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The Calling

The Rev. D. James Kennedy Runs One of the Biggest, Wealthiest Churches in the Country. Preaches to Large TV Audience and Heads A Worldwide Ministry. What's Next for this Ambitious Presbyterian? Clue: He's Sending Missionaries.

July 28, 1996|PAT JORDAN | Pat Jordan is a freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. His last piece for the magazine looked at Miami's Los Angeles connection

In the nucleus of the evangelical empire he built from scratch, the Rev. D. James Kennedy bats away the notion that his achievements have made him susceptible to the first deadly sin.

"Pride," says Kennedy with a thin smile. "Jumping on poor St. Thomas again, as if he hasn't been beat up enough." His smile fades, and he clears his throat. "Yes, of course, I suffer all the temptations. But God has given me a thorn in the flesh. A football injury from high school. My neck causes me excruciating pain all day. Ha! And people ask me about pride!"

He sits back in a chair behind his tidy desk, a mahogany replica Early American, in his office at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and smiles. Kennedy is a distinguished-looking man of 65, with graying hair cut short and parted neatly, left to right, so that it swoops across his forehead like the peak of a baseball cap. He is dressed in an impeccable double-breasted blue suit with a textured blue silk tie and a matching blue silk foulard dripping out of his breast pocket.

Behind him is a wall-to-ceiling breakfront adorned with photos of his wife and daughter and himself, standing alongside former presidents Reagan, Bush and Carter. The rest of the large office is decorated with sofas, coffee tables, prints, kerosene lamps, all Early America replicas, all so spotlessly new and perfectly matched that they look as if they were purchased as a complete set, yesterday, off a showroom floor. There isn't a nick or scratch on them, as if history could be preserved inviolate. Kennedy is quick to mention that the furniture was a gift from a wealthy parishioner who felt Kennedy's previous furniture was too shabby for a minister.

"Presbyterians are very demanding of their ministers," he says. "They like their ministers educated. By my nature, I am a rational man. I am fascinated by logic and philosophy. God hasn't given me the ability to play basketball, but God has given me, ahem, certain intellectual abilities demonstrated, ahem, by my many summa cum laude graduations." He clears his throat and lowers his eyes. "I am humbly grateful to God."

Kennedy, referred to as Dr. Kennedy even by those who know him personally, heads up the burgeoning religious powerhouse that is Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. The Rev. Billy Graham's Decision magazine called the church one of the "five greatest" in America. It is also one of the largest (8,500 members) and wealthiest (its members once raised $1 million on a single Sunday). Kennedy claims he is the only evangelical minister with a legitimate PhD, earned after nine summers at New York University.

The church is becoming increasingly influential with the family values crowd: When Dan Quayle was vice president, he stopped by to speak on his way to golf dates in Palm Beach. Graham has appeared there. Jack Kemp, former New York congressman and Housing and Urban Development secretary, calls Kennedy "an inspiration."

Kennedy's sermons are carried on more than 500 TV stations, reaching nearly 25,000 cities nationwide, according to Coral Ridge, and dozens of foreign countries. Kennedy's "The Coral Ridge Hour," a combination religious-secular sermon seen each Sunday locally on KCAL-TV, reaches an estimated 2 million American viewers, he says, and is the "third- or fourth-highest-rated" religious program on the air.

The church also includes his Evangelism Explosion International, a school started in 1962 for ministers around the world who are taught Kennedy's preaching techniques, which he describes as "a resonant, rich, cultivated baritone voice [that] can magnetize an audience to the message." The ministers carry the preaching style back to their homelands to convert others, who become, in Kennedy's words, part of the legion of "stealth Christians" who are going to remake the world.

He pauses, clears his throat, and adds, "Did you know that Billy Graham has reached 185 nations by television and in person, and we have reached 211? It's the most significant event of my lifetime."

Kennedy may be one of the most influential evangelical ministers in the world, yet he is relatively unknown outside evangelical circles. He laughs. "Recognition! Have you read the kind of recognition other evangelicals get?" he says. "Pictures of their mansions on 20 acres in the tabloids. Thank the Lord I've escaped that, ahem, animus."

He is referring, of course, to such ministers as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, whose credibilities were all but destroyed by revelations of sexual or financial misconduct.

Kennedy's reputation remains unsullied. "Oh, people have been digging," says Jeffrey Hadden, a University of Virginia sociology professor and author of two books on such ministers. "But they haven't come up with nary a rumor. Jim Kennedy is totally untouched by scandal. He is what he looks like: a widely respected conservative Christian opinion-maker."

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