Cross Purposes

The Rev. D. James Kennedy teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Richard Murphy loves him anyway.

Coral Ridge Ministries -- a $60 million empire Kennedy built over three decades that includes a theological seminary and a private school -- is at the top of Soulforce's hit list. Deemed by the rights group as a "political organization disguised as a house of religion," Kennedy's ministry has proselytized in fundraising letters, advertisements, and on his shows about "reshaping America" to fit a Christian ideal, meaning a literal interpretation of the Bible and, in turn, the brimstone condemnation of any same-sex lifestyle.

"This is larger than me, but it begins with me," Murphy says above honks and shouts from nearby drivers. Unfazed by the catcalls, he appears eerily calm. "This is the time of year when it's important for the reverend to reach out to people. He doesn't comprehend the suffering he causes, and I'm here to be a physical reminder of that. Soulforce teaches us to not blame the people in the church but to reach into the heart of those who preach hate. Kennedy is the root we wish to pull."

James Kennedy, a man of average height and weight with a game-show host's smile and Spock-like eyebrows, sits behind a massive cherry-wood executive desk, facing a wall covered entirely with earned or honorable degrees, at least 15, from universities and theology schools. Displayed front and center is an award that recognizes him as one of the "1000 Leaders of World Influence." On a wall adjacent is a poster of the U.S. Constitution.

The Rev. Kennedy built a $60 million evangelical empire on conservative Christian beliefs -- including that homosexuality is a sin
Rev. D. James Kennedy
The Rev. Kennedy built a $60 million evangelical empire on conservative Christian beliefs -- including that homosexuality is a sin
One man, one mission: Sexual preference is irrelevant to religious choice. "God loves his gay children too," Murphy insists.
Michael McElroy
One man, one mission: Sexual preference is irrelevant to religious choice. "God loves his gay children too," Murphy insists.

This office, the size of an average one-bedroom apartment, belongs to a man worth millions. The kind of man who wears tailored suits under his minister's velvet robe and occasionally enjoys a vigorous doubles tennis match. But the latter is a rare pleasure, he says. The demands of his weekly television and radio show, The Coral Ridge Hour, beamed to more than 200 countries, consume his time.

This afternoon, he led thousands of local parishioners in a Good Friday service; he grabs a glass of water to soothe his tired vocal cords. He rarely takes appointments, much less ones from the media during Holy Week. His schedule is hectic and is likely to keep him at the church well past 8 p.m. every day.

"No one could have ever told me I'd be here talking about God," he says, sighing. "Oh my, and what a joyous pursuit it is. Goodness, every day seems a true gift."

The ministry was an unexpected career for a boy raised in a rough South Side neighborhood in Chicago who rarely went to church. His source of peace back then, in the mid-'40s, was summer camp, weeks free from his frequently absent glassware-salesman father and abusive, alcoholic mother.

During his teens, Kennedy and his parents relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, where he spent most of his time surfing or water-skiing and dreaming of becoming an astronomer or scientist. As his biography, D. James Kennedy: The Man and His Ministry, reads, he soon put his "masculine good looks, lithe body, and impeccable dress" to better use. By his early 20s, Kennedy was teaching the foxtrot at an Arthur Murray Dance School in Tampa. It was there in 1952 that he met his wife, Anne, portrayed in the 412-page bio as a living incarnation of Grease's Sandy Olson.

But the reverend's dance days were numbered.

Call it divine intervention or a clock radio set at just the right time, but Kennedy's awakening to God came on a Sunday in 1956 with the booming voice of a Philadelphia radio preacher asking rhetorically, "How do you expect to get into heaven?"

"I'd never thought of such a thing," he marvels. "I simply didn't have a good answer."

The following week, the young man went to a bookstore, asked for any religious book available and went home with The Greatest Story Ever Told, a creationist explanation for the universe. That was enough to motivate Kennedy to enroll in seminary.

After his application to be a Congo missionary was rejected for health reasons, Kennedy took the only job offered to him following graduation: a $4800-a-year post helping lead a tiny Coral Ridge congregation that worshiped in a small room at McNab Elementary School on Commercial Boulevard.

For most of the past four decades, Kennedy has lived in the Fort Lauderdale area with his wife. Their only child, Jennifer, is a nurse who married last year. Photographs from his biography were taken in the mid-'70s and '80s but appear as though they're plucked from a Mayberry scrapbook circa 1955. There's Anne and Jennifer in matching dresses in front of the Christmas tree, Kennedy playing a tune on the family grand while wife and daughter look on, smiling.

Kennedy hesitates to talk about what formed his opinions about homosexuality, but it can be said that they aren't based on personal interactions. He says he's never befriended a gay person.

"I believe one was working at the dance studio," he says doubtfully. "But I couldn't tell for sure. They are very good at blending in."

Kennedy's belief that homosexuality is not genetic and is "caused by a series of psychological traumas" at a young age formed years ago, he says. The Bible explicitly condemns the act of same-sex intercourse, and that's reason enough for him. During an interview with New Times, he analogized homosexuality with pedophilia and stealing.

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