The next Billy Graham
Aug 14th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Rick Warren has emerged as the most powerful evangelical in America
ON AUGUST 16th John McCain and Barack Obama will both appear at one of America’s great mega-churches, Saddleback, in Lake Forest, California, to discuss “leadership and compassion”. The result of the “discussion”—it is not a formal debate because the candidates will be appearing in sequence rather than side by side—will not only help “values voters” decide which man they support. It could also determine whether the host of the event, Rick Warren, can lay claim to one of the most sought-after titles in America, that of “the next Billy Graham”.
Billy Graham has been the most powerful Christian in America since the 1950s. Eisenhower summoned Mr Graham on his deathbed. Richard Nixon played golf with him. George Bush senior called him “America’s pastor”. George Bush junior credits him with planting the “mustard seed” of faith in his heart. When Mr Graham was hospitalised in 1976, three presidents (Nixon, Ford and Jimmy Carter) rang him in a single day.
But Mr Graham is 89 years old and unwell. He led his last “crusade”, in Flushing, New York, in 2005. He now seldom leaves his home in Montreat, North Carolina. He remains a name to conjure with: John McCain recently visited him to pray for “God’s will to be done in the upcoming election”. But for the most part the prophet has retreated to the mountain-top.
Which raises the inevitable question: who will replace Mr Graham as “America’s pastor”? For many Americans this is a silly question. The American constitution is based on the strict separation of church and state. What’s more, Mr Graham was the result of a unique confluence of forces, such as the cold war between “godless Communism” and a godly America and America’s embrace of a bland civil religion in the wake of the second world war. None of this is remotely relevant in today’s America, with its religious diversity, cacophonous culture wars and out-of-control political partisanship.
But America has always been engaged in a delicate balancing act between its secular constitution and the religious instincts of its population. Mr Graham was only one in a long line of America’s pastors that included Charles Finney, George Whitefield and Dwight Moody (after whom Dwight Eisenhower was named). And Mr Graham was not quite the bland preacher of consensus that he now appears. He once described Eden as a paradise with “no union dues, no labour leaders, no snakes, no disease”, and infuriated the left in the 1960s by refusing to come out against the Vietnam war.
Americans continue to have a healthy appetite for religion in public life—so long as it is not too hard-edged or divisive. Americans are not only overwhelmingly religious—92% say they believe in God and 63% believe that the Bible is the word of God—but they also believe that religiousness is a sign of good character. Only 46% of Americans say that they would vote for an atheist for president, compared with 56% who would vote for a homosexual and 93% who would vote for a black. All this year’s serious presidential candidates wore their religion on their sleeves.
There are plenty of candidates for Mr Graham’s unofficial job, such as Mr Graham’s son, Franklin, who has inherited his father’s striking looks as well as his organisational abilities, and mega-preachers such as T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. But all have drawbacks. The younger Mr Graham has described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion” and Messrs Jakes and Osteen are too attached, both personally and theologically, to the “prosperity Gospel”. None of them has Mr Warren’s combination of qualities.
Mr Warren could hardly look less like Mr Graham—he has a beard rather than a lantern jaw and sports open-necked shirts, mostly of the Hawaiian variety, rather than a suit and tie. But the two have a remarkable amount in common, from their Southern Baptist faith to their entrepreneurial skills.
Both men have proved to be geniuses at adapting religion to their times. Mr Graham took the barbed-wire fundamentalism of his youth and reshaped it for the post-war era of two-car garages and upward mobility. Mr Warren took post-war evangelicalism and reshaped it, yet again, for the world of suburban anomie and the search for meaning.
This required entrepreneurial skills of a high order. Mr Graham founded two of the most powerful organisations in post-war evangelicalism, Christianity Today and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Mr Warren has become a one-man dispenser of “purpose”. More than 400,000 pastors have attended his seminars on the “purpose-driven church”, and more than 30m people have bought his book, “The Purpose-Driven Life”. Mr Graham has preached to some 215m people in 185 countries. Mr Warren, though not yet in that league, is also going global, not only with his preaching but also with his charitable work.
Both men also share political skills of a high order. Like Mr Graham, Mr Warren allowed himself to get too close to the Republican Party. In 2004 he supported Mr Bush behind the scenes, taking part in White House conference calls and informing thousands of pastors that they should regard issues such as abortion and gay marriage as “non-negotiable”. But like Mr Graham, he has realised that you need to tread lightly on those non-negotiables if you want to preserve your influence. He is now emphasising poverty, HIV-AIDS, global warming and overseas aid.
A purpose-driven man
The evangelical voters who will watch Messrs McCain and Obama on Saturday are unusually confused in this election cycle: lukewarm about the Republican but also unsure about his Democratic rival, weary of the culture wars but also unwilling to discount a role for religion in public life. The man who understands this voting block better than anybody else is Mr Warren—and, whoever comes out on top in November, Mr Warren will be there to whisper in their ears.