The Rev. Dr. D. James Kennedy, the Christian Right leader Rolling Stone magazine described as “the most influential evangelical you’ve never heard of,” died yesterday in Florida of complications from a heart attack. His passing, only months after the death of Jerry Falwell, signals the generational shift of leadership now occurring in evangelical Christian circles.
Unlike most people, I had heard of D. James Kennedy. In the early 1970s, he created the popular program “Evangelism Explosion International” to encourage churchgoers to be more assertive in witnessing to their neighbors. My then-congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona, used the program to great success. Kennedy was a hero to us—helping us all to be grassroots Billy Grahams and to double the size of our small church.
In 1979, Kennedy’s interests took a turn. As a founding board member of Falwell’s Moral Majority, he increasingly directed his preaching toward politics. His opinions on individual issues did not differ from other Religious Right leaders. His strongest contribution to the movement was his passionate belief that America was founded as a Christian nation and developing media to carry that message across the globe. “Our job is to reclaim America for Christ,” he proclaimed, “whatever the cost.” His preaching, politics, and public ministry flowed from this central idea: to restore Christian America.
And it is at that very point—the idea of a Christian America—that evangelicalism, along with American Protestantism more generally, is changing.
Born in 1930, Kennedy lived in a world so distant from our own that it may well have been possible to believe in a Christian America. Churches stood on every public square; members of the clergy shaped public opinion on every issue; schoolchildren uttered Protestant prayers and read Protestant scriptures daily. Many people from Kennedy’s generation remember—or imagine they remember—a vanished Christian world, an ordered society with Protestant faith at the center. Much of the Religious Right’s energy derives from a desire to restore that world, or to “reclaim America for Christ.” To that end, Kennedy mixed evangelicalism with classical Reformed theology and a kind of soft Christian Reconstruction, creating the spiritual fuel for a right-wing political and media empire that meshed with the longings of a certain age.
While Kennedy’s generation was ascendant, new Christian voices began questioning such nostalgia. “Sometime between 1960 and 1980,” wrote Methodist leaders Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, “an old, inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh, new world began.” They recounted “the end of Christendom” in Greenville, South Carolina (the home of Bob Jones University), when the local Fox Theater opened—for the first time ever—on a Sunday in 1963. “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.”
The contrast between Kennedy and Hauerwas and Willimon is dramatic. 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. 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.”
The contrast defines the generational shift regarding attitudes toward Christendom. Older evangelical leaders, for the most part, want Christendom back. Emerging leaders, influenced by theologians such as Hauerwas and Willimon, are less interested in “reclaiming” Christendom and more interested in strengthening a confessing church based on the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s alternative community in Hitler’s Germany. For younger Christians—evangelicals and progressives alike—Kennedy’s nostalgic world bears no resemblance to their own. The vision of a post-Christendom church, a community of pilgrims joined together in practices of faith and justice, energizes their hope for the future. As the Christendom generation passes away, a post-Christendom faith will, most probably, take its place. That may take some time, but it will eventually recreate Christian political theology in America.
D. James Kennedy, RIP. And while we are at it, let us bury American Christendom, too.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of the award-winning Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One). She holds a Ph.D. from Duke University—where Hauerwas and Willimon taught—in American religious history.