Book Excerpt: David Kuo's 'Tempting Faith'

ByABC News via logo
October 15, 2006, 1:46 PM

Oct. 16, 2006 — -- David Kuo, the former deputy director of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has released a new book, "Tempting Faith."

The book expresses frustration with the White House's alleged lack of enthusiasm for the program.

The Bush administration has denied accusations contained in the book that evangelical Christians were courted for votes but referred to dismissively behind closed doors.

The following excerpt details the effect Christianity had on Kuo's early life as he developed a love for politics.

Chapter One: God, Politics, and Fishing

I've never known life without God, politics, or fishing. Eventually I would fuse them all.

First came fishing. A mile down the road from our house just north of New York City was a little lake. Hot, humid summer days were spent on a bridge with my father, emaciated earthworms, and an old saltwater reel and pole. Those days were always fishless -- but full. A son loves fishing with his father.

Over time I ventured there alone, discovering holes under a fence that opened up a world that felt like home. To the objective eye it wasn't much: several hundred yards of rocky shoreline, tall weeds, and scrawny trees. For me, though, there was comfort behind the fence and in front of the water. The fence kept out the world and the water held fathomless possibilities.

Fishing was a repeated act of trust. I trusted that there were fish where I was throwing lures and I trusted that I would have the sense to tug at the right time when a fish took the offering. I trusted that the thing at the end of the line was a prized largemouth bass and not some stinky carp or catfish. My trust was rewarded often enough that I believed this cycle would never end. That, I suppose, is similar to faith, and may explain why Jesus loved fishermen so much.

Growing up, I knew Jesus was the Son of God. I just wasn't quite sure what that meant. A picture of him, blond and doe-eyed with long robes and holding a little lamb, hung in my parents' bedroom. I remember lying on their bed one afternoon when I was little, looking up at him. He seemed sweet. He was pretty. That's all I thought about him for the longest time. My mother, a liberal Baptist, talked about him some, but mostly she sang about him. She sang about him when preparing dinner or washing dishes or doing most anything else. She had a high, beautiful voice. The verses got lost in the singing but not the choruses. I still occasionally find myself doing dishes and humming "How great thou art."

My mother's voice was also slightly haunting and sad. She had good reasons -- the Great Depression, World War II, her father's early death. If I had gone through all of that, I might have ditched God altogether. But my mother chose God, again and again. And though there was great sadness to her faith, there was a great richness, too. She knew what suffering was like and knew God was refuge, fortress, sustainer, and comforter.

My father, however, seemed passively hostile to faith. He was born in China in 1922 and grew up there. His mother's feet were bound, his father had a concubine, and he was given opium as medicine. Of course there wasn't really much of a youth. At sixteen he ran away from his home in the middle of the night before the Japanese overran his hometown near Shanghai. For the next eleven years he fought. First there were the Japanese on the Burma Road, in one of the more horrendous theaters of fighting of the war he would know. This was the land of the bridge over the river Kwai and the "forgotten army." Then there were the communists in the north. These were the years that held his life's horrible hidden stories.

To me, as a child, he felt so tough and so strong and so huge that he didn't seem to need God. Of course, he may have questioned whether God even existed. Or his pain may have been so great that he had little place for the Prince of Peace. I didn't know. He didn't talk about it.

Then again, perhaps he just disliked our little United Methodist Church, as did my two older sisters. It had a stereotypically awful Sunday school replete with felt cutouts of famous biblical scenes. Moses was green, David was blue, Goliath was purple, and Jesus was brown. The services were worse, but then again I was a kid. The pastor, large and red-faced in billowing robes, scared me. Years later, when someone said God smiled, I laughed. God frowned.

But there was another side to my childhood faith. There was Mom reading me the Psalms in the evenings. She showed me stories of daring and adventure: a boy taking on a giant with a stone; a man thrown into a den of hungry lions, only to befriend them; three friends thrown into a furnace of fire, yet untouched by the flames. Church was dull but God wasn't.

Throughout my childhood -- until high school at least -- I never heard words like "saved" or "accept Jesus" or "salvation." There was just God and Jesus, somehow one and somehow different.

Then there was politics. Mine came mostly by osmosis. I remember at the age of five charging through the screen door, breathless from my twenty-third game of baseball with neighborhood friends, in desperate need of water. For weeks on end, it seemed to me, the rest of the family had been gathered around our small black-and-white television set watching something riveting. I paused and saw my first-ever congressional hearing. It made no conscious impression; nor did any of the news about this thing called Watergate.

