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Screwtape Lives: Tempting Faith: An Interview with David Kuo

By John W. Whitehead
December 13, 2006  

“I found a passage in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters that scared me,” writes David Kuo in his book Tempting Faith. Screwtape Letters contains fictional correspondence between a young demon, Wormwood, who is just learning how to vex Christians, and his more powerful demonic uncle, Screwtape. Toward the end of the book, Screwtape advises his young cousin on how to derail a Christian:

Let him begin by treating patriotism…as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely a part of the “cause,” in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce…[O]nce he’s made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.

Nothing could better describe David Kuo’s experiences as a Christian and his stint in politics. Kuo is an author and former top Washington, D.C. insider whose connections include some of the most powerful political names in America. As Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and second-in-command of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Kuo worked to provide federal funds and resources to hundreds of faith-based charities across the country to help serve the poor and those in need. In addition to his tenure in the White House, Kuo has worked for other leading conservative political leaders including Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett and John Ashcroft. Kuo has also brought a compassionate conservative voice to numerous speeches he has written for well-known conservatives such as Pat Robertson, Senator Bob Dole, Congressman J.C. Watts and Ralph Reed. 

David KuoKuo relinquished his position as a top official in the Bush Administration to lay bare the façade about Washington politics. In his New York Times bestseller Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, Kuo gives readers an inside glimpse into the seductive life of Beltway politics, explaining how Christian voters are used and manipulated by politicians and how President Bush’s own Christian faith was used to entice Christian leaders and voters. He writes that many of America’s leaders have abandoned Christ’s message for the high-stakes political game, where nothing matters as much as votes—not even faith. In his book, Kuo is transparent in describing his personal battles as he tries to pursue his faith through the cold, worldly halls of Washington, D.C. He also chronicles his experience in working for a president whose promise to restore Christian compassion to the White House has yet to become a reality. 

Kuo founded The American Compass, a group that helps charitable organizations better serve their missions. His career also includes time spent in the dotcom world and on the professional bass fishing circuit. 

In addition to Tempting Faith, Kuo has written the Good Morning America Book Club selection Dot.Bomb, co-authored Transforming America: From the Inside Out and is the author of several articles for the faith-based Internet publication, where he is the Washington Editor. He also writes a blog called J-Walking. 

Kuo recently took time to answer a few questions for oldSpeak.
John Whitehead: Let me quote from the prologue of your book: “When I talk to neighbors or strangers and tell them that I try my best to follow Jesus, many look at me queerly. I’ve come to learn that their first thoughts about me are political ones—they figure I don’t care about the environment, I support the war in Iraq, I oppose abortion, I am ambivalent about the poor, I want public schools to evangelize students, and I just hate gays and lesbians. That is what they associate with my faith.” Do you believe the perception is that Christians are haters?

David Kuo: Yes. Unfortunately, I think that is exactly the case. Non-Christians used to worry about Christians trying to convert them. Now non-Christians worry about Christians trying to lobby them. I think that bears witness to what C. S. Lewis said. Anytime we use our faith as a means to an end rather than an end to itself, not only is our faith corrupted personally, but Christianity in general is corrupted.

JW: The Rutherford Institute defends religious freedom and civil liberties. When some Wiccan widows were attempting to have the pentagram placed on the gravestones of their fallen husbands who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I came out in defense of them. The Veterans Administration refused their request. I received some 700 emails from Wiccans all across the world, and they were so positive. Many of the Wiccans were surprised that I, as a Christian, would want to help them. But, on the other side, the emails I received from the Christians on this matter were hateful and nasty. That seems to be a mentality among Christians. 

DK: Exactly. And it is more so with politics. Many Christians have embraced the idea that politics and God are synonymous and that certain political positions or certain legal positions are God’s positions. Thus, to oppose those positions is to literally oppose God. But this is simply not true. Jesus’ gospel is not a gospel of politics. It is not a gospel of a political agenda one way or another, left or right. Much of the anger from Christians originates with the impression that taking a legal position defending a civil liberty is not only bad law but bad policy and a form of heresy—even a form of blasphemy. And that’s a really alarming trend.

JW: So politics, in effect, becomes religion.

DK: Yes. We can only worship at one altar, and that’s God’s altar. But, more and more, I fear we are worshipping at the altar of politics.

JW: At one time, was politics your God?

DK: Yes. Absolutely. I know what it’s like to think that political positions are almost as important as the Gospel itself.

JW: In that sense, is politics satanic?
DK: No, I don’t think politics is satanic. However, there is a reason that Jesus said to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Christ is not simply talking about paying taxes. Instead, it is about priorities. It’s about love. Jesus, being God, understood the seductive powers of politics. He understood how much politics can tug at our souls. I liken it to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When Frodo took the ring, it was with the best of intentions. But it ended up producing the worst results because the Ring of Power was itself corrupted. Power is corrupting. Politics is corrupting. That is part of the genius of our Founders. They didn’t envision a permanent political class. They envisioned citizen legislators.

