Question & Answer
Kay Coles James

     Kay Coles James is Senior Fellow for the Citizenship Project of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., an organization dedicated to restoring a strong ethic of citizenship and civic responsibility in America. Most recently Mrs. James served as Dean of the School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. From 1994-96 she was the Secretary of Health and Human resources for Virginia Governor George Allen. Mrs. James also served under the Bush and Reagan administrations in several positions, among them Associate Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Health and Human Services Department.

     A graduate of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, she serves on the boards of several corporations and organizations and is a frequent commentator and lecturer on a variety of domestic issues. She is the author of Never Forget, her autobiography, and Transforming America: From the Inside Out.

     In the following interview, Mrs. James discusses how critical it is for all Americans, especially Christians, to become more involved in their government.


Q. You left Regent University to found the Citizenship Project. What do you hope to accomplish?

A. We have already had overwhelming response to the Project, which is a passion of mine. We want to encourage greater participation among the American people in the public policy process. When this nation began, it was clearly an experiment. The Founding Fathers knew success depended on an informed citizenry who would participate in the process. We would not survive if people were apathetic, disengaged, and cynical. Yet, today, each election cycle shows plainly that a few people are making the decisions that shape the culture for the rest of us. I believe the burden rests squarely with God's people, because there are enough Christians out there to make a significant difference in the political arena, but they are not participating.

    Despite some progress in the past five years, we continue to debate the appropriate role of the government in our lives. NOW is the time to recommit ourselves to the responsibilities of citizenship in this great nation. Each of us is called to go out and rebuild our families and communities.

    Make no mistake -- Washington may be able to bring about political change, but it can't bring about cultural change. That happens only when we demonstrate to our neighbors what real love and compassion look like. It takes place as we stand firm in our communities on the issues in which we believe. Changes in the political system don't change a person's heart. We must work for change on several fronts - spiritual change, cultural change, political change - and they all require different strategies.

    If we truly want to transform our culture, it can be done only from the inside out, one family and one community at a time. And that means that the most important people in this cultural change are not career politicians or celebrities or even ministers, but mothers and fathers.

Q. What do you feel government's role is in our lives?

A. I am not anti-government; however, I believe the government's role should be efficient and limited. In the past 60 years, we have ceded to the government much of what used to be the appropriate responsibility of the community, such as caring for the poor, the elderly, the environment. This has had a disastrous impact upon our families and communities. While providing a safety net or basic services may be an appropriate role for government, it is now doing what was once done by individuals, civic associations, and churches.

    The government simply cannot do some things well. In all my years of public service I have never seen a government program that can heal a broken heart, restore a relationship, redeem a soul, or offer a person the opportunity to turn his life around and go in a different direction. That must come from the church, and when the church does not respond, it isn't done. And the modern church has abdicated its responsibilities to care for the poor, the weak, the widows, and orphans.

    Alexis de Tocqueville called our private institutions - families, churches, civic institutions, fellowships, and schools-the immune system of our nation, the "values-generating" institutions. He warned that if they failed or if the government attempted to step in and fill their roles, our nation would be in grave danger of decline and eventual collapse. He was right; our need is great, and I fear we are just beginning to reap the fruit of our bitter harvest.

Q. What is a Christian's role in government?

A. I believe as Christians we are called to be salt and light. We're also told to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. What belongs to Caesar? If you live in a participatory democracy, that's your vote, your intellect, your time, your initiative, and your resources.

    A heated debate now rages about whether Christians should be involved in government. Some Christians want to back off and disengage; I think this is inexcusable. We went through a period where Christians said, "I'm retreating to my church and not getting involved in politics or any of that dirty stuff." Now government is making policy that greatly affects our families, communities, and the churches to which we retreated.
Instead of waiting for political change to occur in Washington and our state capitols, we must renew the individual's obligations in a just society.

    I like to remind those who would disengage that, apart from the fact that they are Christians, they live within the borders of one of the greatest nations on earth. As a result, they have a responsibility as citizens to be involved, over and above their responsibility as Christians. They don't have the right to disengage.

Q. What would you say to the jaded Christian who has given up on making a difference and has disengaged?

A. I would say to them that we're in this predicament because too many good people have thrown up their hands and walked away. An old proverb says, "Evil prevails when good men do nothing." That is not an option in a participatory democracy. If we truly want to turn the tide back, we must recognize our responsibility and become involved.

    The challenge for us today is to ask what we can do for our country, our communities, and our families. Instead of waiting for political change to occur in Washington and our state capitols, we must renew the individual's obligations in a just society. Only by embracing our core beliefs and working for change in each of our lives can we truly see regeneration.

    But cultural change is neither quickly nor easily achieved; in some cases it can be measured only in generations. Yet, even though the cost is high, the result will be the real transformation of America.


     Ronald Reagan once noted, "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Below are ten easy steps that anyone can take to begin cultural change. Give them a try - you might be surprised by what could happen in our country if you do.

  1. Vote regularly and in an informed manner. A single vote often makes the difference. Take four friends with you to the polls on election day or provide transport for an elderly neighbor.
  2. Talk to your children about what it means to be an American. Take time as a family to read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Tell them what freedom means to you.
  3. Hold elected officials accountable after the election. Call or write your elected officials. Thank them for the principles upon which they ran and remind them to be consistent. And if they aren't, then consider running yourself.
  4. Be informed. Read the papers every day. Don't rely on any single source of news. Stay informed even about topics that don't seem to affect you (eventually they probably will). Watch C-SPAN. Subscribe to magazines and periodicals.
  5. Get involved. Make your voice heard and your presence felt through professional organizations, political campaigns, and civic groups.
  6. Pick an issue that affects your family and become an activist. If you are interested in education policy (and everyone should be), attend a few school board meetings. Much of what will affect your child is determined here. Even if you homeschool, decisions made here could affect you.
  7. Get on mailing lists. Most cost you nothing, and the information you receive can make all the difference.
  8. Volunteer. Don't let the government do what you should be doing as a good citizen. Find an organization, church group, or issue you care about and see what a difference one person can make.
  9. Contribute. Back up your commitment and time with your financial support. Give-even a little-to those organizations and candidates that are working for causes in which you believe.
  10. Share this information with three friends. If everyone reading these ten steps shared them with three friends next week, in one month millions of Americans would be involved!

     For more information, contact The Citizenship Project at The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002. Phone: 1-877- USA DUTY (872-3889). Or email Kay at her website at rq.kayjames.org.




Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 1
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

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Last updated 4-5-2000.