Interview with Russ Kuykendall
By Paul Boatman
How did you happen to choose a career in politics?
I did not really choose a political career. I chose to live a life in ministry. I was raised on a farm near Grande Prairie, Alberta. My family loved the church and wanted us to live a Christian life in interface with our wider community and events of the world. Serving Christ was my life’s goal. I have tried to stay with that goal. Bible college in Calgary, seminary in Illinois, ministry in the local church, service to Christian agencies, and service in the Canadian government . . . all of that is in service to Christ.
How did the political service develop?
It was not a simple process. While doing interim ministry in Alberta, I campaigned as a volunteer for a political candidate who was championing values I saw as important. My volunteer work drew enough attention that after the 1993 federal election, my candidate, who had became her party’s “whip,” invited me to work in her office.
So for 20 years, I have served in politics, government, and public policy in various roles in Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa. But whether working in the church or in public affairs, I view my labors as Christian service, being what the apostle Paul described as ministers of God in government (Romans 13:4).
What is the specific nature of this public service ministry?
It has been as varied as ministry in the church. Early on I was a manager of communications for a parliamentary candidate. I organized production and distribution of 450,000 pieces of literature, produced campaign video and radio ads, and guided my candidate in public appearances and in resolving problems. This ran parallel to my experience in church work in that we were trying to persuade people to join us in a cause we highly valued. Later, it involved organizing and producing nationally telecast campaign events.
More recently, I served as a director of policy, advising a federal cabinet minister who was responsible for several billion dollars of public spending.
You thrive in the influential role.
Don’t be too impressed. This is “the glamour of politics”: setting up and taking down tables and chairs, stuffing envelopes, making coffee, taking out the garbage. Not unlike church work, there’s a lot of grunt work.
But your pastoral skills were significant political skills.
Yes, in many ways. My Bible college and seminary education advanced my research and communication skills, which helped me to investigate important issues and articulate both problems and possible solutions. During that first campaign I was still preaching at Taber, Alberta. Because I had one foot in each camp, my friends joked that I had to remember which meeting should be closed with prayer and which one should end with a fervent call to vote for reform.
Where did things go next?
Moving from the campaign trail to Parliament, my title was “liaison officer.” I gave support to our party’s Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons committees, and helped the “whip” keep the party’s MPs assigned, informed, and accountable. Once I got to Ottawa, Parliament Hill had its own aura. I helped in the forming of our party’s major speeches, policy “rollouts,” and in the development of legislation.
In such a setting, do you sense that you are doing something God wants you to do?
Most certainly. I became deeply aware of how hostile the environment was to an intentionally Christian worldview. There were other Christians in this arena, but some chose to be very discreet about revealing their Christian commitments. If they acknowledged faith, it was often with a disclaimer that their Christianity did not influence their public lives as secularists.
I wanted to offer a different model, not by “wearing my faith on my sleeve,” but by being openly Christian. When I got into research for legislation, I realized that my education that equipped me to do good biblical exegesis and critical analysis was a springboard for trying to look honestly at every option before making a judgment about the best course of action. My colleagues appreciated what I brought to the table.
Have there been particular legislative issues where Christian morality really pushed you?
That’s not a simple question. Obviously there are high-profile moral issues on both sides of the border. We clearly must address those and the parallel issues that arise. But it is not enough to focus only on those select issues. The whole direction of government needs to be accountable to the God who authorizes it.
Can you illustrate?
When I started, our government was in terrible financial shape with spending out of control and mounting indebtedness. In the mid-’90s, The Wall Street Journal compared the Canadian dollar to the Mexican peso. There were hints of a crisis similar to what Greece has recently been experiencing. I was (and am) convinced that the Christian ethos and the biblical narrative argue against spending our resources in a way that leaves a heritage of burdensome debt to our children and grandchildren. Joseph’s wisdom of famine and plenty needs to be applied.
Our minority party influenced budget reforms that strategically cut spending, reduced the government payroll, and restored confidence in our currency. Obviously, this process was complex, but it was driven by ethics, not just practicality.
Russ, you know your neighbors on the south side of the border. Do you think the principles you live by apply to Christians in American politics?
Three of my four grandparents were born American citizens. What happens in the U.S. matters to us, and to the world. But politics in any nation tempts people to stake out positions on foundations that are more political than ethical. The church in North America may be entering a period akin to the Babylonian captivity. As with God’s people in Babylon, we may be called to “seek the welfare of the city” that has rejected godly values (Jeremiah 29:7, English Standard Version).
Is there anything you would like American readers to understand about the Restoration Movement in Canada?
The movement in Canada is as old as in the U.S. It reached its high-water mark around 1900 with around 250 congregations. We went through the same 20th-century splits. Today, there are about 1,100 members in around 25 Disciples churches, about 5,000 members in 125 a cappella churches, and some 9,000 members in 65 independent congregations. Perhaps the movement grew more slowly in Canada, because we were more heavily “churched,” with stronger denominational loyalties. Today, only about a fourth of our citizens are in church on a given Sunday. That problem is also an opportunity.
I’m cautious about asking this: Would you say that Canada is an open mission field right now?
Yes, in the same way that the U.S. is an open mission field. Our popular culture and cultural leaders are not Christian. The gospel needs to be preached, practiced, and lived. The distinctively evangelistic message of the Restoration Movement is the ideal platform.
Paul Boatman is chaplain at Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.