Far more powerful was my mother's own past political activism. In college, in California, she felt God calling her to serve the poor. She studied nursing at Emory University. She hated it. She told us about the discrimination against blacks by whites, the ghetto housing with no running water or electricity, and the regular denial of medical care to even critically ill black patients. Then there were the stories about her summer living in rural southeast Georgia on an interracial Christian commune. It was a farming collective where men and women of different races lived together to prove that such things were possible. There were shotgun blasts in the middle of the night, cross burnings, and racial hatred of the nastiest kind. She left the South and pledged never to return.

Out of these stories I picked up two inviolable truths. Good people fight against poverty. Bad people live in the South. The first lesson has never left me. With regard to the second, it took me years to see that my mother left Georgia with a certain bigotry of her own.

I consolidated all these teachings in my first political letter. It was fall 1976 and I was eight:

Dear President Ford,

I hope you don't lose to Jimmy Carter. He is a peanut farmer from Georgia and he is stupid. You are the President of the United States and you were an Eagle Scout. I know you can beat him.


David Kuo

Ford lost, but I survived and lived to have my revenge with Ronald Reagan in 1980. At the age of twelve, I adored his military buildup. While my mother and sisters all marched together for the nuclear freeze, my father and I made models of fighter jets and bombers, and that was enough for me to support Reagan, at least in the manner of a twelve-year-old. Reagan's social service cuts and seeming indifference to the poor did trouble me, however. So by 1984, when I was still two years shy of voting age, I volunteered for Gary Hart's presidential campaign and genuinely thought Walter Mondale had a shot at becoming president. I was my mother's son, after all.

At no point in my youth did politics impact God, or vice versa. Politics seemed to be about the practical -- keeping America safe, stopping crime, rescuing the needy -- and God seemed to be about the spiritual: love, heaven, felt cutouts. They were complementary, not intertwined; the secure bookends of my childhood.

My sense of God changed in high school. Jeff Brown was the proximate cause.

Jeff was in his mid-twenties, thin and mostly nondescript. His brown hair, pale white skin, thin nose, and mustache were standard issue, as was his height, weight, and build. He was nice, moderately funny, moderately serious, and moderately smart.

He came from Wisconsin, a perfectly nice state. He wasn't charismatic in an inspiring kind of way. Neither did he possess the kind of indomitable force of will that draws people to a person. He wasn't William Wilberforce. Still, there was something enthralling about him. The Bible says that after Moses had glimpsed just a shadow of God's back, he was radiant and needed to shield his face for days. Jeff had a kind of dim version of that glow. "Dim" might sound derogatory, but in comparison to the other minister in the church, to most of the congregation, to my high school teachers, and to virtually every other grown-up I knew, that dull glow seemed like otherworldly radiance.

He came to our church to start a "youth group." I had never heard of such a thing before but I gave it a shot. The first night he gathered us all together, told us we would do all sorts of fun stuff, and handed us a questionnaire. Most of the questions were pretty basic: "What are your favorite subjects in school?" "What music do you listen to?" "What do you like doing in your free time?" Then there was number 10.

"Question 10. Let's say, God forbid, you were killed in a car crash going home tonight and you ended up at heaven's gate. God asks you why he should let you in. What do you say? (P.S. Drive safely!)"

"Die and go to heaven?" a fellow teenager, named, coincidentally, Christian, mumbled. "Don't we all go to heaven?"

Another girl exclaimed, "Oh! I remember the answer to this one." She turned to our brand-new youth pastor and said, "Is it that thing you said the other day about accepting Jesus or something weird like that?"

Our youth pastor smiled and said, "Yeah, something weird like that."

I laughed. How silly. How do you accept someone? I knew all about accepting. My father was a college professor. Colleges accepted people. People don't "accept" people.

Besides, what does accepting Jesus have to do with heaven?

Everyone knew the answer to the heaven question. If I died and had to stand at the pearly gates explaining why I deserved to be admitted, I would have to tell God I had lived a fairly decent life and leave it at that. I wasn't worried. At seventeen I hadn't killed anyone or pillaged any cities. Sure, I bought that Playboy with Madonna in it. But those hairy armpits were punishment enough. I feared Jeff might be nuts.