The passing of Billy Graham led me to ponder whether another religious leader can rise to a similar stature in today’s world. On one hand, the world is more connected than ever. When Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on Twitter, it is not hard to follow religious leaders or to find their words and actions in news sources. An increasingly connected world means that any leader, religious or otherwise, could quickly connect with billions around the globe.
Yet, it strikes me that there were certain conditions in play that helped contribute to the rise of Billy Graham. These would be difficult to duplicate:
- The end of World War II and the prosperity of the United States. As an American, Graham emerged from the country that helped end World War II and became the global democratic superpower. Graham could push against communism and project American strength and cool.
- The rise of the United States was accompanied by a religious resurgence in the US. As Finke and Stark argue in The Churching of America, church attendance rose through the 1950s before leveling off in the 1960s.
- A rising middle-class individualism in the United States that Graham could appeal to. While he often addressed social issues, the path to solving these problems started with changing individual hearts. This individualistic appeal – not new in American religion – now had a broad audience.
- A particular evangelistic and global missionary zeal in the United States where fundamentalists and evangelicals had both the resources and energy to try to spread the Gospel. This has cooled off to some degree.
- The emergence of evangelicals as a category from the dust heap of fundamentalism which had been pushed to the sidelines of American society in the early 1900s.
- The rise of mass media, particularly television, and the regular access billions had to it. Graham was telegenic enough. Yet, this mass media was not the same as today: it had a limited number of outlets so the audience was not as fragmented as later on.
This is not to say that religion is an inert force in today’s world or that new religious leaders could not emerge. Yet, they will do so in different conditions than that experienced by Graham and several generations of world citizens.