A former White House official reveals how politics and cynicism warped a noble idea to help the poor.
All this information trickled in to our office when we requested updates on the Compassion Capital Fund. It took a while, but we finally got the list of recommended grantees. It was obvious that the ratings were a farce.
[A few years later,] my wife Kim and I were together with a group of friends and acquaintances. 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 about 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 of 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?"
I told her there was actually a huge problem with that. The programs were to be faith-neutral. Our goal was equal treatment for faith-based groups, not special treatment for them. This was a smart and accomplished Christian woman. She got it immediately. But what she did 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.
These were the new problems for Christians in politics. We weren't on the outside looking in anymore. We were running programs, agencies, the country.
By 2003, Kuo had started to see that some White House political advisers privately mocked the religious conservatives that they courted.
[The practice was] to make grand announcements and then do nothing to implement them. Nowhere was this clearer than in compassion announcements. In May 2001, for instance, the president announced a new $3 billion drug treatment initiative. By December 2003 not a dime had been spent. I had been around politics long enough not to be shocked. The announcements were smart politics because absolutely no one called them on anything. . George W. Bush loves Jesus. He is a good man. But he is a politician; a very smart and shrewd politician. And if the faith-based initiative was teaching me anything, it was about the presidents' capacity to care about perception more than reality. He wanted it to look good. He cared less about it being good.
Christian leaders, Christian media, and Christian writers, however, didn't dare question or challenge him or the White House. He wasn't a political leader to them, he was a brother in Christ – precisely what the White House wanted them to believe. What they didn't get to see was what the White House thought of them. For most of the rest of the White House staff, evangelical leaders were people to be tolerated, not people who were truly welcomed. No group was more eye-rolling about Christians than the political affairs shop. They knew "the nuts" were politically invaluable, but that was the extent of their usefulness. Sadly, the political affairs folks complained most often and most loudly about how boorish many politically involved Christians were. They didn't see much of the love of Jesus in their lives.
Political Affairs was hardly alone. There wasn't a week that went by that I didn't hear someone in middle- to senior-levels making some comment or another about how annoying the Christians were or how tiresome they were, or how "handling" them took so much time.
Although Kuo was growing disillusioned, it was a personal crisis in April 2003 that brought the situation into sharp relief.
[Kim and I drove] down one of the prettiest stretches of road in Washington, DC: Rock Creek Parkway.
Slowly, and without my permission, my left foot started sliding toward me. I tried to push my foot back to its proper place. I couldn't. I concentrated and tried harder to push it away. An electric jolt stiffened my whole left side. My right foot slammed down on the accelerator.
I want to say that I don't remember anything else but unfortunately I do. They are the fragments of a nightmare. I see the car heading very, very fast at a wall. Then I see us in an oncoming lane of traffic. I hear Kim screaming. My head won't turn. I fade to black, with absolutely no white light at the end of the tunnel. I ended up in the George Washington University Hospital emergency room and learned that I had had a grand mal seizure. My wife was ok. It was about 12:30am on Palm Sunday morning.
I was quickly wheeled in for a CT Scan. The technician came back and said he needed to run a few more tests. He wouldn't look me in the eyes. I asked what it was. He just looked grim and told me to be quiet. Involuntarily I started saying, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…" over and over and over again. My head was rocking back and forth.
Then slowly, I felt something. I sensed God. I just knew. I didn't see any bushes that burned or fire coming down from heaven, there was just real peace amidst the real horror. It felt like a big, heavy down comforter was pulled up over me from head to toe. I felt inexplicably safe. A voice I could almost hear with my ears said to me, "You will be ok. You will be ok. This is a battle, but you will be ok."
The doctors disagreed. I had a brain tumor. I had months or weeks.
On April 23, ten days after Palm Sunday, I had nine hours of surgery to remove an egg-sized tumor from my head. The prognosis improved. Pathology reports revealed that the tumor was "low-grade" and unlikely to kill me right away. It would, the doctors agreed, probably return at some unknown point and potentially with greater ferocity. That could be decades away. It could be months. I would have to live by faith.
One day in December I turned in my badge and on my way out did the usual and customary thing and delivered my resignation letter to Andy Card. He accepted it, shook my hand, thanked me for all I'd done, wished me well on my future and health, and asked me if I had any thoughts on how the White House could improve. I had been through too much not to say something. I told him everything I thought. The president had made great promises but they hadn't been delivered on. Worse than that, the White House hadn't tried. Worse than that, we had used people of faith to further our political agenda and hadn't given them anything in return. I went on and on for a few minutes. He sat there a bit bug eyed. "Formality meetings" are supposed to be just that.
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