The relationship between God and politics may be an age old question, but my conversation over coffee at the Caboose Café in the Del Ray section of Alexandria the other morning was not the usual small talk.
David Kuo, recent author, former White House official and longtime Alexandria resident, talked passionately about his controversial new best-seller, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.
“People think of Jesus as a lobbyist-in-chief for the Republicans,” Kuo told me. “They’ve corrupted the name of Jesus with a Republican political agenda.”
In short, Kuo believes President Bush manipulated the Christian Right.
Although raised in the suburbs of New York City by his Chinese father and American mother, a descendant of Jefferson Davis, Kuo has lived in Alexandria since 1990. He and his wife, Kim, who runs the advocacy group mywireless.org, attend the Capital Life Church, a small non-denominational church in Arlington.
“I follow Jesus but avoid larger labels,” said Kuo. “The larger labels are now defined in political not spiritual terms.”
Following a stint as President Bush’s number two in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the controversial six-footer has voiced his views on the subject.
“Without the White House credential, people wouldn’t have paid attention,” Kuo said. “Democrats see the religious right as the promised land of political votes, and Republicans see it as a mansion to be guarded.” He describes that as an “interesting tension,” but he does think President Bush’s faith is “real.”
Kuo, who calls former Reagan Education Secretary and Drug Czar Bill Bennett a mentor, dislikes labels and admits to not fitting in either party today. But he sees the energy of ideas tilting in favor of the Democrats now. “They’re asking the big questions,” he said. “Politically, it has the feeling of the early nineties in the pre-Newt Republican world.” Although the Democrats are excited by the prospect of conservative Christians migrating to their Party, Kuo thinks it’s premature to write an obituary for the religious right.
In America, there is currently a radical shift in the attitudes of evangelicals as they feel their agenda is not being represented by either party. According to Kuo, “Evangelicals aren’t re-examining their political priorities nearly as much as they are re-examining their spiritual priorities. That could be bad news for both parties,” he said. “Whereas Christianity was once synonymous with charity, compassion and love for one’s neighbor, today it is more often equated with partisan politics.”
He carefully draws a distinction between the political and the spiritual. “Politics is temporal, and spiritual is eternal.” Kuo explained, “When the Jimmy Haggard scandal broke, the first reaction was political.” Many conservative Christians believed that it was a “dream come true” to have an evangelical like Bush in the White House. However, this core faction of the Republican Party witnessed more symbolic gestures rather than concrete results.
When the conversation turns to his spiritual side, the author describes himself as “a very poor pilgrim trying to walk, stumble, scrape and fall toward God. On a good day, I get a few things right spiritually.”
Spiritual talk in the abstract flows more easily for Kuo than discussing personal issues.
In 2003, the same year that Kuo left the White House, he underwent surgery for a brain tumor. Although it was benign, doctors couldn’t remove all of it.
“It’s life altering,” Kuo said. “I think about the cancer daily, sometimes hourly. It’s always there, an ever present reminder that we are mortal.” His personal health crisis helped to liberate him. “I don’t care what people in political positions think,” he told me. “I care about family.” He has a 16-month-old daughter as well as two teenage daughters from a previous marriage. “I’ve found the walk of God, a challenging walk of unconditional love.”
Although he dedicated his memoir to his three daughters, ironically he doesn’t want them to read it until they are 18 or 20 because “I write about abortion, divorce, and my own seduction by politics.”
After leaving The White House, Kuo pursued his lifelong passion. He became a professional bass fisherman. “It provided me a place of refuge to think about the world.”
And now he thinks about his next book, perhaps one where he examines more closely the “Jesus industry.”
“I hope I keep rocking the boat,” Kuo said. “We need boat rockers.”