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Tempting Fraud: David Kuo, The faith based Initiative and religious minorities PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Tuesday, 05 December 2006
A few weeks ago during the ongoing coverage of the 2006 Congressional elections, I watched several journalists and major news outlets focus their attention on a new book that was published last October, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. Tempting Faith openly criticized President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, a program that was designed to level the playing field between religious and secular groups when they apply for federal funding to aid social service programs. Unlike other criticisms of the Initiative, Tempting Faith was authored by an inside source David Kuo, a conservative Christian and former deputy director of Initiative. In his book, Kuo asserts that the Faith-Based Initiative was little more than a vehicle used by self-interested politicians to swindle votes out of well-meaning people of faith, who were counting on the Initiative to help them serve the poor. While Kuo’s book had generated speculation as to whether such accusations will affect the Republican party’s appeal to religious conservatives (one headline by online news outlet Raw Story read, Christian Defense Coalition: Many evangelicals ‘feel used, taken for granted’ by GOP[1]), I noticed that many of the larger questions remained unasked particularly, if the government will continue to provide funding to evangelical Christians, and how such ongoing favoritism impacts minority, non-Christian faiths, both domestically and abroad

Tempting Fraud:

David Kuo, The Faith-Based Initiative, and Religious Minorities

By Tim Mitchell

A few weeks ago during the ongoing coverage of the 2006 Congressional elections, I watched several journalists and major news outlets focus their attention on a new book that was published last October, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. Tempting Faith openly criticized President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, a program that was designed to level the playing field between religious and secular groups when they apply for federal funding to aid social service programs. Unlike other criticisms of the Initiative, Tempting Faith was authored by an inside source David Kuo, a conservative Christian and former deputy director of Initiative. In his book, Kuo asserts that the Faith-Based Initiative was little more than a vehicle used by self-interested politicians to swindle votes out of well-meaning people of faith, who were counting on the Initiative to help them serve the poor. While Kuo’s book had generated speculation as to whether such accusations will affect the Republican party’s appeal to religious conservatives (one headline by online news outlet Raw Story read, Christian Defense Coalition: Many evangelicals ‘feel used, taken for granted’ by GOP[1]), I noticed that many of the larger questions remained unasked particularly, if the government will continue to provide funding to evangelical Christians, and how such ongoing favoritism impacts minority, non-Christian faiths, both domestically and abroad.

Kuo Is Me

In the interviews and commentaries Kuo provides, the two main focal points of his complaints are that Bush did not deliver on the funding he promised to religious groups through the Faith-Based Initiative, and that many of Bush’s White House staff referred to key conservative Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson as “insane,” “ridiculous” and “goofy” behind their backs. For example, in Kuo’s interview with Leslie Stahl on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” he talked about how Bush promised $8 billion for programs for the poor, but only delivered $60 million to the Initiative during its first two years.[2] He also complained that conservative Christians have become too preoccupied with homosexuality, human cloning, partial birth abortion and stem cell research to help the poor.[3] Overall, Kuo not only felt that Bush “cynically used religion for a political end,” but that the name of God could be “destroyed” by politicians who exploit faith for votes.

However, Kuo also made another serious charge against Bush’s Initiative: that funding provided by the Faith-Based Initiative went only to conservative evangelical groups that supported Bush. In one Washington Post article, “Losing Faith in the President,” segments of Kuo’s book are outlined that mention how much the Initiative’s review process was stacked in favor of evangelical Christian groups.[4] In particular, the Initiative’s review panel would consistently rate applications submitted by reputable secular programs lower than applications submitted by Christian programs, such as Pat Robertson's overseas aid organization, Operation Blessing. According to Kuo, “There are, at most, 100 people in think tanks, foundations, major nonprofits and the like who really work on these issues and who support the president. Virtually all of them are very compassionate and dedicated evangelical Christians who tend to be politically conservative. They were supposed to review the application in a religiously neutral fashion. . . . But their biases were transparent.” In one particular passage, Kuo recalls one incident when he met a member of the review panel at a party. He remembered her giggling as she said, “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.”

