The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Not Tempted by Tempting Faith

Last week I sped through David Kuo’s Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (after reading that someone from inside Bush’s “faith-based initiative” was saying the same things I’d been saying about it all along, I couldn’t resist picking it up), and I’m struck by how he offers a totally different view of times we both experienced in DC. But I think sometimes his lens is a little blurry. It may even Kuo has some vaseline on his lens, as so many of the portrayals of key players — including the first appearance of George W. Bush — are done with the same kind of soft focus that’s used to hide the flaws of aging Hollywood stars.

Kuo and I are about the same age. He came to Washington a few years before I did, but we both came driven by idealism; he sought to remake the country in the image of his brand of Christianity at time by working for various conservative politicians, and I came to fight for gay & lesbian equality by working at the Human Rights Campaign. We were both walking the halls of Capitol Hill in 1994, when the new majority Republican Congress was sworn in. He was hopeful. I, on the other hand, had That Sinking Feeling™. I was in the audience at the NAACP convention where George W. Bush delivered Kuo’s speech. Bush entered from the wings of the stage to a tepid response. Gore, a day earlier, entered from the back of the hall to a standing ovation, with people reaching out to shake his hand as he made his way down the aisle.

Like I said, a different view. And it’s tempting to simply take Kuo’s story as just an alternate view, especially for someone who’s long been critical of the existence and execution of the Bush administration’s “faith-based” initiative, and particularly given the sincerity of his writing and his belief. But his support for the idea of a government funded “faith-based” initiative, and his assertion that it just wasn’t done right by the Bush administration, leaves out a few important considerations.

What’s interesting is that sometimes the focus is so soft that Kuo himself seems not to recognize the people he’s writing about, particularly when he write things like this.

Everyone comes to politics with a particular set of spiritual or philosophical beliefs motivating them … That we hoped everyone would one day know Jesus was simply a private goal and didn’t mean that we wanted public school teachers to have fourth graders memorize the gospel of Matthew. This is where so many critics of evangelical political involvement got it wrong. Conservative Christian faith did not mean Christian theocracy as well.

When one looks at some of figures who appear in Kuo’s book — among them, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson as well as names probably less well known to people outside of the Christian conservative political movement — it’s almost as though he’s blinded himself to what’s been said by some of the people he lauds in the book, like “compassionate conservatism” guru Marvin Olasky, who advocates government funding for faith-based social service organizations, but also advocates (ideally) “returning” all social services to churches faith-based organizations and making conversion a part of the process; perhaps the part upon which access to services depends.

Olasky argues that it is an error to judge federally-funded social service programs by the effectiveness of the services they provide, instead of judging them by religious long-term ends: Reporters who did spend time at faith-based organizations often made a different error: they tended to see churches and similar institutions as institutions or instruments to be measured by their effectiveness in delivering social services. And yet the primary concern of most churches, synagogues, and mosques is eternal destiny. In the course of helping to change deeper understandings, they also change lives here and now, but journalists (and government officials as well) need to remember first things. Reporters need to display sensitivity to long-term ends even as they examine effectiveness in changing the here and now. Covering compassionate conservatism in practice will be one of the hardest jobs reporters ever have, and one of the most important

Some of his statements even seem to making “repentance” conditional upon services, and withholding services until repentance is offered.

One of Bush’s key advisors on welfare is Marvin Olasky, a professor at the University of Texas and editor of the Religious Right magazine World. In his 1992 book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky speaks approvingly of 19th century models of welfare, where most aid was given by churches, and poverty and homeless were often viewed as the result of moral or spiritual failings. Quoting a Christian relief group from mid-19th century New York, Olasky lauds the idea of maintaining a “willingness to step away for a time and let those who have dug their own hole ‘suffer the consequences of their misconduct! The early Calvinists knew that time spent in the pit could be what was needed to save a life from permanent debauch (and a soul from hell).

