The Rev. D. James Kennedy, a pioneering Christian broadcaster and megachurch pastor whose fiercely conservative worldview helped fuel the rise of the religious right in American politics, died Wednesday. He was 76.
Kennedy died at his home in Fort Lauderdale from complications of a heart attack he suffered on Dec. 28, according to Kristin Cole, a spokeswoman for Kennedy's Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. He had not been seen publicly since the heart attack, and his retirement was announced Aug. 26.
Kennedy's voice and face were known to millions through radio and television broadcasts, urging Christians to evangelize in their daily lives, while condemning homosexuality and abortion as assaults on the traditional family. His also preached on the major policy issues of the day, rejecting evolution and global warming.
Kennedy was influential in the founding of the religious right, but did so more often from behind the scenes, as attention focused on his allies, the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
"He was never in the front ranks of evangelical leaders that were also political leaders, but he was active at every stage of the Christian right," said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life who specializes in religion and politics.
Kennedy was a founding board member of the Moral Majority, which Falwell formed in 1979. In 1996, Kennedy created Coral Ridge's political arm, called the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, to mobilize conservative Christians against gay marriage, pornography and what he called "judicial tyranny," among other issues.
Kennedy also founded the Center for Christian Statesmanship, which organized Capitol Hill Bible studies and other events that attracted top government officials. He encouraged them "to embrace God's providential purpose for this nation."
"The Bible says, 'Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the earth,'" Kennedy said in a 1996 interview with The Los Angeles Times. "God should be in every sphere of life: economics, business, education, government, art and science."
From a small start to a megachurch
In 1959, the pastor started his congregation with about 45 members, eventually expanding into a megachurch that claims 10,000 members today.
In the 1960s, when many conservative Christians were still debating how much to engage the broader culture, Kennedy jumped in and created Evangelism Explosion International, which trained Christians to share their beliefs with others.
"That simple goal is now widely adopted in evangelical churches and widely accepted, but at the time he started it, it wasn't," said Frank Wright, president and chief executive officer of the National Religious Broadcasters association.
At the time of his death, Kennedy's influence was beginning to wane, as his congregation aged and new evangelical leaders emerged. Coral Ridge shuttered its Center for Reclaiming America earlier this year.
Still, Kennedy was the author of more than 50 books and founded two schools _ Knox Theological Seminary and Westminster Academy, a K-12 Christian school near his church.
'One of the early visionaries'
Coral Ridge Ministries, his radio and TV outreach arm, claimed a weekly audience of 3.5 million people for all its broadcasts. Kennedy's TV show, "The Coral Ridge Hour," has been airing reruns on more than 400 stations and is broadcast to more than 150 countries on the Armed Forces Network, his ministry says. Last year, the National Religious Broadcasters group inducted him into its hall of fame.
"He was one of the early visionaries who saw that you could use electronic media to extend the four walls of the church to reach a broader audience," Wright said.
Dennis James Kennedy was born Nov. 3, 1930, in Augusta, Ga., and his family moved in 1936 to Chicago and in 1945 to Tampa. Kennedy's father was a traveling salesman whom he described as "long suffering," and his mother was an alcoholic. They were not churchgoers.
Kennedy dropped out of college to become an Arthur Murray dance instructor, but eventually returned to earn multiple degrees, including a doctorate from New York University. He met his future wife, the former Anne Lewis, while teaching dance.
Besides his wife of 51 years, the pastor is survived by a daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy. Both were by his bedside when he died.