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.
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“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.
Dennis James Kennedy was born Nov. 3, 1930, in Augusta, Ga., and grew up in Chicago and Florida. His mother was an alcoholic, and he said he indulged in every kind of sin a young man could in the early 1950s.
A skilled musician who played clarinet and was a marching-band drum major, he attended the University of Tampa on a music scholarship. He dropped out to teach at an Arthur Murray dance studio, where he gave lessons to his future wife.
He reached a turning point in his life in 1953 when he heard a radio preacher say: “Suppose you were to die today and stand before God, and He were to ask you, ‘What right do you have to enter into my heaven?’ What would you say?”
After returning to the University of Tampa for his undergraduate degree, Dr. Kennedy enrolled at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1959. He did graduate work in theology and, in 1979, received a doctorate in religious education from New York University.
After settling in Fort Lauderdale, he saw his congregation of 45 dwindle to 17 before he began to win converts.
“You know what?” he confidently told his small flock in 1960. “I believe we can change the world.”
In the early 1970s, when a schism split the Presbyterian Church, Dr. Kennedy became a leader of a conservative faction known as the Presbyterian Church in America. His Coral Ridge ministry continued to grow, and in 1974 the Rev. Billy Graham spoke at the dedication of a new church building, topped by a 303-foot spire. The church would eventually occupy a sprawling campus, with a K-12 school, theological seminary and broadcasting studio.
Dr. Kennedy wrote 65 books over the years and was an early leader of Falwell’s Moral Majority. Although other religious broadcasters such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart had spectacular falls from grace, Dr. Kennedy lived modestly and was never tainted by moral or financial scandal.
Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Anne Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale; and a daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy of Delray Beach, Fla.