FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Rev. D. James Kennedy, a pioneering megachurch pastor who became one of the nation’s most prominent Christian broadcasters and a key figure in the rise of the religious right, died Wednesday, a church spokesman said. He was 76.
Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church spokesman John Aman said Kennedy died at about 2:15 a.m. at his home in Fort Lauderdale. He had suffered a heart attack in December and announced his retirement last month.
Kennedy took the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale from a congregation of 45 in 1959 to a megachurch of nearly 10,000 members today.
He also founded the Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington, organizing Capitol Hill Bible studies and other events that attracted top government officials and encouraged them “to embrace God’s providential purpose for this nation.”
In 1974, Kennedy started Coral Ridge Ministries, his radio and TV outreach arm, which now claims a weekly audience of 3.5 million. Kennedy’s TV show “The Coral Ridge Hour,” airs on more than 400 stations and four cable networks and is broadcast to more than 150 countries on the Armed Forces Network, his ministry says. Last year, the National Religious Broadcasters association inducted him into their 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,” said Frank Wright, president and chief executive officer of the NRB.
Kennedy was also a close colleague of the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other religious broadcasters and was an early board member of the Moral Majority, which Falwell formed in 1979. But Kennedy wasn’t nearly as well-known as other conservative Christian activists, preferring a behind-the-scenes role that helped maintain his independence, said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life.
“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,” Green said. “He was certainly a very influential figure and associate of all of the more prominent Christian right figures.”
In 1996, Kennedy formed the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, to mobilize conservative Christians “on the key fronts of the modern-day culture war,” including marriage, pornography, creationism and “judicial tyranny,” according to the group’s Web site. The center closed earlier this year.
However, Green said the pastor did so only when older religious right groups, such as the Christian Coalition, seemed to be losing influence.
Kennedy, whose church is affiliated with the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America, was much more out front when it came to evangelism.
In the 1960s, when many conservative Christians were still debating how much they should engage the broader culture, Kennedy jumped in. He created Evangelism Explosion International, which trains lay Christians to share their beliefs in every day life.
“That simple goal is now widely adopted in evangelical churches and widely accepted, but at the time he started it, it wasn’t,” Wright said.
Kennedy was raised in Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tampa, master’s degrees from Columbia Theological Seminary and the Chicago Graduate School of Theology, and a doctorate from New York University. He was the author of more than 50 books and also founded two schools _ Knox Theological Seminary and Westminster Academy, a K-12 Christian school near his church.
Kennedy is survived by his wife of 51 years, Anne, and a daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.