JW: But we have a permanent political class now?

DK: Yes. Exactly. And that is part of the danger.

JW: And this permanent political class (which makes up the President, Congress and even the courts) is tied into wealth and multi-corporations.

DK: Yes. I know that one of the leading Democratic campaign figures during the last campaign is now soliciting business. He has attained 50 clients and about $75,000 a month as a base retainer. What changes? What in politics changes? How does that make a difference because it is still all influence peddling? 

JW: Again, let me quote from your book: “We were bastardizing God’s words for our own political agenda and feeling good about it.” This is when you were in the White House. How could you feel good about that?

DK: Sometimes sin feels good. U2’s Bono has it right. I have held the hand of the devil. It was warm in the night, and I was cold as a stone. And there are times when we are in sin and it feels really good. But it is those times when you wake up and say, “What have we lost? What has happened here?”

JW: Here’s what you say in your book: “All of this meant leaving politics for a season or, perhaps, forever. As C.S. Lewis warned in Screwtape, my faith had become a means to a political end, and not an end unto itself. When that happened, Lewis warned, the enemy almost has his man. I needed that to end before I lost my soul.” Did you really believe at one point that you were going to lose your soul?

DK: Yes. A part of that is based on my own past experience. If I hadn’t lived in Washington and worked in politics, and having lost my soul to politics before, I wouldn’t have been so aware of it. At a relatively young age, I reached heavy heights and, in the midst of that, I lost my soul. I lost my way. I became one of those people who thought politics, such as a certain Republican political agenda, was synonymous with Jesus. I even came to believe that Jesus was synonymous with the Republican political agenda and that serving one was exactly the same as serving the other. And so I have been there before. Thus, it was easier for me to recognize. Perhaps like an alcoholic recognizes the warning signs, I recognized the dangers that surrounded me. I recognized that I needed to step away.

JW: The Christian Right, and to a large extent the church today, is thoroughly enmeshed in politics. As I watch so-called Christian TV, the mention of political campaigns and elections surfaces many times in sermons and even during healing services. Has the modern church, as it has become overtly political, lost its soul?

DK: There are many wonderful churches. But the church of Jesus Christ has always been a church that is in danger. That is the nature of the world. It is a hard place to live in. 

JW: During your term in the White House, you often worked closely with George W. Bush. As you say in your book: “Bush was the real deal. He loved Jesus. He wanted to help the poor. He was the embodiment of the Christian political statesman I had dreamed of finding and dreamed of being.” Many good people have serious concerns with George Bush. Some equate him with the Devil. They don’t like his policies. They believe Bush has lost his way. For example, whatever happened to compassionate conservatism? There are those who think Bush is waging the war in Iraq over oil. But in your book, you paint a different picture of Bush. You say Bush was the real deal and that he loved Jesus. He wanted to help the poor. He was the embodiment of the Christian political statesman. Do you still believe that?

DK: I believe George Bush’s faith is real. I think he has a genuine caring capacity for people. But having that faith does not mean that all his decisions are holy, sacred decisions. That was part of the point of writing my book. I began to see that the White House tried to portray the President as George W. Jesus to Christians and that he would be a pastor to them. That is what Christians got duped into thinking. They got duped into thinking of Bush in spiritual terms, when they needed to think of him in civil terms.

JW: Do you mean political or civil?

DK: They need to think of George Bush as a politician in civil terms and that he is the head of the government. He is the head of the grand old party. He is a politician. His role is a civil responsibility, not a spiritual responsibility. Christians can’t get duped into thinking of their President primarily in spiritual terms because, in doing so, it robs them of their biblical responsibilities to speak truth to power. 

JW: I’m quoting another passage from your book: “Regulars on the call were Tom Minnery, head of public policy for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family; Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and head of the National Association of Evangelicals; Deal Hudson, conservative Catholic and publisher of Crisis magazine; Jay Sekulow, head of Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice; Ken Connor, then head of the Family Research Council; Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; and Christian talk radio hosts Janet Parshall and Michael Reagan, among others.” Then you go on to say that the so-called advice from such evangelicals was really a political trap. The White House was simply trying to keep those groups and their audiences happy. It was to pacify them. Have evangelicals who believe they’re on the inside and who place their faith in George Bush or Karl Rove been duped?

DK: In answer to your question, let me quote someone who is now attacking me. It is someone I admire—Chuck Colson. This is what Colson once said: “It is easy to become enthralled with access to power. In time, however, without even knowing it, well- intentioned attempts to influence public policy can be so entangled with the politics of power that the pastor’s primary goal becomes maintaining political access. When that happens, the gospel of Jesus Christ is held hostage to a political agenda—and religious leaders are little able to speak and criticize it.” That is as good an answer as any and one of the things that I would throw back to Colson. And my question to him is, “Have things changed since you wrote this?”

