Following a heated election season, divisions between left and right seem more entrenched than ever. Yet one leader, an African American woman from a broken home, sees a way to advance the common good through government. Her perspective affirms core principles—along with a gentle critique of her fellow conservatives.
“Americans are compassionate people,” says Kay Coles James, president of The Heritage Foundation, A leading think tank in Washington, D.C., founded in 1973. “We want to reach out and help those who are desperate and in need. Sometimes we make what I call ‘unforced errors’ in terms of how we even talk about the things that we want to accomplish.”
Having served at pregnancy centers and pro-life advocacy groups, vulnerable lives in the womb are paramount to James’s way of thinking. So are families who subsist on welfare, like her mother once did to make ends meet.
James, who has served in multiple leadership positions at conservative and pro-life organizations, including seven years on Focus on the Family’s board of directors in the 1990s, was invited last December to take on the role of president of The Heritage Foundation, the nation’s most influential think tank. Its scholars’ work often impacts proposed laws in Congress and executive orders, according to the University of Pennsylvania. In January, its annual “Global Go-To Think Tank Index Report” of 7,815 public policy groups ranked Heritage the most influential think tank in the world. More than 70 former Heritage staff now serve in key positions in the Trump administration, and James serves as an informal advisor to the White House on a host of issues.
“Kay has access because of the strategy President Trump has to produce results for evangelicals,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland minister and member of the White House faith leaders advisory board for the past two years. “Many people decide what they think based on what The Heritage Foundation thinks. They have a big megaphone.”
A winsome presence behind the scenes of recent policy battles, James, 69, makes fewer headlines than louder voices on Capitol Hill. Even so, last April Politico named her as one of 20 women on its “Power List”—alongside several congresswomen and other public figures.
Yet few know her personal story.
“Overseeing a team of more than 300 scholars, analysts and researchers requires inspirational leadership,” James tells Citizen. “I can look back over my life and see the different opportunities the Lord has given me to practice and hone those skills.”
Finding Christ, Facing Down Bias
The fifth of six children, Kay Coles grew up in a public housing unit in Richmond, Va. She and her five brothers were raised initially by her mother, though she soon moved in with an aunt and uncle.
“I had a father who suffered under the disease of alcoholism, and as a result of that was not able to maintain a job,” says James. “He could be physically abusive. My mother’s sisters stepped in and helped her raise us children.”
It wasn’t the only mistreatment James faced as a child. At 12, she and 25 other black students were part of what newspapers called an “ambitious experiment” to integrate an all-white public middle school in 1961. The white boys there acted like thugs.
“I’ll never forget the day one of them made good on his threats,” wrote James in an editorial published in dozens of media outlets in August. “I was descending a large stairway when he pushed me from behind—hard. I fell down the stone stairs, landing at the bottom with my shins and back badly bruised. Not done, the bully kicked my books all over the hall as his friends heckled and laughed at me.”
Some classmates showed concern. James recalls how a white girl offered a hand up and walked her to the nurse’s office.
Like that girl in school, her mentor Joyce Ranson, now 90, has often helped James process grief and anger over the years.
“Bless Kay’s heart, her life as a young woman was not easy,” says Ranson. “She has often faced discrimination. But I have never had a conversation with Kay James, ever in my life, where she was vindictive towards whites. You know there were times when she could’ve been!”
That backbone stems from her vibrant evangelical faith. James’ family has a strong Christian heritage, including a great-grandfather who was a prominent minister. Yet early in her life, the Coleses regarded church as merely a social function—a place to get married or buried.
When James was a senior in high school, however, she saw a fiery young preacher on the black-and-white television in the family living room. It was Billy Graham sharing the Gospel at an event. When he gave the invitation for people to walk down front, James got on her knees in front of the TV.
“That’s when I actually made the profession of faith,” she tells Citizen. “I gave my life to Christ and decided that I wanted him not only as Savior but as Lord.”
Seeing Beyond Lines That Divide
A year later, Kay Coles enrolled at Hampton University, an historic black college 90 miles from her Richmond home. The world opened up for her in new ways.
It was a hub of the black power movement, emphasizing economic uplift for minorities. She wore her hair in a natural Afro, complemented by wire-rimmed glasses and a dashiki. Many blacks and whites stood together against segregated schools, diners and other facilities.
“Black college campuses were where leaders could come, get people engaged,” and take action, says James’ daughter, Elizabeth Level, 42. “It was instrumental in what was going on in the country at the time. Being there, she got to see what the power of her voice could do.”
Even then, she spoke about more than politics. James became a student leader with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the campus ministry founded in 1941.
