The Passing of Another Christian Right Leader

John ArmstrongCurrent Affairs

D. James Kennedy, the famous pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, passed away earlier this week. Dr. Kennedy was well known to multitudes through his Evangelism Explosion ministry and his worldwide radio and television outreach. He was much better known to the culture-at-large for his efforts in founding the Moral Majority and the Christian right.

Much of Dr. Kennedy’s actual involvement with the Christian right was from behind the scenes (so to speak), leaving to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell the major head line roles. John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, noted this point by saying that Dr. Kennedy "was active at every stage of the Christian right." He was a founding board member of the Moral Majority and in 1996 created the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. His goal was to mobilize conservative Christians against gay marriage, pornography and what he called "judicial tyranny." Kennedy also founded the Center for Christain Statesmanship, a ministry I know even more about first-hand, which organized Capitol Hill Bible Studies and other events to attract top government officials. He encouraged leaders to "embrace God’s providential purpose for this nation."

The basis for Kennedy’s public positions was quite well stated when he told the L. A. Times in a 1996 interview: "The Bible says,’Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the earth.’ God should be in every sphere of life: economics, business, education, government, art and science."

For me there is a great deal of irony in the public ministry of Dr. D. James Kennedy. I met him on four occasions, none of which were likely to be remembered by him. On one occasion we simply chatted, and on the second we shared a meal with about four other people in an informal group setting where we were all speakers. On a third occasion we were together at an event hosted by Coral Ridge. I gave a workshop on revival (Kennedy was not present for it) and argued that many secondary issues hindered the Church from seeking God for renewal. An elder had a long chat with me, after my talk, about how Coral Ridge was itself in danger of the very things that I warned about. The time that Dr. Kennedy might have been likely to remember me was when I flew to Florida to give the commencement address at his school, Knox Theological Seminary. He sat behind me on the platform. His comments, following my address, were very few and not that memorable to me personally. (For all I know the sermon could have been terrible given the travel problems I had getting there on time.)

I have several friends who knew Jim Kennedy well and served on his staff. They all speak warmly of his character and insist he was, fundamentally, a very shy man. Another former employee of mine knew him as his pastor when he was a child and speaks very kindly of his visits in his parents home.

So I have nothing much to say about the man as a person except to underscore positive things about him. He clearly made a great impact on many and I believe his greatest contribution will surely be the model of evangelism that he gave to multitudes of people. He led many people to the knowledge of Christ and taught thousands how to do the same. As Stan Guthrie said in his Christainity Today tribute Dr. Kennedy had "a passion for souls." Guthrie worked for Kennedy and adds, "All who knew him, however, talked most not about his views on abortion or school prayer but about his integrity and warm pastor’s heart." He adds, "You may not agree with all of Dr. Kennedy’s priorities. But it’s hard to argue with his passionate commitment to see people come to Christ. It was a commitment this pastor’s heart lived–and died–by."

But this is not the whole story of Kennedy’s life and legacy. This is why I referred to my sense of irony. I first heard of D. James Kennedy when Evangelism Explosion got really big in the 1970s. His two famous questions about eternal life became standard fare for me in talking to people, though I always felt they were a bit "canned" in a rather simplistic sense. Then I got some of his sermons and heard his strong "anti-Communism" message again and again. When his involvement in the Christian right began I started to pay attention to his worldview material. This is where the supreme irony now lies for me. I quite strongly reject his approach to government and politics though I do agree, at least in principle, with his statement about "God being in every sphere of life." This is nothing more, or less, than a basic Kuyperian view of culture and the dominion of God over all things. As a Reformed Christian I strongly agree with this statement. The problem is that I disagreed with how Kennedy used politics, often as a primary tool for change, and how he sought to change the culture from his pulpit. He sought to bring about cultural changes in very predictably conservative ways that I do not believe reflect the best of the Reformed tradition or the real politik of this fallen world. His agenda came across as that of a feisty fundamentalist who used Reformed arguments very simplistically.

I also disagreed with how he narrowly conceived of influencing the culture at so many points. His ideas were sometimes very good but he was, at heart, a preacher who built, as Larry Eskridge noted in Christianty Today, "an impressive empire." Of this I do not see how there can be serious doubt.

I think this business of "empire build[ing]" is what troubled me the most about a lot of those who developed and led the Christian right during my lifetime. There is something here that shows a profound lack of serious reflection. There is also something here that looks and feels a lot like idolatry when people support it. (I am not calling Dr. Kennedy an idolater at all. Read all the positive things I have already noted, please.) The way evangelicals reject the idea of the papacy and then create their own role models who command our respect and make us their followers (disciples) is appalling to me. I have no idea how Dr. Kennedy personally felt about all of this but his numerous ministries all indicate that he did build a considerable empire and he understood well that he had a huge following. (He also authored more than 50 books, most of which will be unread in five years!)

Writing the above could sound like an attack on the personal life of Dr. Kennedy. It is nothing of the kind. If anything it is posed for readers as a serious question for the entire evangelical movement and for our various churches and how they have functioned. Face it, we are not self-critical at all. We love the prophets of the Bible but reject those who question the way we do things. The more conservative the person and the empire the more we will likely resent the questions a naysayer asks. (Consider the history of National Religious Broadcasters and how this has played out in the evangelical world of prime-time preachers.) This is what makes it harder and harder to do the evangelism Dr. Kennedy so much loved. The current generation, and I refer to those under 35 in age, despises our inability to deal with criticism well and they see us as entreprenuers, not guileless friends who care deeply about people, especially if we disagree with them and their cultural choices. We think more often in terms of taking prisoners and recovering culture as a direct attack on others and their beliefs. In the end we gain a little ground but lose a lot more in the big picture of things.

Should we try to change culture? Yes, for sure. The problem is what method(s) will we employ in doing it? Kennedy used the methods of his generation. They worked with that generation, to a limited extent. I do not think they work with the next generation and thus I believe he will be remembered for some good things (evangelism) and hopefully forgotten for others (the Christian right and cultural war ideology). Clearly he loved Christ. For that I regard him as a brother that I was glad I personally met along the way. I do not think, however, that we could have ever forged a meaningful friendship given the way we respond to people and issues. That, as I have said, is ironical. We had a theology that was fairly similar and even had the same view about abortion and gay marriage but we did not share the same view about how to handle these issues in the public square and I would like to see a host of other issues addressed with more serious Christian reflection.