Some 1,300 religious liberals-led by Hillary Rodham Clinton's political/spiritual guru Michael Lerner-met last week in Washington to, among other things, denounce the religious right. In San Francisco, more than 50,000 attended the Rev. Jesse Jackson's "fight the right" rally. Why all the fuss? The rise in influence of Christian conservatives and the fear that 1996 will be as bad a year for liberals as it was in 1994. D. James Kennedy, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, founder of Evangelism Explosion International, is part of the movement so detested by the political left on both coasts. WORLD publisher Joel Belz recently interviewed Dr. Kennedy from his office in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
WORLD: With everyone assuming now that Robert Dole is going to be the Republican candidate, but recognizing that he's not the choice of lots of evangelical Christians, where do you see the religious right? Has it been wiped off the board of American politics?
Kennedy: To some small degree. On the other hand, what encourages me is not any particular race, but what is going on beneath the surface. We have that phenomenon now in politics. What is not often seen is the tremendous growth of the number of evangelical Christians in this country.
WORLD: How does this become visible in the political process?
Kennedy: We saw a good example of it in 1994 in the tremendous revolution that took place in our Congress. None of the political pundits took into account what I think really happened. And what happened was: Christians happened. An exit poll asked: "Are you an evangelical born-again Christian?" That's a pretty specific term. In 1988, only 18 percent said yes; in 1992, 24 percent. In 1994, the figure should have gone down because it was a non-presidential election; but in fact it went up to 33 percent.
WORLD: Do those who call themselves evangelical vote in a predictable way?
Kennedy: About 70 percent tended to vote Republican in the 1994 elections. I wrote to all these elected officials and told them what I believed had happened, and I said that whoever is sensitive to the convictions of these people is likely to be in power for a long time.
WORLD: Is there a place for the Christian in the Democratic Party?
Kennedy: If you would have asked me that question 50 years ago, I would have said that of course, without any doubt, an evangelical Christian could be an active Democrat. But something has happened in the last 50 years. The Democratic Party has taken it upon itself to endorse positions such as homosexuality and abortion and things like that that the Bible expressly condemns.
Shouldn't it become increasingly difficult for a genuine Christian to support a party that embraces things like that? A number of other issues could be added to that brief list. So as Lincoln said, the question is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God's side. If we are on God's side and we hold to the positions he holds, I think you'll find that whatever party embraces those positions is going to get the enthusiastic endorsement of those who believe in God and believe in his Word.
WORLD: What would you do if the Republican Party nominated someone who endorsed abortion and endorsed homosexual rights-perhaps Mr. Dole's running mate?
Kennedy: That would make for a very, very difficult choice for me or any Christian who believes what God says. I have some friends who say that under such conditions they would not vote at all. I have never had to face what I'd do if both of those were the case.
Those, however, may not even be the most significant issues in the next election. The most significant thing a president does is to appoint Supreme Court justices. I believe that if George Bush had been reelected in 1992, and the two appointments had come up that Bill Clinton filled, it's quite possible that Roe v. Wade would now be dead. Therefore if we had a president who would appoint that kind of Supreme Court justice, I might tolerate some other weaknesses that he had for the sake of the unborn.
WORLD: Do we evangelicals get too preoccupied with politics?
Kennedy: That's a real possibility. We are not saved by government or politics, and my basic press toward government is not to get them to save America, but to get them out of the way. The federal government has proved a tremendous impediment to the ongoing work of Christians. In all the laws that they have passed against Christian schools, gagging the church, taxation, and all kinds of things that they have done, they have made it harder for the church to exercise its prerogatives and to preach the gospel.
When the people of New England got together in the 1600s to write the New England Confederation, they said, "We all came into these parts of America for one and the same end and aim, namely the advancement of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ." The government today is doing its very best to block that advancement in so many ways. I want the government out of the way, that's all.
WORLD: But you sit there as a man who doesn't look like he is bound and gagged. You've got a big voice in this country. What do you mean by gagging the church?
Kennedy: Take the last presidential election. There were numbers of things that I knew that I was never able to say from the pulpit because if you advance the cause of one candidate or impede the cause of the other you can lose your tax exemption. That would have been disastrous not only for the church, but for our school and our seminary, everything. So you are gagged. You cannot do that. The IRS, a branch of our government, has succeeded in gagging Christians.
WORLD: Evangelism Explosion, the ministry you are best known for, recently celebrated quite a historic passage. In its 34 years, what has been EE's biggest obstacle?
Kennedy: Witnessing flies in the face of all our natural instincts, particularly the instinct of fear. When most Christians get converted, they are afraid to talk to other people about Christ or salvation of their soul. They don't know how, and they are afraid they are going to be embarrassed. That's probably the biggest problem. You have it even among pastors.
None of us likes to be humiliated and rejected. I want people to think well of me. You don't want people to think you're some kind of a religious nut or a fanatic or whatever. I think that's what stops us. But I reminded my people a week ago that some of these people who were here marching down the aisles of our church with their flags were putting their lives in jeopardy-that their participation here, should news of it get back to their homelands, could actually get them killed. This is not talking about the Middle Ages or the early church, but I mean this past year. One Christian leader was hung up by his hands and had the skin peeled off his body.
WORLD: Where did that happen?
Kennedy: It was in the Middle East in one of the Islamic nations. They came down on a small church and took the pastor and all the people to jail. They tortured everybody but the pastor, and then let him go free as an object lesson to others-but before they showed him the door, they pulled his eyes out. With blood running down his cheeks, he left the prison.
So I said to my people, "You're afraid of a raised eyebrow? A disparaging comment?" We need to put it in comparison with these people who are inviting horrible death upon themselves. How are we going to answer to the fact that we have been afraid?
You are talking to the president of Chickens Anonymous here! I was so scared when I started this I couldn't witness to anybody. But I know that God has delivered me over the years from this. And I think he probably chose me to do this because I could sit on a plane for three hours years ago and never say good morning to somebody. That's how shy I was. And that I could become the head of a worldwide evangelism organization is absolutely the most unexpected thing in all the world.
WORLD: What can we do to encourage people to be thoughtful citizens, to engage themselves both in evangelism and in public life?
Kennedy: Begin with the pulpit. From the pulpit, we need to preach the whole counsel of God, stressing that there are millions of Christians in this country sitting in churches who are on neither one of those rails. They are neither evangelizing nor are they involved in their culture. They are doing nothing but filling up a pew. Then there are many other churches very actively involved in one and ignoring the other. They need to be involved in both. That is going to take some balance of preaching on the part of the pastor that he avoid the rocks of partisan politics and still show people that they need to be involved and be informed and be salt as well as light.