JW: You were a key player in the White House. As you write: “I was a Special Assistant to the President of the United States. I was a junior member of the senior staff. A car and driver were mine for any official business. Seats in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center were mine for the asking. My blue-and-white-striped badge allowed me to walk virtually anywhere in the White House unimpeded. Mail to me was addressed to ‘The Honourable David Kuo.’ I could eat any meal I chose in the White House mess. The temptation when working there is to think that the place has something, anything, to do with you. After all, every phone call is returned. Even the people who don’t really like you are generally nice.” You had this immense power. So even Christians can be easily corrupted?

DK: Especially Christians.

JW: Why especially Christians?

DK: Chuck Colson wrote that when he was in the White House with Richard Nixon, he was, metaphorically speaking, an arm twister. And, on the whole, Christians were the easiest to arm twist. Colson indicated that maybe it was because they came from sheltered backgrounds. Ultimately, Colson said he thought they might just simply like to be around power. 

JW: Like fireflies around the flame.

DK: Yes. That is one of the huge concerns. Again, I think that, spiritually speaking, Jesus proclaimed the separation of Caesar and God. Part of Jesus’ concern was to say that politics is dangerous stuff. It can corrupt your soul. I tend to think Jesus a pretty wise guy.

JW: Colson’s charge against you is that you’re telling people not to vote and not to be involved in politics. Are you saying that to Christians?

DK: No, I’m not saying that. But I do believe it is time for Christians to consider taking a fast from politics.

JW: A two-year fast?

DK: A two-year fast. And the idea behind that fast is spiritual. You do not fast from things that are evil. Who isn’t evil? You fast from things to be able to bring them under control and to be able to get a proper perspective. It is also to humble yourself before God. Thus, my argument is that Christians should disengage from the political arena for a season. Now that does not mean they shouldn’t vote. It doesn’t mean that politicians should leave office. It does mean, however, that instead of giving hundreds of millions of dollars to political parties and campaigns, give that money to organizations that are helping those who are hurting.

JW: Christians are giving a lot of money to politicians. When I talk to people, I say, “Don’t do that.” I’ve had some big-name Christians tell me that they give huge sums of money to politicians. Again I say, “Don’t do that.”

DK: We must always keep in mind that what is civil and the government is separate from that which is spiritual. They are different things. It’s not that you can’t and shouldn’t have moral and godly leaders. It’s not that the civil can’t impact the spiritual or the spiritual can’t impact the civil. In a way, it is like a marriage. They are different, like a husband is different than the wife. And both need protection. 

JW: You write in your book: “The White House exists as a political entity for the sole purpose of advancing a president’s agenda through the expansion and projection of his political power. Everything about a White House is political. The White House Easter Egg Roll is political, lighting the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse is political, and distributing White House Christmas cards is political. Every fall, staff members receive a form allowing us to name four people to receive official White House Christmas cards. Each year the list has to be different because the White House wants to be sure that new and different people get cards. It is just politics.” Everything a politician does is political? I’ve heard it said that when a politician says good morning, he is doing it for political purposes. 

DK: Yes.

JW: They want your vote.

DK: It’s their goal. They want your vote. They are one part salesman and one part evangelist. Everything is about votes and power. 

JW: This is true even if they are Christians. George Bush is supposedly a Christian, but he is not pushing a Christian agenda. He is pushing a political agenda.

DK: Right. But he is going to use any constituent group that he can in order to support that agenda.

JW: And stay in power.

DK: And stay in power because he wants power. He needs power. The more power, the merrier. But what has that power gained? If I look back over the last 30 years, there are more abortions now than there were in 1973 when Roe v. Wade was decided. 

JW: Are you saying that the Christian Right and the Christian President have not changed the moral climate of America?

DK: Yes. One of the most shocking things to me recently is a report which showed that 40 percent of all children are now born out of wedlock. And I heard nary a peep from religious Right leaders about this.

JW: As I heard during the last election cycle, amendments against same sex marriage were essential to protect the traditional family. But the problem isn’t with some gays getting married. It is because Christian divorce equals non-Christian divorce. This results in broken families, which is devastating to children. Thus, we have a big problem. You’ve seen this from inside the White House. You’ve seen it as a Christian inside the church. What has happened to Christianity so that it has only a minimal impact on the moral climate of America?

DK: We have lost the sense of God in the equation. We have lost the enormity of God. God is simply another political option. We have lost the sense of God’s power. We have lost the sense that God matters. We have lost the sense that God is more important than anything else.

JW: God is simply another letter in the alphabet.

DK: God is simply another letter in the alphabet. 

JW: If Jesus came back today, he probably couldn’t get into most churches because he wouldn’t smell right. He probably had greasy hair. He wouldn’t be clean. He’d appear to be dirty. We must remember that Jesus was homeless most of his public life. Most people do not even think of inviting homeless people to church. When I’ve suggested it, they look at me like I’m crazy. We have lost the whole sense of the mission of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if Jesus came back today, I don’t think he would be welcome in many churches. I don’t think they would ask him to speak. I don’t think he would get past the usher at the door who is handing out the program flyers.

DK: But maybe there are some bigger questions. For example, if Jesus came back today, would James Dobson be the first one to attack him?