Ex-Bush Aide: White House Officials Called Evangelicals 'Ridiculous'

For the White House, the charges coming their way this morning in the new book "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction" must seem anything but heaven-sent.

The accusations are coming from an unlikely source: David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which channels federal dollars to religious charities.

Kuo says the office was misused to rally evangelical Christians, the Republican base voters, to get GOP politicians elected. Not only that, Kuo claims Bush officials mocked evangelical leaders behind their backs, alleging that in the office of political guru Karl Rove they were called "the nuts."

"National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as 'ridiculous', 'out of control,' and just plain 'goofy,' " Kuo writes.

"You name the important Christian leader, and I have heard them mocked by serious people in serious places," Kuo told "60 Minutes" Sunday night.

That mockery, he added, included the Rev. Pat Robertson being called "insane," the Rev. Jerry Falwell being called "ridiculous" and comments that Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family "had to be controlled."

James Towey, Kuo's former boss in the faith-based initiative office, suggested Kuo is bearing false witness.

What the book seems to be "describing is kind of a personal animus against evangelicals and a kind of personal insulting behavior," Towey said. "President Bush would never have tolerated that, and I never saw it in four and a half years."

Kuo says that he never heard President Bush himself say anything negative about Christians, but he believes many Christians have put too much faith in political leaders.

"I think the Christians have viewed this president, with a lot of help from the White House, as a pastor-in-chief, as opposed to a commander-in-chief," Kuo said today on "Good Morning America."

"And Christians need to understand that there's a difference between George W. Bush who is a great man, a good, compassionate man, and President Bush, a politician."

Kuo says it should come as no surprise that any administration plays politics.

"But my point is even in this White House, you are loved for your votes, not anything else. That's what you need to know," Kuo said. "I say it within this broader argument, Christians have put way too much emphasis on politics."

Jesus as Precinct Captain

Towey allowed that "perhaps junior staffers and interns" may have made such a comment.

"Maybe David heard something, I don't know," he said. "You might hear a comment from a staff person, when they saw a religious leader, say something about Islam -- or something after Katrina where you would kind of have your eyebrows raised saying, 'Why would they say such a thing?' "

But at high levels, he insisted, with "decision-makers in the White House and the president, there was respect for the evangelical leadership and for the other faith leaders with whom the president met. … People like Chuck Colson and Rick Warren and Dr. Dobson, they're friends of the White House. We may not always agree with them, but, uh, there was a real mutual respect."

Kuo also claims the White House used the taxpayer-funded Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to hold events designed to rally the evangelical conservative GOP members in 20 targeted races in 2002.

Kuo says Ken Mehlman -- then the political director of the White House, now the chairman of the Republican National Committee -- embraced the idea, though he wanted to make sure such events didn't seem to originate from campaigns. Kuo told "60 Minutes" that Mehlman was "thrilled."

"He just whipped off a bunch a names of particular races and said, 'We need to go there, there, there, there and there,'" Kuo said.

In his book, Kuo writes that Mehlman said, "It needs to come from the congressional offices" so it didn't look too political.

"We'll take care of that by having our guys call the office to request the visit," Mehlman said, according to Kuo's book.

Kuo says Republicans won 19 out of those 20 races, and he credits Preasident Bush's victory in the key swing state of Ohio that year "to the conferences we had launched two years before."

It was "spiritually wrong," Kuo told "60 Minutes." "You're taking the sacred and you're making it profane. You're taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy."

Mehlman could not be reached for comment, but Towey, who left the White House to become president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., said it is not a fair portrayal of history.

"Over four years, we visited more Democrat districts than we did Republican ones," Towey said, adding that he met with two Senate Democrats -- then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- in the midst of tough races in 2002.

"Everyone was trying to make some political hay or find some political benefit from the faith-based initiative," he added. "But my job was to keep the focus on the poor. And the president made it clear to me that I was to stay away from the politics, and we did. I met with more Democrat senators than I did with Republican congressman in 2002."

Asked about the book, White House press secretary Tony Snow said Friday that he asked Rove about Kuo's charges and, "Karl made the same point I did, which is, 'These are my friends: I don't talk about them like that.' "

Snow also took issue with Kuo's charge that the Office of Faith Based Initiatives was used for partisan political purposes.

"The president has been really clear: 'This is not to be used for politics. This is to be used for compassion,' " he said.

Kuo left the White House in late 2003 after a brain tumor and subsequent seizure caused him to have a serious car accident. He writes that his brush with death caused him to re-evaluate his priorities and realize that core Christian values have been severely compromised by allying with the GOP. The reason for this? Kuo writes: "Every politician needs evangelicals. And like a teenage boy on a date with a beautiful girl, they will say anything and everything to get what they want."

Kuo's solution is to tell Republicans, "We are fasting from politics for a season."

He proposes a two-year fast from politics -- not including voting -- and urges Christians to instead direct their energies toward practicing compassion and their money towards charity.

"We need to spend more time studying Jesus, and less time trying to get people elected," Kuo writes.

Kuo told "60 Minutes" that the "message that has been sent out to Christians for a long time now that Jesus came primarily for a political agenda, and recently primarily a right-wing political agenda -- as if this culture war is a war for God. And it's not a war for God, it's a war for politics. And that's a huge difference."

He said he wrote the book because he had "this burden on my heart that … the name of God is being destroyed in the name of politics."

He said "of course" the White House would attack him, perhaps by saying, "He's really a liberal," or, "Oh, maybe that brain tumor really messed up his head."

Kuo is not the first official from the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives to question the sincerity of the White House officials regarding the program, and to accuse them of being overly political. In a MEMO to journalist Ron Suskind in October 2002, the first director of that office, John DiIulio, wrote that the White House was more interested in writing a bill that would never pass the Senate but could be used for political purposes.

"[T]hey basically rejected any idea that the president's best political interests -- not to mention the best policy for the country -- could be served by letting centrist Senate Democrats in on the issue. … They winked at the most far-right House Republicans who, in turn, drafted a so-called faith bill (H.R. 7, the Community Solutions Act) that (or so they thought) satisfied certain fundamentalist leaders and beltway libertarians but bore few marks of 'compassionate conservatism' and was, as anybody could tell, an absolute political non-starter. It could pass the House only on a virtual party-line vote, and it could never pass the Senate.

"Not only that," DiIulio continued, "but it reflected neither the president's own previous rhetoric on the idea, nor any of the actual empirical evidence that recommended policies promoting greater public/private partnerships involving community-serving religious organizations. I said so, wrote memos, and so on for the first six weeks. But, hey, what's that fat, out-of-the-loop professor guy know; besides, he says he'll be gone in six months. As one senior staff member chided me at a meeting at which many junior staff were present and all ears, 'John, get a faith bill, any faith bill.' "

Kuo recounts similar anecdotes in his book, with various officials asking him to prepare anything faith-related for public consumption, with little apparent concern for the substance of the matter, in Kuo's recounting of events.

Upon leaving the White House, Kuo wrote President Bush a nice farewell letter, which both Snow and Towey -- who succeeded DiIulio -- referenced in order to challenge his credibility.

"When he left the White House, he had very nice things to say about the president and his compassion and his perseverance, and also about the fellows on the White House staff," Towey said. "He said that we work with integrity and honesty and that's all written. And now you hear charges that are based on impressions and things like that. I'm puzzled by it."

Said Towey, "It's between the author and God on why he's saying what he's saying."

One matter seems certain among all this back-and-forth: With just over three weeks until Election Day, the White House would rather not be discussing whether any officials there ever called evangelical leaders "nuts."

Chris Strathmann, Quiana C. Burns and Philip Wood contributed to this report.