Unfortunately, this aspect of the Faith-Based Initiative, which validates many critics’ suspicions that the Initiative violates the separation of church and state as articulated in the First Amendment, did not receive as much coverage—it wasn’t mentioned in the “60 Minutes” interview, or in other articles, or even in commentary provided by Kuo himself in such periodicals as Time. Furthermore, the one central issue that hadn’t been covered in the mainstream press coverage of Tempting Faith is Kuo himself. For all of the accusations that he makes—that people of faith have been used by politicians who are indifferent to the poor, that the religious right itself doesn’t care about the poor, that Kuo himself was shocked that conservative Christians would refuse faith-based funding to non-Christian groups—so little has been mentioned about Kuo’s own particular track record with conservative evangelical Christian groups and what that means in the context of his complaints.

Preferential Piety

Kuo’s alleged shock that conservative Christians on the faith-based review board would reject non-Christian applicants for funding makes no sense given his professional past. According to SourceWatch.org,[5] Kuo used to work for such conservative Christian luminaries such as Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and John Ashcroft—all of whom have regularly demonstrated intolerant behavior towards non-Christian faiths. In fact, Robertson was one of the key evangelical leaders whose initial skepticism of the Faith-Based Initiative came from his fear that funding would go to religious minorities such as Muslims and Scientologists.[6] Even Kuo’s own faith-based initiative boss, Jim Towey, even made a derogatory remark concerning pagans back in November 2002 during an online “Ask the White House” question-and-answer session:

Colby, from Centralia MO writes: Do you feel that Pagan faith based groups should be given the same considerations as any other group that seeks aid?

Jim Towey: I haven't run into a pagan faith-based group yet, much less a pagan group that cares for the poor! Once you make it clear to any applicant that public money must go to public purposes and can't be used to promote ideology, the fringe groups lose interest. Helping the poor is tough work and only those with loving hearts seem drawn to it.[7]

One would think that since Kuo worked directly with Christian leaders and Christian groups that had an open bias against non-Christian faiths, why would he be surprised over the preferential treatment of Christian groups by the Faith-Based Initiative? Such a question was never posed in the media’s coverage of Kuo.

Adding to the oddity of why Kuo would be surprised over discrimination happening in the Faith-Based Initiative is that hiring discrimination—namely, whether religious groups that receive federal money would be able to discriminate in their hiring practices so that only people of that particular faith are employed—was one of the more controversial aspects of the Initiative from its beginning. Such controversy was why Bush had to resort to using Executive Orders to bypass Congress and enact the Initiative in the first place. Ironically, many evangelical Christians and conservatives were initially weary of the Initiative because they felt that being forced to avoid hiring discrimination as part of accepting federal funding would somehow ‘dilute’ the effectiveness of their faith-based social service programs. For example, Tom DeWeese, president of the conservative American Policy Center, felt that the Faith-Based Initiative would “separate faith-based groups from their very roots” by enforcing federal restrictions and guidelines on federal hiring practices:

For the almighty federal dollar, I warned, faith-based groups would necessarily become little more than public agencies ... Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas quickly crafted an amendment to the spending bill that would ensure none of the funds appropriated in the bill would go to any group that "discriminates" in job hiring based on religion. The measure was defeated, but it is a harbinger of what's to come. Consider what such hiring restrictions would mean to a faith-based group running a soup kitchen. A Catholic church would have to hire those outside the faith to run the operation which means it would no longer be a Catholic charity operation. It would become just another federally-run soup kitchen … any faith-based organization which participates in the program will be forced to comply with all federal guidelines, including restrictions on hiring; banning placement of religious objects, articles or tracts within the area where the public interacts with the charitable program.[8]

In summary, the Initiative was passed by Bush because Congress did not feel that it did enough to protect against discrimination (among other things) and Kuo supported and participated in the Initiative in spite of this, and then he criticizes discriminatory practices committed by the Initiative in his book. Yet when Kuo first aired his complaints about the Initiative on Beliefnet.com in 2005, the idea of protecting people’s religious civil liberties appeared to have no place in helping the poor:

The moment the president announced the faith-based effort, Democratic opposition was frenzied. Hackneyed church-state scare rhetoric made the rounds; this was “radical” and “dangerous” and merely an “attempt to fund Bob Jones University”... Secular liberal advocacy and interest groups attacked every little thing the faith initiative did. When Executive Orders were issued permitting an organization to simply display a cross or a Star of David, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it “a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government.”[9]

