -- as so many religious rightists (and sometimes those who should know better) like to claim. Rather, the central ethos of our society requires that we use care to respect the rights of individuals in their personal beliefs, and the Consitution and our laws require that we not hijack public resources to promote one faith over another or religion in general.

Nevertheless, the trail is now well worn to where the spigot of public funds diverts to the theocratic trough. Currently, people are increasingly recognizing how debased and corrupt religion and religious institutions can -- and have -- become at the service polititians and political parties, particularly the GOP led by George W.Bush.

Many are speaking out, but the spigot is still running, the trough is overflowing, and the line is long.

Among those speaking out is Melissa Rogers, who is a visiting professor at Wake Forest Divinity School. She takes a dim view, for starters, of George Bush's faith-based initiative. Writing at Tom Paine.com, she discusses the now familiar charges made by the former #2 at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, noting that "the White House repeatedly and quite intentially manipulated faith for partisan politcal gain."  While this is hardly shocking news, that it comes from such an authorative source is startling an offers new information about how and why it was done.

For example, Kuo describes how he and the White House "laid out a plan whereby we would hold `roundtable [faith-based] events' for threatened [Republican] incumbents with faith and community leaders" during the 2002 election season. He also reports that White House senior advisor Karl Rove's office was happy to help track down about $100,000 for each of a series of subsequent faith-based conferences in politically important states.

Meanwhile, Kuo describes a White House that was breaking promise after promise to deliver new money for social service programs. To mask that fact, Kuo says it used a host of tactics, such as borrowing from some programs to pay for others, spinning budget baselines and subdividing certain funds into smaller grants. Perhaps most significantly, Kuo says the White House sacrificed tax measures that would have benefited charitable endeavors for ones that hurt them. And, as Kuo now admits, the White House practiced an approach that was not fact-based when it said the faith-based initiative was needed to end a pattern of governmental hostility toward religion. All the while, the White House frequently "played the religion card," Kuo says, using Bush's religious credentials to encourage blind faith in the president and his administration.

And she notes that

... the issue of poverty often has been missing from this agenda even though it is unquestionably at the core of Christian concern. Of course, Christians may differ over how to tackle poverty, but it's legitimate to question a Christian's silence on issues Jesus addressed again and again.

So to summarize, the White House robbed social programs of their budgets to finance a political spoils system.  What's more, Rogers, writes: " Kuo now admits, the White House practiced an approach that was not fact-based when it said the faith-based initiative was needed to end a pattern of governmental hostility toward religion."  

Rogers is polite in her understatement.  I will turn up the heat:  The White House lied. There was no government hostility to religious agencies. As David Kuo himself reports in his book, religioius organizations have always received grants and contracts on an equal basis with other organizations. The bogus claim that government is hostile to religion in general or Christianity in particular is the same old saw delivered by the likes of Tim LaHaye, Francis Schaeffer and the religious right that secular government is antithetical to faith.

Rogers is disappointed that conservative Christian leaders, instead of expressing disgust towards the White House for its betrayal of the poor to promote crass interests of polititians, are "ticked off" at Kuo for telling the truth.

Part II

Rogers is one among many Christians who say that it is wrong to link one's faith too closely with political interests. This is not to say that one's faith does not or should not inform politics. But when faith and beliefs become the politics themselves, we get a theocratic movement; and when religious people put the sacred at the service of the ambitions of polititians and the myriad interests they represent, they risk confusing faith with politics -- and become confused themselves; and pliant tools of political and corporate interests.

I have not yet read Kuo's book -- but in his 60 Minutes interview, he said that the targeting of faith-based resources into key Congressional districts during the 2002 elections was his idea. Some excerpts of this part of the book were distributed by Associated Baptist Press.

In 2002:

"A few days later, Jim [Towey] and I were sitting with Ken Mehlman, head of Political Affairs. We laid out a plan whereby we would hold 'roundtable events' for threatened incumbents with faith and community leaders. Our office would do the work, using the aura of our White House power to get a diverse group of faith and community leaders to a 'nonpartisan' event discussing how best to help poor people in their area. Though the Republican candidate would host the roundtable, it wouldn't be a campaign event....

"Ken loved the idea and gave us our marching orders. There were twenty targets.... "'We can't be requesting the events [Mehlman said], we'll have to have the candidates request them. And it can't come from the campaigns. That would make it look too political. It needs to come from congressional offices.'" (pp. 201-202)

"Between June and the election we visited all twenty targeted races.... In November we celebrated 19 out of 20 wins.... The only political hiccup came in mid-September when Tom Edsall, a veteran Washington Post reporter, called to say he was working on a piece describing how Republicans were using the faith-based initiative to woo voters. He had figured out what was going on.... He was absolutely correct, falling short only by not grasping the size of his story. He had only tracked down two or three of the events." (pp. 205-206)

In 2003 and 2004:

"More than a dozen conferences with more than 20,000 faith and community leaders were held in 2003 and 2004 in every significant battleground state, including two in Florida, one in Miami ten days before the 2004 election. Their political power was incalculable. They were completely off the media's radar screen." (p. 212)

"On Election Day [2004] some of the early exit poll numbers looked awful.... I called one of [the president's] senior campaign advisers to see what was going on. 'Can't talk now, on the phone with Ohio pastors. They've gotta turn out, just gotta turn out and they will. Say a prayer. We'll get it done.' He hung up.