Olasky is just an example, but that last quote gets to the heart of the problem with Kuo’s outlook and underscores his blindspot throughout the book. More than a few times in the book, Kuo debunks some of the popular myths about faith-based organizations and government funding, namely that faith-based organizations weren’t previously getting government funding and that when they did they experience problems with being able to hire who they wanted (i.e., they weren’t as able to discriminate based on religious beliefs and practices, the latter of which being something evangelical activists fought to include in the initiative and related legislation). Neither, he points out, is true or at least not to the degree that was argued ins support of the faith-based initiative.

What seems to bother Kuo and others he mentions in the book is that the faith-based organizations that do get funding to offer social services have to “secularize,” meaning that proselytizing their faith must be kept strictly separate from the services they offer; perhaps to such a degree that their social service wings are “religious in name only” and have no involvement with evangelizing those served. In other words, the government had not previously gone into the “soul saving” business, via faith-based organizations. To put it more plainly, the problem is that the government is not using tax dollars to spread the Christian faith.

And Kuo makes it plain that the little money that was allocated to the faith-based initiative went almost exclusively to evangelical Christian groups. To make that point, he quotes one of the people who reviewed applications, without noticing that she wears the same kind of blinders he wore then and still wears throughout the book.

Someone mentioned that I used to work at the White House in the faith-based office. A woman piped up and said, “Really? Wow, I was on the peer-review panel for the first Compassion Capital Fund.” I asked her how she liked it and she said it was fun. She talked about how the government employees gave them grant review instructions — look at everything objectively against a discreet list of requirements and score accordingly. “But,” she said with a giggle, “when I saw one of those non-Christian groups in the set I was reviewing. I just stopped looking at them and gave them a zero.”

At first I laughed. A funny joke. Not so much. She was proud and giggling and didn’t get that there was a problem with that. I asked if she knew others who’d done the same. “Oh sure, a lot of us did.” She must have seen my surprise. “Was there a problem with that?”

… This was a smart, accomplished Christian woman. She got it immediately. But what she had done comported with her understanding of what the faith initiative was supposed to do — help Christian groups — and with her faith. She wanted people to know Jesus.

And Kuo’s dewy gaze at George W. Bush misses the same set of blinders.

Ultimately, George Bush wanted souls. In a remarkable reference in a Los Angeles speech in March 2004, he discussed what faith-based groups would be able to do with more money. He passionately exclaimed, “There’s more souls to be saved.” That was what “faith-based” was about for him. It is why, when he talked about faith-based groups with no notes, he always talked about the power of those groups to change lives “from the inside out.” It was his own story.

Leaving aside whether or not Bush is more of a “dry drunk” than a recovering alcoholic, and whether he wanted votes at least as much as he wanted souls (if not more) it’s clear that he and the “peer-review panelist” wear the same blinders Kuo wears and miss the same point he comes close to reaching in the book, but ultimately doesn’t get either: that the government should not be in the business of “saving souls” or helping people to “know Jesus,” nor should it pay anyone else to do so.

The inherent danger in that is evidenced in the kind of discrimination Kuo writes about, that was an ingrained part of the thinking of the most ardent supporters of the initiative. Combined with the lack of oversight (which perhaps has its origin in what Kuo describes as evangelical Christians willingness to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt even with it seemed to ignore or short change their issues) creates situations like the one I noted before, where an organization like the Salvation Army gets nearly all of its budget from the government, and then uses it to purge Jews and homosexuals from its staff; Jewish and homosexual taxpayers, that is, whose taxes now supply the organization’s budget. (Not to mention Buddhist, Muslim, and non-religious taxpayers who would probably also be out of a job, courtesy of their tax dollars.)

It’s a danger only enhanced by the Bush administration’s efforts to weaken rules that were intended to protect the separation of church and state. The danger becomes even more apparent when you consider that the “soul-saving” mission is combined with belief that it’s an it is an “error to judge federally-funded social service programs by the effectiveness of the services they provide, instead of judging them by religious long-term ends’,” because it creates an atmosphere where effectiveness doesn’t matter in a situation where lives are literally at stake.

