Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Preferring sincerity to reality

A blogospheric efflorescence was sparked yesterday by this Amy Sullivan piece in The New Republic (curiously, two weeks after it was published). Ms. Sullivan was talking up the newly-published book Tempting Faith by David Kuo, a Christian conservative who is frustrated over the Bush Administration's lack of follow-through on its campaign promises to promote evangelical values in national policy.

One might think that evangelical voters would get fed up one of these days with how little bang for the buck they're getting from the GOP, and would kick the tires of the Democratic Party. That's certainly Amy Sullivan's hope, that the Democrats would highlight Kuo's story of Bushian betrayal, but her fear is Dems are in the throes of "theocracy hype." Anyway, it's a relatively minor point she's making, it's a poor time to be making it (one week before the midterms, which are not being fought on social-compassion terms), and some of the bloggers and commenters miss her point anyway. The best takes on Sullivan, I thought, were (1) Matthew Yglesias wondering how you make nice with people who think you're going to hell, and (2) Scott Lemieux wondering what's the payoff: how many evangelical voters are really amenable to a marketing pitch from the Democrats, in the absence of major policy concessions on stem cells, abortion, et.al.

It's a shame in a way, because what people ought to be reading in TNR this week is Alan Wolfe's review of Tempting Faith. Wolfe is knowledgeable about evangelicals and where they fit in the landscape of American religions. At the same time, he avoids mealy-mouthed PC-ness and gives us a really sharp takedown of Kuo and the credulousness he exemplifies:

Tempting Faith is in its way a significant book, not for what it teaches about the Machiavellians in the White House--surely there are no longer any surprises to be had on that front--but for what we learn about young, idealistic, and phenomenally naïve Christians such as David Kuo. It is not an analysis of a mentality, but a documentation of it. To be sure, there is no doubting Kuo's sincerity. His faith in God is unwavering. He is truly committed to good work on behalf of the poor. He did eventually leave the White House, and with the publication of this book he testifies to the cynicism that he found there. But his recovered righteousness is itself a kind of alibi. For people like him served as enablers for one of the most immoral presidencies Americans have ever endured. If we are to know what makes Bush so bad, we need to know more about why people who are so good could ever have been seduced by him.

The way David Kuo was seduced, first by John Ashcroft, later by George W. Bush, was that each leader had a "testimony," a personal story about how he had felt God's power in his life. Testimonialism is a powerful paradigm in evangelical life; having a testimony is considered a mark of sincerity and trustworthiness. These testimonies are often a little too good to be literally true, and besides that, the willingness to be charmed by these heartfelt stories is crippling for a political operative.

If theocracy is not a looming danger to our democracy, bathos might be. For every evangelical leader spewing hate, there are ten evangelical followers who believe that all you need is love. David Kuo is one of them. He brought to the White House neither money nor mission, but only mush. ...His intentions were not malevolent. They were oblivious, which may be worse.

I like me some Alan Wolfe. He is a public intellectual of a high order, even from his perch in academia. If you missed his Washington Monthly piece from a few months ago, "Why Conservatives Can't Govern," do yourself a favor and read it.

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