Who will be the next Billy Graham?
Graham is now 98, lives quietly in his mountain home in Montreat, N.C., and hasn’t preached on 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, a Charlotte native, grew older, those in religious circles wondered whether 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, Republican and Democrat alike, Graham wears the crown.
In December 2016, he 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 — have big followings, but mostly within segments of the broader evangelical community. And all are nearing retirement age themselves.
Graham himself sensed 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.
Religions scholars say that such soil is not hospitable for 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 when 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.
Graham and wife Ruth, a woman of brains and beauty, projected an image that was wholesome and down to earth, but also “a little bit glamorous,” said 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 said. “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.”