Politically Powerful TV Evangelist D. James Kennedy

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Rev. D. James Kennedy, 76, a prominent television evangelist whose political influence extended to the highest levels of the nation's leaders, died Sept. 5 at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He had complications from a heart attack suffered in December.

Dr. Kennedy took over a congregation of 45 people meeting in a school cafeteria in 1945 and built it into the 10,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. A onetime dance instructor who was handsome, polished and eloquent, he became a popular figure in religious broadcasting through his sermons on "The Coral Ridge Hour," one of the nation's most widely syndicated religious programs, reaching as many as 3.5 million people a week.

Although he may not have had as prominent a public profile as Pat Robertson, James C. Dobson or the late Jerry Falwell, Dr. Kennedy wielded considerable power among evangelicals. Two years ago, Rolling Stone magazine called him "the most influential evangelical you've never heard of."

In 1994, he launched the Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Capitol Hill outreach group that offered Bible studies to members of Congress and their staffers and presented each new member with a gilded-edge, leather-bound Bible. Its first Christian Statesman of the Year Award went to then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who later was named attorney general.

"I want to bring the Gospel of Christ and the moral standards of God to the hearts and minds of people in Washington," Dr. Kennedy said.

He maintained he was not motivated by partisan politics, but his church-run organizations distributed voters guides that invariably supported Republican causes. Many Republican presidential and congressional candidates sought his blessing, and President Bush consulted him before deciding to run for president in 2000.

"God, in his providence, has given us a Christian nation," Dr. Kennedy said, "and it behooves us as Christians to prefer and select Christians to rule over us."

Espousing deeply conservative social views, he often preached against abortion, homosexuality, liberal judges, stem-cell research, the teaching of evolution and secular values. In 2005, he was a leading voice in the effort to keep Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years, on life support.

He urged his evangelical followers to act out their beliefs in the political arena, and his influence could sometimes be divisive. When his church announced last week that Dr. Kennedy would not return to the pulpit -- he preached his final sermon Christmas Eve -- the Rev. Harold McSwain, pastor of a United Church of Christ in Fort Lauderdale, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "I've had to deal with a lot of wounded people coming to me in tears and in anger because of the kind of hate he fosters."

In 1962, Dr. Kennedy founded Evangelism Explosion International, an evangelistic training organization that helped spread the word about his growing church. He launched many other groups over the years, including the Center for Reclaiming America, designed to mobilize conservative Christians on what he called "the key fronts of the modern-day culture war."

One of those fronts was his never-ending battle against homosexuality and what he saw as a "gay agenda." His groups offered reeducation "cures" to troubled gays, whom Dr. Kennedy described as "little boys looking for a daddy to love them."

"Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost," he said.

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