boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Rev. D. James Kennedy; was key in founding of religious right

MIAMI - 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 yesterday. He was 76.

The Rev. Kennedy died at his home in Fort Lauderdale, according to Kristin Cole, a spokeswoman for his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. The cause of death has not been determined, but Rev. Kennedy had not been seen publicly since he suffered cardiac arrest Dec. 28.

The Rev. Kennedy's voice and face were known to millions through radio and television broadcasts. He urged Christians to evangelize in their daily lives, while he condemned 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.

He was influential in the founding of the religious right, but did so more often from behind the scenes, as attention focused on his allies, Reverends 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.

The Rev. Kennedy was a founding board member of the Moral Majority, which Falwell formed in 1979. The Rev. Kennedy created Coral Ridge's political arm, called the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, in 1996 to mobilize conservative Christians against gay marriage, pornography, and what he called "judicial tyranny," among other issues.

The Rev. 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."

The pastor had started his congregation in 1959 with about 45 members, eventually expanding into a church that claims 10,000 members today.

In the 1960s, when many conservative Christians were still debating how much to engage the broader culture, the Rev. Kennedy created Evangelism Explosion International, which trained Christians to share their beliefs.

"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, chief executive of the National Religious Broadcasters association.

At the time of his death, the Rev. Kennedy's influence was beginning to wane, as new evangelical leaders emerged. Coral Ridge shuttered its Center for Reclaiming America earlier this year.

Still, the Rev. Kennedy wrote more than 50 books and founded two schools - Knox Theological Seminary and Westminster Academy, a Christian school for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Coral Ridge Ministries, his radio and TV outreach arm, claimed a weekly audience of 3.5 million people for all its broadcasts. The Rev. 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 said.

"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 in Augusta, Ga. His father was a traveling salesman whom he described as "long suffering," and his mother was an alcoholic. They were not churchgoers.

The Rev. 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.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES