Who will be the next Billy Graham?
The Charlotte-born Graham is now 98, lives quietly in his mountain home in Montreat, and hasn’t preached to a packed-stadium crusade in 12 years.
Yet no “next Billy Graham” has emerged – that is, no American religious figure who commands as much fame, impact, and respect as Graham did.
For decades, as Graham grew older, those in religious circles wondered if some worthy successor would emerge.
Ask Graham biographers and religion scholars today who will be the next Billy Graham, here’s their answer:
“I don’t think any single person will be ‘the next Billy Graham,’ ” says William Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor,” long considered the definitive biography of Graham. “That’s in part because evangelical Christianity has become so large and multifaceted – in significant measure because of what Graham did – that no one person can dominate it, regardless of talent or dedication. It’s just not going to happen.”
Long after his days as pastor to presidents, both Republican and Democrat, Graham still wears the crown.
In December 2016, Graham was named – for a record 60th time – one of the 10 men most admired by Americans. The two other religious figures on the list live in Italy (Pope Francis, who’s Catholic) and India (The Dalai Lama, who’s Buddhist).
None of the 10 most admired women in 2016 was a religious figure. The closest: Oprah Winfrey, who interviews a lot of spiritual leaders on her cable TV show, and Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim teen from Pakistan who was shot by Taliban thugs for standing up for the right of girls to go to school.
Some of the U.S. evangelists who’ve been mentioned over the years as would-be successors to Graham – Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Greg Laurie, and Graham’s own grown children, Franklin and Anne Graham Lotz – still have big followings, but mostly within segments of the broader evangelical community. And all are nearing retirement age themselves.
Graham himself sensed way back in 1974 that the times were changing even then and that the evangelical message would be carried forward not by just one religious superstar but by armies of preachers – in the United States and around the globe.
At the time, he was attending the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland. Someone asked him The Question: Who will be the next Billy Graham?
He answered by pointing to the gathering before him of 2,300 Christian leaders from 150 countries. “They will,” he said.
Since then, the world, including the religious world, has become a million times more fragmented. In the United States, the mainstream media of yesteryear – three TV networks and daily print newspapers – has given way to social media, the internet and the cable TV universe. They offer endless opportunities to seek out niche communities and connect with only those of like minds on everything from politics to faith. America’s religious landscape, meanwhile, has become a ever-changing picture of diversity. The fastest growing group is the “nones,” the mostly young people who say they have no religious affiliation.
Such soil is not hospitable, say religion scholars, for the the blooming of a single religious leader of Graham’s stature and influence.
“Even if a person of Graham’s gifts and graces should come along, the setting that created him has changed,” wrote Grant Wacker, author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” a widely lauded portrait of the evangelist’s life and times. “How does the virtual dissolution of the small nuclear family, gathered around a flickering television screen, change the equation? In an age of social media, would huge stadium crusades any longer work? It is hardly obvious that a new Graham could provide answers in 2017 in the same way that he offered answers 50 to 60 years ago.”
America was a very different place when the young Billy Graham emerged.
He made his first national splash on the eve of the 1950s, a decade in which America – then fighting a Cold War against atheistic communism – added “under God” to its Pledge of Allegiance and started printing “In God We Trust” on its paper currency.
The preacher who came to be called “America’s pastor” thrived in this climate of religious revival: His image – wavy hair, burning eyes – showed up on magazine covers and in living rooms via the infant medium of television.
Evangelical Christians who had been ridiculed since the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s for believing in the literal truth of the Scriptures suddenly saw Graham – one of their own – reading the Bible in the White House with President Dwight Eisenhower and being embraced by mainstream America.
Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Bill Graham, in 1998 before the start of a four-day Tampa, Fla. crusade. She died in 2007.
CHRIS O’MEARA Associated Press
Graham and wife Ruth, a woman of brains and beauty, also projected an image that was wholesome and down-to-earth, but also “a little bit glamorous,” says Anne Blue Wills, a religious studies professor at Davidson College who is writing a book about the late Ruth Bell Graham.
“On magazine covers, they looked very much in love. And they set this example of the attractive, successful and committed Christian husband and wife, father and mother,” Wills says. “They captured an ideal and an aspiration – reflecting what many people hoped to be, and presenting what Christian parenthood and marriage could be for mid-(20th) century America.”
But if Graham’s charisma and friends in high places made him seem as contemporary as Elvis or “I Love Lucy,” his message to the masses was as old as the call to conversion in the letters of that other famous evangelist, Paul.
That timeless pitch was another key to Graham’s success – and to his staying power into the 1960s and beyond, says Wacker, professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke Divinity School.
“He spoke with authority across the years,” Wacker wrote in 2016 for a book of historical essays. “The burning issues of the day paraded past him, one after another, and then disappeared. Yet his voice remained, somehow seeming to transcend them all. Graham knew the danger of hitching his wagon to the star of partisan and culture war shibboleths, instead of focusing on truths that remained generation after generation.”
Today’s evangelists have copied parts of Graham’s classic playbook, but have not reached his heights of cultural acceptance.
Like Graham, Joel Osteen, pastor of a megachurch in Houston, has become a national figure by using television, books, and auditoriums. But critics have pointed to his lavish lifestyle and what many consider his candy-coated Gospel of prosperity.
And like his father, Franklin Graham has held crusade-like events around the world, employed the well-oiled Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to promote his causes, and tapped into the latest technology – in his case, Facebook and Twitter. But the younger Graham, operating in an era when same-sex marriage and abortion are legal and teacher-led prayers in public schools are not, has turned off as many as he’s won over with his confrontational style and conservative political alliances.
These and other savvy preachers can still draw big crowds in person and online. Steven Furtick attracts 20,000-plus to Charlotte’s Elevation Church every weekend and more via social media.
But some experts of the current religious scene say it is causes more than sermons that speak to the unchurched of today.
“From efforts to end human trafficking to food drives to serve the working poor and homeless, the unchurched are more than willing to connect with what (churches) are doing to impact the world,” James Emery White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church, wrote in “The Rise of the Nones,” his 2014 book on how to understand and reach the religiously unaffilated. “Leading with Billy Graham’s simple ‘The Bible says’ was effective for people in a different place spiritually than most are today. Today, when you say to someone, ‘the Bible says,’ they would probably say back to you: ‘So what?’ ”
White echoes other religion scholars when asked The Question.
“There won’t be another Billy Graham,” White says. “He was unique among evangelists in history and the cultural context of that day is so radically different than today.”
Tim Funk: 704-358-5703, @timfunk