Florida mega-church founder and "Religious Right" pillar D. James Kennedy died on September 5. His death did not get as much media play as Jerry Falwell's earlier this year. But Kennedy, though more taciturn in manner than Falwell, was no less assertive in trying to "reclaim" America for Christian beliefs. The passing of the two pastors marked a generational shift of evangelical Christian leadership in America.
A fellow founder of the Moral Majority, Kennedy was one of the earliest of America's mega church pastors and widely watched television preachers.
From his 10,000 member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Kennedy reached millions across several decades with his television ministry, publications, and teaching materials. His "Coral Ridge Hour' was broadcast on 400 stations and in 150 countries. He authored 50 books and founded two schools.
An entrepreneur and American original, Kennedy was raised by non-church going parents. His father was a traveling salesman and his mother was an alcoholic. Kennedy originally dropped out of college to become an Arthur Murray dance instructor. But his Christian conversion drove him back to seek multiple degrees and towards a 50 year career focused on preaching the Gospel and promoting a Christian cultural worldview. Kennedy also had his theological quirks. He spoke of God's use of the stars and planets as providential signals in a way that almost legitimized astrology and raised eyebrows among fellow conservatives.
Sometimes Kennedy was called a "soft Christian Reconstructionist" who allegedly wanted to return America back to the days of theocratically Calvinist New England. But he was never really a theocrat. More accurately, like other conservative religionists, Kennedy desired a return to a culturally pre-1960s America (minus racism and segregation), where abortion and pornography were restricted, where school children prayed together, and where nearly every American shared at least a nominally Christian faith.
Sometimes Kennedy overly romanticized America's Christian past. His Calvinist forbearers three centuries ago never thought that even 17th century New England was safely Christian, instead believing that their country was always under threat of judgment. In truth, even robust Christians must admit that the most pious eras in history were a complex mix of wheat and tares. Kennedy portrayed America's founding fathers, and other key figures like Abraham Lincoln, as pious patriarchs. Unashamedly, Kennedy would quote from the hagiographic biographer Parson Weems when making the case that George Washington was a devoutly orthodox Christian. If Kennedy's historical perceptions were sometimes exaggerated, they were understandable reactions to the secularization of American history.
Writing for the Religious Left website Sojourners, author Diana Butler Bass declared Kennedy to be an icon of the old Religious Right, which strove unsuccessfully for a restoration of ostensibly Christian America. "Kennedy believed in Christendom, an American Christian nation divinely designed as the leader of a global spiritual empire, and in creating a Christian politics toward that end," Butler wrote. She compared him unfavorably with supposedly ascendant new Christian voices who celebrate the end of Christendom in favor a new counter-cultural Christianity.
Citing "emerging" Methodist thinkers Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon at Duke University (Willimon has since become a United Methodist bishop), Bass approvingly quoted their farewell to Christendom: "The gradual decline of the notion that the church needs some sort of surrounding 'Christian' culture to prop it up and mold its young, is not a death to lament," they claimed. "It is an opportunity to celebrate."
As Bass described, Hauerwas and Willimon "believe that Christendom, the ideal of a Christian nation, was historically wrongheaded from the start. '"The church,' they argue, 'doesn't have a social strategy; the church is a social strategy.'" She observed that older evangelical leaders wanted Christendom back. But the emerging leaders, influenced by Hauerwas and Willimon, are "more interested in strengthening a confessing church based on the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's alternative community in Hitler's Germany."
According to Bass, younger Christians want a post-Christendom church that is a "community of pilgrims joined together in practices of faith and justice" that will "recreate Christian political theology" in America. "D. James Kennedy, RIP," she concluded. "And while we are at it, let us bury American Christendom, too."
This analysis by Bass seems a little harsh against old evangelical chiefs like Kennedy and Falwell. Surrounded by the chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, the America of the 1950s must have seemed a reassuring memory to them. And in fairness to both television preachers, they both in an orthodox fashion saw the Christian walk as ultimately a sojourn through a foreign land, no matter how ostensibly friendly the surrounding culture may have seemed in the past.
Stanley Hauerwas and his followers disdain Christendom, and they like the Bonhoeffer model because they see the American "empire" as not altogether dissimilar to the Third Reich against which the Lutheran theologian struggled to the point of martyrdom. Old evangelicals like Kennedy may have overly romanticized Christian America. But baby boomer theologians and ethicists like Hauerwas have themselves overreacted by demonizing America's past and present.
America was never fully Christian in thought or behavior. But James Kennedy fondly recalled some of old America's more admirably Christian attributes, and he sought to perpetuate their memory, with the hope that modern Americans might follow by example. His was an imperfect labor of love and not entirely unsuccessful. May he rest in peace indeed, and may his better ideas live on.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.