While many elements of Kuo’s tale resonate with what my colleagues and I learned in our research, the narratives diverge significantly on two central points. The first is over the separation of powers, or, more specifically, the nature of presidential power. From Kuo’s vantage point, if the president really wants something, he has enough power to make it happen. Yet, according to traditional political science, the president’s powers are limited, and they are most limited on issues that involve the federal budget. In foreign policy and diplomacy, the president has almost unilateral power, but when it comes to spending government dollars, Congress effectively holds the purse strings. In Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership, a book that remains central to presidential studies more than four decades later, Richard Neustadt describes presidential power as the power to persuade and as the power to bargain. Presidents do not necessarily have command and control, especially over domestic policy.
Second, contrary to Kuo’s account, the faith-based initiative was never a high-impact issue for most evangelicals. In fact, Christian Right organizations were more likely to oppose the program than to support it. Kuo is correct that the president hoped the issue would draw support from minority voters, especially in the African American community, but Bush and some (though clearly not all) of his advisers were well aware that the issue faced potentially serious opposition from the political Right. Yet Kuo acts as if the failure to achieve charity tax cuts sold-out the Christian Right. In making this false claim, Kuo ironically misses a much larger point. Republican leaders have indeed failed Christian conservatives by offering more lip service than action on the issues their leaders care about the most. But those issues are abortion and gay marriage, not government contracts with faith-based groups.
Alan Wolfe’s TNR review is nastier and less measured, using Kuo as an example of what’s wrong with evangelicals in general.
If theocracy is not a looming danger to our democracy, bathos might be. For every evangelical leader spewing hate, there are ten evangelical followers who believe that all you need is love. David Kuo is one of them. He brought to the White House neither money nor mission, but only mush. No matter how much he came to disagree with the ruthless operatives with whom he was working, he writes, "I couldn’t dislike them." After all, Harriet Miers, then White House counsel, had responded to his hospitalization by writing him a note offering love and prayers; and this, for him, counted far more than her--or anyone else’s--position on anything involving actual policy. "From the moment I found Jesus--or Jesus found me--in high school, it was his peace I longed for. I didn’t know what it meant or what it felt like. But wanting Jesus’ peace made me ache." Most people seeking peace would not march willingly into the middle of a culture war. But Kuo, the kind of person who could actually be moved by one of Harriet Miers’s treacly notes, did. His intentions were not malevolent. They were oblivious, which may be worse.
The last thing America needs now is more innocence. Most Americans have wildly unrealistic expectations of what politics can do, and, expecting too much, they settle for too little. We need leaders who can level with voters, offering good news when there is good news, but not afraid to share bad news when necessary. Religion may or may not help in cultivating such leaders, but evangelical religion offers precisely the wrong ingredients to make such leadership possible. Testimonialism simply does not make for serious politics (or serious religion). It is not enough for us to absolve presidents for today’s mistakes because they have confessed to yesterday’s sins. The one skill that policy-makers ought to possess is the willingness to look beyond personal feelings in order to enact sensible programs. David Kuo’s religious sensibility never allowed him to do that. His book offers an acute warning of the dangers that evangelicals pose to democracy, not because they are too Machiavellian, but because they are not Machiavellian enough.
Wolfe is right, at least about Kuo’s pose, but he’s meanspiritedly wrong when he posits as the only alternatives evangelical hatemongers and starry-eyed lovers. And the solution is not more Machiavellianism, but a recognition of the power of sin and of human finitude and fallibility (which also strike me as evangelical themes).
Update: Peter Steinfels offeers a nicer, less Machiavellian version of Wolfes criticism.