It leads to an HIV prevention educator in Africa being told, “Just remember, whatever you do, don’t mention condoms,” just before he stepped out onto a stage to talk HIV prevention to Ugandans, because he was hosted by a faith-based “abstinence-only” program. Never mind that advances against HIV in Uganda have withered away under the Bush administration, because anti-condom propaganda has effectively decreased condom use, but hasn’t affected the practice of unprotected sex. Because the effectiveness of the services offered is not important, and neither is any increase in the rate of HIV infection among Africans. That’s a short-term goal after all. The long term goal is “salvation,” which is still possible after and HIV infection, but unquantifiable.

It leads to the White House having to be reminded to keep the condom info factual in its federally funded abstinence programs, and the White House claiming that the programs were outside the cope of the statute requiring “just the facts” on condoms. It wouldn’t surprise me if the programs were faith-based and thus fell outside the scope of the statue because the Bush administration and the Republican congress exempted them from that regulation the way way it weakened others meant to ensure church/state separation. If the facts about condom use don’t jibe with the “facts” of their particular faith, guess which trumps.

It leads to a White House that wants to force HIV prevention groups to sign an anti-prostitution pledge that could bar them from distributing condoms to prostitutes. Maybe they believe that the “world’s oldest profession” is just going to go away. Or maybe they believe that prostitutes and their johns deserve whatever they get. (And if they’re all dead, that eliminates prostitution, right?) Maybe they believe that people will just stop having sex that breaks the rules of their particular faith, despite all the evidence that they haven’t yet and probably won’t. Because if they do….?

It leads to faith-based abstinence-only educators in this country declaring that it doesn’t matter whether they lower HIV infection rates, abortion rates, or unwanted pregnancies. Those are all short term goals, and they don’t matter.

At Reclaiming America for Christ, Stenzel told her audience about a conversation she’d had with a skeptical businessman on an airplane. The man had asked about abstinence education’s success rate—a question she regarded as risible. “What he’s asking,” she said, “is does it work. You know what? Doesn’t matter. Cause guess what. My job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public schools’ job should not be to keep teens from having sex.” Then her voice rose and turned angry as she shouted, “Our job should be to tell kids the truth!”

“People of God,” she cried, “can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works! To truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God!”

Later in the same talk, she explained further why what “works” isn’t what’s important—and gave some insight into what she means by “truth.” “Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here,” she said. “AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.”

What matters is either “salvation” in the long term, or punishment for “sins” in the short term, whether the latter is Olasky’s “time in the pit” or Stenzel’s litany of afflictions. See, both condoms and secular social services are condemned not because they come between a healthy body and HIV or because they stand between the poor and economic (or, in the case of Katrina, natural) disaster. They’re condemned as evil because they some between “punishment” (for what else are the afflictions Stenzel rattles off?) and the “sinner,” and that makes them evil.

Maybe “saving souls” and taking lives go hand in hand. But it doesn’t seem to me that they should. Anyway, all of the above happens on our dime.

And, really, it couldn’t happen any other way. The problem with the faith-based initiative that Kuo misses, isn’t that it wasn’t done right. The problem is that it can’t be done right. Or that it’s almost impossible to do right, simply given human nature, the fact that the U.S. is overwhelmingly Christian, the tendency of the major faiths — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — to reject the legitimacy of any other faith (unless practiced by the kind of moderates Sam Harris talks about, which still leaves the door open for their extremist co-religionists), and the tendency to one’s co-religionists (or in Bush’s case “a brother in Christ”) the benefit of the doubt.

By the time someone like Kuo pulls the curtain aside, much of the damage has been done already. And cleaning it up will end up being someone else’s job.

I was tempted to give Kuo the benefit of the doubt as well, because there were some issues on which I sympathized with him. (I’m nearly finished with Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, and I find much to sympathize with him on as well.) But in the end, I just couldn’t buy that the “faith-based initiative” could have been done right, should have been done at all, and turned out to be anything more than a boondoggle.

The evidence just doesn’t support any of that. And, in the absence of faith, evidence is what I’ll have to rely on.

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