Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Remembering J. David Kuo

David Kuo died Friday, April 5th, 2013, at age 44. Ten years earlier he was nearly killed in an auto accident brought on by a brain tumor induced seizure. Surgery for the tumor bought him additional years but the cancer eventually claimed his life.

Most Americans know nothing of Kuo. Until I read of his death I had only heard of him peripherally. In 2006 he had written a number of articles critical of the Bush administration, in which he had served as an assistant director of President Bush’s Faith Based Initiative. Kuo had joined the Bush Administration, convinced of the sincerity of Bush’s evangelical faith and of his intent to fund faith-based programs to assist the poor. After two years of frustration over the impossibility of getting the promised funding for the program, and increasing disillusionment with politics in general and the Republican Bush Administration in particular, Kuo resigned.

I was intrigued by an Obituary in the New York Times. It confirmed my longstanding belief that both political parties have used certain of their constituents to promote their politics while ultimately doing nothing about the concerns of the interest group whose support they courted with campaign promises, visits to the White House, invitations to conferences, tickets to high profile meetings with the President, etc.

Kuo, an evangelical Christian and a conservative Republican, recognized that Republicans, who occupied the White House for twenty of the twenty-eight years from Ronald Reagan’s election to the end of George W. Bush’s last term, had enjoyed majority status in the Senate and House for twelve of those years, and had appointed seven justices to the Supreme Court. (There are only nine justices so until recently all but two had been Republican appointees.) Still no Republican president had fulfilled any of the major promises made to the conservative Christians who, in overwhelming majorities, had voted for them. Kuo’s conclusion was that though those Presidents were sincere in their personal faith, they nonetheless allowed their political ambitions to overshadow their faith. Politics was more important to them (or became more important to them) than their Christian commitments.

Kuo’s book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, is one I would recommend that every person professing to be an evangelical Christian should read. Those who are not evangelical or not persons of faith will find it to be, not a defense of that faith or even an attempt to persuade anyone to accept it, but rather a critique of those Democrats and Republicans who imperfectly represented their faith as they sought to expand their political power. It is not just an expose of the crimes of Democrats and Republicans however; it is also a frank and honest memoire of Kuo’s own fumbling attempt to be a faithful follower of Jesus, from his Christian conversion as a teen-ager until his resignation from the Bush Administration’s Faith Based Initiative. Kuo tells of the blinding and captivating power that seized him when he entered the world of politics. He likens it to the power of the “ring” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. First you take possession of it, then it takes possession of you, and finally it becomes so precious that you cannot live without it; you become less and less while the evil, represented by the ring, becomes more and more representative of who you are.

Kuo, like the hobbits, Bilbo Baggins and Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, was eventually able to step away from the charmed life of a Presidential Assistant. The burden of his memoire is a warning to all of us, whether we are actively engaged in the support of a political party or a political cause or just committed to something that becomes all-consuming; really any cause that is not directly focused on our commitment to our faith beliefs. We can allow our zeal for those causes to subvert our good intentions and turn us into tools to be used by those more powerful than ourselves for their purposes.

More importantly, Kuo’s message to followers of Jesus Christ, who hope to honor the One whose name their bear and who hope to do His will in the world, is that we can end up allowing ourselves to be manipulated in ways that bring discredit to the name of Jesus Christ and drive away those who need to come to Him for their salvation. Kuo was challenged by some lines from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Read what he says about Lewis’ book:

"I found a passage in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters that scared me. Screwtape Letters contains fictional correspondence between a young demon, Wormwood, just learning how to vex Christians, and his more powerful demonic uncle, Screwtape. Toward the end of the book, as the Christian has developed, Screwtape advises his young cousin on how to really 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.'"

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, both Bilbo and Sam, though they ultimately relinquished the Ring of Power, never really got over the charm of having possessed it. I think I sense the same in David Kuo. After leaving the White House staff he still maintained contact with those still there. Even helped ghost write speeches for various Republican candidates. It is impossible to know what he would have done if he had lived beyond his forty-four years.

Kuo’s final advice to the readers of his memoire is that they take a two-year sabbatical from all things political except voting. I’ve felt that we should lengthen that to four years – four years in which all elective offices are left empty; a political Sabbath would be upon the land, no planting or harvesting, let the bureaucracy carry us along while all the political offices are aired out. Then, rather than returning to the corruption of campaigns and elections we could select our representatives as we do members of a jury; all eligible names are thrown into a hat and those drawn out must serve for a specified period of time (with pay) unless they can show they are not mentally or physically able to fulfill that duty. Not about to happen, but what if . . . ?

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