It should be mentioned here that Kuo helped draft for Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition the “Contract with the American Family,” which endorsed a Religious Equality Amendment that was supported by several major Christian groups. What the proposed amendment called for were special exemptions from the guidelines established by the First Amendment, such as student-led prayers over school public address systems, preaching from the Bible at graduations, and tax monies for private religious schools. Furthermore, Section 3 of the amendment would assure that any activities initiated as a result of the amendment could not be construed as violating the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state, leaving religious minorities with no legal standing in situations where their freedoms are violated by the majority.[10] So, under such an amendment, if you are a poor Buddhist, pagan or a Native American practitioner of a traditional tribal faith and live in a community where social services have been largely handed over to evangelical Christians, you would have no legal recourse if you felt pressured into converting to Christianity by the services funded by the government to help you.[11] To bring the argument full circle, it could be safely assumed that Kuo and many, many other evangelical Christians see the protection of religious liberties of non-Christians as a hindrance in their efforts to help the poor. Under this ideology, the poor should be content with the aid they receive and their religious freedoms are a secondary priority (or lower) to receiving social aid.

All of Kuo’s complaining aside, it would appear that his former Christians associates actually got what they wanted—much funding went to evangelical Christian groups that Kuo had worked both for and with, and several reviews of the Faith-Based Initiative indicated that there was little to no federal oversight of the services funded by the government under the Initiative. The Boston Globe reported that from fiscal 2001 to 2005, 98.3 percent of Initiative funding went to Christian groups, and that prime beneficiaries of this funding included Catholic Relief Services and evangelical organizations such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Food for the Hungry, and Operation Blessing, most of which operate programs both domestically and overseas.[12] The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last August, “Faith-Based and Community Initiative: Improvements in Monitoring Grantees and Measuring Performance Could Enhance Accountability.” The GAO report found that “While officials in all 26 FBOs [faith-based organizations receiving federal grants] that we visited said that they understood that federal funds cannot be used for inherently religious activities, a few FBOs described activities that appeared to violate this safeguard. Four of the 13 FBOs that provided voluntary religious activities did not separate in time or location some religious activities from federally funded program services.”[13] Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who requested the report along with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said, “The Bush administration has failed to develop standards to verify that faith-based organizations aren't using federal funds to pay for inherently religious activity or to provide services on the basis of religion.”[14] By this rationale, it could be argued that had Bush provided more money to the Initiative while Kuo worked for it, Kuo would have kept his mouth shut regardless of how many non-Christian faiths the Initiative discriminated against or how often it blurred the line between secular and religious activities.[15]

The Business Connection

Even though the Faith-Based Initiative has been touted as helping to provide an equal opportunity for faith-based groups when applying for federal funding to aid in providing social services, the question that even Kuo himself avoids is whether evangelical Christians really need the extra funding in the first place. While endorsing the Faith-Based Initiative, little is said by conservative politicians and Christian leaders about how the increasing business savvy and commercialization of evangelical Christianity (books, music, movies, merchandising, etc.) is inflating the budgets of its ministries. Periodicals such as Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly have frequently covered the profitability of the growing Christian entertainment market through films such as The Passion of the Christ and novels such as the Left Behind series, while other articles in periodicals such as The Economist and BusinessWeek have examined the business strategies and economic windfalls behind megachurches, massive evangelical Christian worship centers that boast congregations numbering from the thousands to the tens of thousands and include such amenities as large video screens, stadium seating, coffee shops and fitness centers. Some American churches have started referring to their senior leaders as CEOs and COOs (John Jackson, the senior pastor of Carson Valley Christian Centre in Nevada, has even stared calling himself a “PastorPreneur”), and an industry of faith-based consultancies is growing to help with faith-based marketing and outreach.[16] In the case of the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, thousands of new churches are being planned using niche-marketing tactics. “We have cowboy churches for people working on ranches, country music churches, even several motorcycle churches aimed at bikers,” says Martin King, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board.[17] Furthermore, some of the profits from these ventures are tax-exempt. The megachurches themselves tax-exempt and a few states have a sales tax exemption for religious publications[18], an evangelical mass-marketing tactic that earned $3.3 billion in sales in 2004.[19] Last June, the Florida legislature halted the efforts to collect $300,000 a year in property taxes from the Holy Land Experience, a biblical museum and theme park. Even though the Holy Land Experience charges visitors admission ($35 for adults and $25 for children), has toy and gift shops, and provides food such as Goliath Burgers, the park’s founder Rev. Marvin J. Rosenthal nevertheless insisted that his park was a religious ministry and sought tax exemption.[20]