"Later that night Ohio turned for the president...the real difference was in a small but significant switch in black voting patterns.... Every church and charity in Ohio had received an invitation to at least two (some received three) faith-based conferences in surrounding states. More than a thousand pastors and religious leaders from Ohio attended the conferences. There can be little doubt that Ohio's success and the president's reelection were at least partially tied to the conferences we had launched two years before." (p. 252)

We should not be surprised that the White House political director was enthusiastic about Kuo's idea. It is old-fashioned political corruption disguised by some sophisticated razzle dazzle about "faith" and "compassionate conservatism."  While Kuo made a big show of blaming President Bush for failing to deliver on his promises to direct resources to religious organizations to help the poor (and who certainly didn't deliver, and was politicizing the program, which is why the first director of the White House faith based director resigned), it seems to me that one of the first people to betray the promise, and one who was utterly complicit in the corrupt regime, was Kuo himself. Whose responsibility was it to maintain the integrity of his office and serve the public trust? Whose responsibility was it to live his faith with integrity?  Someone else?

The cautionary tale for anyone, regardless of their religious views, is not so much that politicians may use you and not deliver their promises: that is always a given. The greater risk is that you become David Kuo: betraying your values and integrity -- and finding yourself on 60 Minutes, finally telling the truth about your lies, and the betrayal of all that you claimed and  believed that you once held dear.

We understand that faith, lots of different kinds of faiths, no faith, and changing your mind about faith, is a normal part of life, and that our beliefs naturally inform our activities.

But conflation of faith with the mundate operations of civil government is always a mistake. And confusing religious faith, with faith in a politititian, is not merely confusing the meanings of different words that happen to be spelled the same way.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Oct 19, 2006 at 10:38:27 PM EST

"So to summarize, the White House robbed social programs of their budgets to finance a political spoils system."

Mr Clarkson, as with all of your writing, a clear, pithy, and true statement sums things up nicely. Would that you had a wider audience with more open ears, eyes and minds to reach.

Thank you for your efforts.

by bybelknap on Fri Oct 20, 2006 at 05:22:02 PM EST

good intentions.

Assuming the people like diIulio and Kuo had good intentions to begin with, they most certainly lacked street smarts and political skills. One wonders how they functioned as pastors, unless they delegated counselling and other tasks requiring people-reading skills to other folks. The biggies, like Dobson and the telepreachers and megachurch pastors, have less of an excuse, since anyone able to run what amounts to a medium-sized corporation should have enough political smarts to understand exactly what the deals entail. I have no problem calling the biggies on their veniality. I remain amazed that their followers don't get disgusted.

I'd be really embarrassed, as well as repentant, if I were Kuo.

I am also grateful that my pastors don't do or say anything remotely political, other than let a congregant take voter registration. Of course, being MCC, they know that their church and denomination has a big red target painted on its back. (Although less so now than formerly - at least there hasn't been a church burning or bombing in 10 years or more).

by NancyP on Fri Oct 20, 2006 at 10:33:49 AM EST

Assuming the people like diIulio and Kuo had good intentions to begin with, they most certainly lacked street smarts and political skills.

Not so sure. Suspect Di Iulo had the smarts (and the integrity) to get out early and call it like it was. Sounds like Kuo enjoyed being a "big player," at least for a while. It's been suggested in some (conservative) quarters that his health problems may have impaired his thinking, causing him to turn on the administration. Another possibility - and one I favor - is that there's nothing like a malignant brain tumor for a "come to Jesus moment."  

The biggies, like Dobson and the telepreachers and megachurch pastors, have less of an excuse, since anyone able to run what amounts to a medium-sized corporation should have enough political smarts to understand exactly what the deals entail.

Suspect the "biggies" knew what the deals entailed. Power and greed were big motivating factors and if cloaking their agenda in religion was what worked, so be it. Doubt they had any more interest than the administration in successful legislation advancing their causes. Issues like abortion and gay rights were cash cows for them even if some of their followers had other motivations. And they had great "instant response teams" to deal adeptly with any revelations that might have raised doubts among their followers - who didn't really want to doubt. The sheer volume of recent bad news is difficult to control and is causing at least some of the followers to start using their brains - a good thing.

by Psyche on Fri Oct 20, 2006 at 02:39:07 PM EST

You are quite right, diIulio did bail in a relatively short time, suggesting that he picked up on the nature of the office in a short time and put in an effort to change office direction without success. Didn't he also write a book?

I didn't know that Kuo was terminally ill. That certainly is a good reason for him to want to set the record straight. It does make the Republican attacks on him as being non compos mentis rather more vile than I had thought at first.

by NancyP on Fri Oct 20, 2006 at 06:06:54 PM EST

Haven't heard definitively that he's terminally ill (he's about 3 years post-diagnosis) but if, indeed, he has a malignant brain tumor, the long term prognosis isn't great.

by Psyche on Sat Oct 21, 2006 at 01:44:07 PM EST

I hope it doesn't consume too much of your time.  I would be interested to know how consistent it is.  Do you appear to be getting form letters?  Considering the focus of this site on the Religious Right and on the systematic undermining of the mainline churches by groups like the IRD (distracting them from prophetic mission by sowing dissent and fears of declining membership and financial instability), I would not be surprised if this site were targeted.  Even if they can't discredit you, they can drain you of resources (like time) needed for this work.

by Rusty Pipes on Fri Oct 20, 2006 at 02:39:04 PM EST
who take exception to this and that. I mostly just delete them and block the sender.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Oct 20, 2006 at 03:34:26 PM EST

Transcript at CBS News

I couldn't get the video at CBS News to work, so here it is from Crooks and Liars:
Windows Media Player

More David Kuo videos (Colbert, Olbermann, Hardball) at YouTube

by anomalous4 on Sat Oct 21, 2006 at 04:43:26 PM EST

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