Ranson went to watch one of those speeches. “Kay was this skinny little girl yet so impressive,” she remembers. “I’ll never forgot what she spoke about.” She entitled her testimony, “My Heart, Christ’s Home.”
Helping minority families out of poverty would become James’ emphasis, but from a different standpoint than her peers. She completed her degree in education just as debates around abortion rights began to consume the nation in the early 1970s.
When she was 24 and fresh out of college, Kay Coles met Charles James at her first job as a manager at C&P Telephone Company in Roanoake, Va. They married in 1973, and three children—Chuck, Elizabeth and Robert—soon followed.
James began to step into public policy as a means to improve society. She went from volunteering at a local crisis pregnancy center to giving pro-life speeches.
During a family discussion on the issue of abortion, James’ oldest son asked her what she was going to do about it.
“Maybe I’m the one who’s called to speak up and say something,” she replied.
In 1985, James was invited to take part in an abortion debate on a nationally televised BET talk show. Her appearance impressed the National Right to Life Committee, which hired her as director of public affairs. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the National Commission on Children.
James’s conservative political associations seemed a far cry from her days at Hampton. “A lot of it has to do with her influences,” says Level of her mother’s ideological shift. “She had people who were willing to help her and work together. My mom does not care whose ‘team’ she’s on, she just wants to solve problems.”
Living Out Virtue in the Public Square
Decades later, James has a lengthy track record in public policy. Both Bush administrations appointed her to key positions. Yet her approach is not defined strictly by Republican ideology.
“Our faith influences our thinking—or it should, if it doesn’t!” says James. “Hopefully, it also influences how I treat and respond to my fellow human beings. Only Christ can help us bring a certain amount of compassion and love to the public policy arena.”
In 1994, Virginia Gov. George Allen called on James to serve as the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources. “One of the tasks he asked me to take on was to study and then implement welfare reform in Virginia,” she recalls. “I brought to that discussion a desire to improve the lives of poor people.”
Welfare reform policies are notoriously complex, a balancing act between ensuring those in hardship receive help while empowering them to help themselves. Even as 14 state agencies comprising more than 17,000 public employees reported to her, James found time to interact personally with those in need.
One day a woman called her office and began to yell. “How dare you cut my money!” she fumed.
James calmly asked: “Do you have a job?” When she said she didn’t, James replied, “Well, let’s do something about that.” She hired the young mother, who later graduated from Regent University.
The woman’s journey illustrates how James differs from common reform approaches. “Sometimes we as conservatives don’t talk about these issues in appropriate, compassionate and compelling ways,” she says. “The language we use about education or health care opens the door for criticisms that we really don’t care.
“When I see Millennials who are so passionate, I want to say to them, ‘You belong over here with me.’ “
Battles Raging Over Life and Liberties
As president of The Heritage Foundation, James continues to enlighten people with higher truths—whether in media interviews or private meetings with public figures.
Though James is not part of the White House faith leaders’ group, Jackson and those who meet nearly every month to dialogue with President Donald Trump often see her in White House meetings.
“Her influence has increased over the past year,” says Jackson. “Publicly, Kay separates out her informal role as a White House adviser with her professional role of being the leader of a major think tank.”
Indeed, she references the Trump administration at arm’s length. “We are so encouraged by the boldness of this president to get things done and improve the lives of people,” she tells Citizen. “I’d prefer to see a different and better tone, but I’m very excited about the substance of his policies.”
Heritage scholars set high expectations for the current administration, releasing a list of 334 specific recommendations before Trump’s inauguration. Two years in, their own tracking reveals two-thirds of the policy changes they’ve suggested are underway in the executive branch. However, they recognize much remains to be done.
For example, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced in September it was canceling a contract with a firm involved in fetal tissue research, James tweeted, “Canceling one contract is a small step in the right direction. But it’s not enough. @HHSGov should issue a moratorium on using taxpayer dollars for research using fetal tissue from aborted babies, and Congress should make the ban permanent.”
Viewing complex policies with moral clarity, James and her expert team have an impact on millions of dollars—and lives.
“As President Trump fine-tunes and shapes his unwavering commitment to life, Kay and others have been a kind of coach [on] certain fundamental decisions,” Jackson says.
Vocal critics on the left and right continue to hound James, who continually seeks out common ground. To believers who advocate seclusion or neutrality on battles over government policies, she has a ready answer honed over decades.
“I don’t think, if you are a Christian and living in America, you have an option,” she says. “It is our responsibility and civic duty to be engaged in the public policy and political arenas.
“We have to stand—then when that’s done, we stand some more.”
For More Information:
Learn more about The Heritage Foundation at heritage.org. View The University of Pennsylvania’s the “Global Go-To Think Tank Index Report” by Dr. James McGann.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.