Kuo Vadis: The Path to Nowhere, Faithfully

Print More

In 1896, when Polish patriot Henryk Sienkiewicz published his epic historical novel Quo Vadis, the devout Catholic knew where he was going.

Not so David Kuo, author of Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (Free Press, $25). The book is a confessional account of Kuo’s three years as deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, ending in December 2003.

For close observers of President George W. Bush’s signature domestic program, Kuo’s book contains little that is truly new and even less that is surprising. Still, when the guy who actually co-piloted this still-unfolding fiasco makes a public mea culpa, his account of the damage done by this placebo anti-poverty effort masquerading as Christian compassion deserves the attention of youth policymakers and service providers.

The initiative was a key part of Bush’s presidential campaign. In a July 1999 speech in Indianapolis, Bush invoked “the goodness of America and the boundless grace of God.” He went on to promise $6.3 billion in tax credits and $1.7 billion for programs, both to help the poor. None of this new spending came to pass – except, as of last year, $125,594,965 spent through the Compassion Capital Fund, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

Kuo complains that a lack of support from Karl Rove and other senior White House staff on the right, and from liberals “virulently opposed to President Bush’s initiative,” squeezed much of the political muscle out of the venture. “We were left,” he writes, “with a motley crew of poor ministers, tiny charities and small advocacy groups.”

Motley or not, the crew had access to $24.8 to $48.6 million per year in the Compassion Capital Fund — a sort of GOP piggy bank used mostly to reward core supporters of President Bush, especially boosters of the faith-based initiative.

In its first year of grant making, 2002, an eclectic mix of 21 nonprofits received a total of $24,773,117 to serve as intermediary organizations, according to ACF. About one-third of the winning groups had poor track records as service providers but close ties to the GOP.

For example, the National Center for Faith-Based Initiatives (NCFBI) in West Palm Beach, Fla. (home of the hanging chad), won $700,000 one year and a total of $1.75 million over a three-year period. The group’s president is Bishop Harold Ray of Redemptive Life Fellowship Church, a graduate of Oral Roberts University and a Notre Dame-trained lawyer.

The church website describes the NCFBI as “a cross-denominational collaboration of more than Twenty Thousand churches.” Preaching to his African-American congregation shortly after Bush announced the faith-based initiatives at a White House event he’d attended, Ray declared, “I was functioning in divine predestination. God hooked it up.”

Kuo describes Ray as “one of the most vocal voices supporting the president during the 2000 election.” According to the group’s 2004 federal tax return, NCFBI received $510,524 from the government and a paltry $1,043 from all other sources.

Money Changers in the Temple

While politics and faith are not unimportant in Washington, the real currency of power is money changing hands. The Compassion Capital Fund, administered by Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, is where the faith-based initiative’s only genuinely new money changed hands. Grant making decisions are by law competitive, and eligible entities (in this case, nonprofits) are asked to respond to program announcements that spell out the requirements and scoring weights in each program subcategory. This guides reviewers (typically about six people) in ranking qualified proposals before and during grant review sessions.

In general, people with knowledgeable backgrounds in the matter at hand populate the panels and are barred from reviewing grant applications from their home states or other grant seekers that pose a conflict of interest. It’s not a perfect system, but it at least tries to produce that level playing field that the faith-based initiative was purportedly launched to ensure. And it’s a helluva lot better than the congressional earmarking, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey system that has spread cancer-like through federal youth services programs.

Kuo writes that the playing field for the CCF was tilted hard right: “The group that gathered to review the application was an overwhelmingly Christian group of wonks, ministers and well-meaning types.” By law, “They were supposed to review the applications in a religiously neutral fashion, and assign each applicant a score on a range of 1-100. But their biases were transparent.”

Bishop Ray’s group scored 98. The Sterling, Va.-based Institute for Youth Development, led by Shepherd Smith, whom Kuo identifies as “a former [Pat] Robertson staffer,” scored 94.67. “Even more bizarre,” according to Kuo, “a new organization called ‘We Care America’ received a 99.67 on its grant review.”

The White House’s first faith-based director, John Dilulio, aided by Kuo, authored an August 2001 report, “Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service Programs.” In it, Dilulio claims “the nonprofit organizations that administer social services funded by Washington are typically large and entrenched, in an almost monopolistic fashion.”

The carefully vetted grant reviewers chosen by Assistant Secretary Horn were up to a monopoly-busting task worthy of an 1896 anarchist. Kuo recounts a conversation with a panelist after the CCF grant reviews. With a giggle, she recounted, “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.”