One would think that with such successful business practices and tax-free revenue, evangelical Christians would not need a single dime in support from the government. Yet in the United States, religious organizations are not required to disclose how much they receive in donations, so no one knows for sure if the evangelical groups even require the government money they frequently demand. Even without the Faith-Based Initiative’s limited, ill-defined oversight, what appears to be happening is that evangelical groups are spending federal dollars on human service expenses (medical equipment, building maintenance, etc.), which frees up donated money to purchase evangelical materials and training for evangelism both in America and abroad. Indeed, as California Representative Henry Waxman once said, “The problem with faith-based funding, whether domestically or internationally, is that their orientation is often proselytizing. We may be funding them in one area, but they are using other funds for proselytizing.”[21] So, even if the federal money could be directly, explicitly connected to non-religious purposes, the money still aids in promoting a specific religious faith by buttressing the faith’s pre-existing, undisclosed financial resources.  In fact, evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and the leader Initiative-funding recipient Samaritan’s Purse, admitted as much during an interview: “Of course you cannot proselytize with tax dollars, and rightfully so. I agree with that. But it doesn't mean that we can't build buildings, we cannot provide housing and buy bricks and mortar. The proselytizing or the preaching or the giving out of Bibles, people give us funds for those.”[22]

If our government truly supported religious equality, then it would only provide federal funding for social services provided by interested minority religious groups and let the religious groups that already have access to ample outside sources of funding to fund social services on their own, without a cent of government support. Furthermore, evangelical Christian organizations spend billions of dollars annually on conversion efforts around the world; thus, when the government provides funding to religious groups such as evangelical Christians who strongly advocate converting others[23] and providing little to no funding to religious groups that do not endorse conversions, the government is essentially penalizing other religions for refusing to boost their membership by deliberately siphoning away followers from other religions. In other words, the government endorses through its selective funding a sort of faith-based social Darwinism, that only religions that are willing to engage in conflict with and ultimately undermine other religions deserve to survive and prosper. From this perspective, even though the First Amendment is often cited in articles that discuss Christian evangelism in the context of civil liberties, it feels like Antitrust laws should be invoked instead, since evangelical Christians clearly insist on competing with other religions as if they were rival businesses (while at the same time demanding tax-exempt status) and with the intent of building a monotheistic monopoly to dominate the human spirit around the world. Instead of big businesses unfairly competing with small businesses and ultimately short-changing the consumer, the ‘big religion’ of evangelical Christianity is leveraging its ample financial resources and government influence to unfairly compete with ‘small religions’ both domestically and abroad, ultimately pushing countless ethnic, ancient faith traditions either into extinction or so far into the collective cultural closet that they no longer have any meaningful social, political or economic autonomy.

Of course, men like David Kuo don’t consider the ultimate fate of minority, indigenous religious against such powerful and unrelenting competitors in their support of faith-based government funding—to him, it’s supposedly all about “the poor.” Yet for as shamelessly self-serving as men like Kuo are, the media’s inability (if not willing refusal) to fully address the unmistakable imbalance between evangelical majority religions and non-evangelical minority religions only exacerbates the problem. Simply citing the First Amendment and praising the separation of church and state does not begin to cover the vast scope of injustice that occurs globally when such an imbalance not only goes unaddressed, but is encouraged by our own government. Until that happens, the media will serve as an accomplice for men like Kuo who brand themselves as noble victims of faith, while ignoring the real victims—the minority faiths that slowly die on the sacrificial altar of the majority’s jealous god.



[1] “Christian Defense Coalition: Many evangelicals ‘feel used, taken for granted’ by GOP.” The Raw Story, November 1, 2006. http://www.rawstory.com/news/2006/Christian_Defense_Coalition_Many_evangelicals_feel_1101.html.

[3] Coincidentally, Rev. Joel Hunter recently quit his position as president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America for similar reasons.  See “Longwood pastor quits as coalition president.” The Orlando Sentinel, November 24, 2006. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/seminole/orl-coalition2306nov23,0,5647938.story.

