The relationship between God and politics may be an age old question, but when I first met David Kuo in 2008 our conversation was not the usual small talk. At the time, Kuo, author and former White House official, talked passionately about his controversial best-seller, “Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.”
Kuo, the onetime leader of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, died this week at 44 of brain cancer. 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. Its 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 was referring to his second wife, Kimberly, and three daughters. “I’ve found the walk of God, a challenging walk of unconditional love.”
Spiritual talk in the abstract flowed more easily for Kuo than discussing personal issues. “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 believed President Bush manipulated the Christian Right.
Although raised in the suburbs of New York City by his Chinese father and American mother, Kuo lived in Alexandria, VA, beginning in 1990 until moving to Charlotte, NC. He and his wife, Kim, who ran the advocacy group mywireless.org, attended the Capital Life Church, a small non-denominational church in Arlington, VA. “I follow Jesus but avoid larger labels,” said Kuo. “The larger labels are 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 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 described that as an interesting tension, but he thought President Bush’s faith was real.
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 ones neighbor, today it is more often equated with partisan politics.”
He carefully drew 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 described 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.”
Although he dedicated his memoir to his three daughters, ironically he didn’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.” He hoped to write another book, one where he examines more closely the Jesus industry. But his one wish, “I hope I keep rocking the boat,” Kuo said. “We need boat rockers.”