With reviewers like that, it’s miraculous that Big Brothers Big Sisters of America scored an 85.33.

Notes Kuo, “Public/Private Ventures, arguably the nation’s leading organization for maximizing program efficiency, scored only 78.” Neither group was funded in 2002. But don’t pity P/PV, the Philadelphia-based group has received $21.7 million from the Department of Labor for Ready 4 Work, a prisoner re-entry program operating at 18 sites. Writes Kuo, “It was obvious that the ratings were a farce.”

Another CCF winner is We Care America. It was set up, Kuo writes, with “a staff of three, all from the world of Washington politics, and all very Republican. They were on tap to receive more than $2.5 million.” The group has an office on Capitol Hill, led by Pam Pryor, a former Oklahoma reporter who worked in California on statewide election issues for the National Rifle Association. (Its other office is in Lansdowne, Va.) The group says it works closely with the White House faith-based office to educate and engage the Christian community on the Faith-Based Initiative. We Care’s vice president of grants and development, Pastor David Mills, earned $114,268 in 2003.

In October 2000, a month before Bush’s successful White House bid, We Care America had assets of $6,924, including $2,635 in cash on hand, according to its federal tax returns. Four years later, its income totaled $3,226,537.

Among its offerings to the estimated 20,000 people who attended various conferences sponsored by the faith-based office in hopes of gaining grant support is a $249 DVD and training manual titled, “The Community & Faith-Based Grants Institute.” One thing covered in the course: “How can I get my congressman to help my grant request?”

Apparently, We Care’s staff flunked that part of the training course. In 2003 alone, it spent $84,332 on “Earmark Consulting” with Patton Boggs, one of Washington’s top earmark-chasing lobbying groups, according to its tax returns. That fact was duly reported by Boggs to the secretary of the Senate in August 2004. But We Care lists the expenditure as consulting and claims not a cent was spent on lobbying from 2000 to 2003. While thousands of children and youth-serving entities have won congressional earmarks, We Care’s prayers went unanswered, despite the group’s close ties with Presidential Prayer Team (more than 2.8 million strong, says its website) and Pray the Vote.

Last July, We Care attempted to launch We Care 4 Youth, for those “ready to see America (and the world) transformed by a revolution of action and compassion.” The event was cancelled, and so was the job of Monty Hipp, We Care’s youth program leader. Now he’s set up the C4 Group, a Mentoring Children of Prisoners grantee of ACF.

Not So Fast

Kuo reluctantly concludes, after three years of overwhelming evidence of President Bush’s “brazen deception,” that the entire faith-based exercise is a fraud. One initial liberal supporter of Bush’s initiative is Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C. “I supported it, still do,” says Wallis, pointing to the success of a similar initiative in the United Kingdom, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair. Even before Bush became president, Wallis traveled to Austin, Texas, to urge that the initiative be nonpartisan and set real goals, “like halving child poverty,” Wallis says.

Today, Wallis declares that “the program is over; it failed,” and inquired if there was still a White House official running the initiative. There is, one Jay Hein, appointed to the job in August.

“The irony” of the faith-based initiative, says Wallis, “is that the Bush Administration did it so badly they’ve taken the idea off the table.”

Kuo’s solution is that real compassionate conservatives should “fast, let’s fast” from politics for a season. That advice was published a month before the Election Day rout of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Did Kuo’s advice, for example, keep 9,329 conservatives from the polls in Kuo’s state of Virginia? That’s the margin that sent Sen. George “Macacawitz” Allen back to the state to do penance.

In 1996, Kuo dreamed of setting up a think tank to “help charities that really did help the poor.” Displaying considerable ignorance of recent research, he fancied himself as figuring out, for example, “Did kids’ grades improve after time spent in an after-school program?” After this honest but bridge-burning book, Kuo’s best job prospect may be working for the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a relentless critic of the White House initiative.

With the Democratic-controlled Congress poised to conduct aggressive oversight after the faith-based initiative’s six-year free pass on Capitol Hill, look for at least two years of partisan and culture-war clashes over the program set up by a president who promised to be “a uniter, not a divider.”

Contact: White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (202) 456-6708, www.fbci.gov; Administration for Children and Families, www.acf.hhs.gov; National Center for Faith-Based Initiatives, www.ncfbi.org; We Care America (703) 554-8600, www.wecareamerica.org.