[4] “Losing Faith in the President.” The Washington Post, October 17, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/16/AR2006101601101.html.

[6] “RELIGIOUS RIGHT DILEMMA: CRUISE LOBBYING FOR SCIENTOLOGY FAITH-BASED INITIATIVE GRANTS?” American Atheists, June 26, 2003. http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/faith54.htm.

[7] http://www.whitehouse.gov/ask/20031126.html. See also “Americans United Criticizes ‘Faith Czar’ For Comments About ‘Fringe’ Religions.” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, December 2, 2003. http://www.au.org/site/News2?abbr=pr&page=NewsArticle&id=5007&security=1002&news_iv_ctrl=1349

[8] See “The Faith-Based Initiative is a Trojan Horse,” http://www.newswithviews.com/your_govt/your_government56.htm. In light of Kuo’s accusations that the Initiative showed a bias in favor of Christian groups, DeWeese ironically states that the Initiative will allow “leftist organizations will target any faith-based organization with whom they disagree.”

[10] The Religious Equality Amendment has had an interesting history of its own throughout the 1990s. In its time on Capitol Hill, it had morphed from the Religious Equality Amendment to the Religious Freedom Amendment (RFA). The RFA did not pass, and it was certainly not helped when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was passed and signed into law by President Clinton in 1993, was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1997 in the BOERNE v. FLORES case (see American Atheist’s “RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AMENDMENT FORMALLY INTRODUCED IN HOUSE” at http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/rfamay.htm). RFRA was then re-written to become the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA), which was then re-written again to become the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was enacted by Congress in 2000. It should also be noted that the passage of RLUIPA roughly coincides with the sharp rise of evangelical Christian megachurches in America. For a chronological listing of RFRA-RLPA-RLUIPA articles, go to the American Atheists Web site, http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/rlpalob.htm.

[11] Such attacks by evangelical Christians against non-Christians who would need the legal system to protect their rights against unwanted proselytization continue to this day. One example is H.R. 2679, which passed in the House last September by a vote of 244 to 173. It would prohibit the courts from awarding damages, lawyers’ fees or costs to any plaintiff who successfully sues over possible violations of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, cases involving things like the erection of crosses or nativity scenes on public land.

[12] “Bush brings faith to foreign aid.” The Boston Globe, October 8, 2006. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2006/10/08/bush_brings_faith_to_foreign_aid/.

[14] “GAO report raises serious questions about Bush's Faith-Based Initiative.” Media Transparency, August 2, 2006. http://www.mediatransparency.org/story.php?storyID=140.

[15] Sadly, serious problems with George W. Bush-supported Faith-Based Initiatives are nothing new. In 2002, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) released a report, “The Texas Faith-Based Initiative at Five Years,” which examined the faith-based programs begun by Bush when he was governor of Texas. Findings showed that these programs violated the religious freedom of people in need by denying them a secular alternative and by forcing them to engage in religious activities to receive services; allowed courts to order people to attend unlicensed faith-based programs; and allowed courts to order people to attend unlicensed faith-based programs. The TFN report can be found at http://www.tfn.org/files/fck/TFN%20CC%20REPORT-FINAL.pdf.

[16] “Jesus, CEO.” The Economist, December 20, 2005. http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5323597&no_na_tran=1.

[17] “Earthly Empires.” BusinessWeek, May 23, 2005. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_21/b3934001_mz001.htm.

[18] “Religion-Based Tax Breaks: Housing to Paychecks to Books.” The New York Times, October 11, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/11/business/11religious.html?ex=1318219200&en=26138a4fea562bf8&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

[19] Earthly Empires.” BusinessWeek, May 23, 2005. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_21/b3934001_mz001.htm.

[21] “Together, but worlds apart.” The Boston Globe, October 10, 2006. http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2006/10/10/together_but_worlds_apart/.

[22] “Bush brings faith to foreign aid.” The Boston Globe, October 8, 2006. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2006/10/08/bush_brings_faith_to_foreign_aid/.

[23] As said by Mark Howard, general counsel of World Vision, to The Boston Globe, “We would like everyone to become a Christian, that is part of our faith as Christians.” “Bush brings faith to foreign aid.” The Boston Globe, October 8, 2006. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2006/10/08/bush_brings_faith_to_foreign_aid/.

 
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