Who succeeds Billy Graham? Reporters are all over the map trying to answer that question

Even though it's been three days since Billy Graham died, you'll be hearing more about him for at least one more week. His funeral preparations alone are worthy of a head of state, starting with a 130-mile procession from Asheville to Charlotte, N.C., where he’ll lie “in repose” for two days.

Then he’ll be flown to Washington, DC to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. That’s totally unprecedented for a minister. The most recent private citizen to receive that honor was Civil Rights Movement matriarch Rosa Parks in 2005.

A “private” funeral will be held March 2 back in Charlotte although it’s unknown how private an event for 2,300 invitees can be. 

Along with all the tributes comes the inevitable question that the experts have been asking for decades: Who –- if anyone –- can replace this man? A few publications have already run “what next” articles.

Ed Stetzer, in an opinion piece in USA Today, said replacing Graham in impossible, possibly a snub toward heir-apparent and oldest son Franklin Graham.

In a culture always looking for the "next Michael Jordan" or "the next John Wayne," there will undoubtedly be articles asking who will fill Graham’s shoes, and inherit his legacy. There is no next Billy Graham. There are and will be many effective preachers of the Christian gospel, but Billy Graham’s ministry of influence will forever be unique and unparalleled.

Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer foresaw this question and tackled it last May. His answer -- care of one of the go-to Graham experts for journalists -- was essentially what Graham himself has been saying for several decades.

“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.”…
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.

Funk also named two other candidates, albeit men with major faults. One was Houston mega-pastor Joel Osteen who, Funk wrote, has been criticized for selling the prosperity gospel. As for Franklin Graham, Funk said the oldest son is more confrontational and politically conservative than his dad.

Holly Meyer pointed out in the Tennessean that evangelicalism is a different animal these days. For instance:

Graham, who offered counsel to a dozen U.S. presidents from both parties, was a towering, but largely noncontroversial, American leader, said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Iowa.
Politics were not hidden from view, but they were not Graham's focus, said Goldford, who wrote the book, "The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics, and the First Amendment."  
"Under Billy Graham, evangelicalism wasn't a politicized movement," Goldford said. 
That has changed so much that Goldford does not think Graham would have the same success today. 

Writing for Fox News, Graham biographer William Martin believes that Graham stuck out in a time when evangelicals were a maligned minority.

Graham rose to prominence at a rather low point in the history of Evangelical Christianity, when candidates for leadership were relatively few and it was easier for one person to stand out above others. Half a century later, Evangelicals had become a movement at least equal in size and strength to Catholics and “Mainline” Protestants in the United States, and most of the Christian missionary work conducted throughout the world was done under the aegis of some Evangelical/Fundamentalist/ Pentecostal denomination or parachurch agency.

In a piece that David O’Reilly wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he pointed out that Graham came to prominence in a pre- or early-television era when crusades were something people went to.

Although Mr. Graham tapped his son Franklin to succeed him as head of the vast Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, (Divinity School at Wake Forest University Dean Bill J.) Leonard speculated in 1997 that television had given national prominence to so many evangelists that no single individual would likely win the preeminence Mr. Graham enjoyed for half a century.

When I was covering Graham’s Pittsburgh crusade in 1993, even then people were speculating that open-air non-sporting events in a downtown stadium weren’t that big a draw for people any more. Graham was such an institution that people showed up just to see him, but few of the younger guys were using that method. Franklin is one of the few exceptions.

I want to bring attention to Jeff Greenfield’s essay on Graham and President Richard Nixon in Politico. This thesis: Graham always wanted access to the halls of power, was willing to compromise his principles to do so and didn’t –- that we know of –- speak truth to power.

But the road Billy Graham took during his prime raises a fascinating question: What if Graham, with his undeniable magnetism, had chosen a different path? What if his insistence on integrated religious gatherings -- a provocative posture in the South of the 1950s -- had been accompanied by a forthright campaign for integration in schools, and in a campaign for the vote? What if he had found the boardrooms and offices of the political elite less appealing than the injunction to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?” We might have been remembering him as we do another Southern minister, who led a life 60 years shorter, but who moved mountains.

If you follow that line of thinking, then if there’s a successor to Graham it won’t be someone who does 20th century techniques such as crusades and mass meetings, but rather someone who aspires to be the confidante of world leaders and has just as powerful an online presence as what he or she does on TV. This person would be the one summoned to pastor a shocked and wounded nation, just as Graham did, at the age of 82, after September 11 at the Washington Cathedral. It was his finest moment.

I know that when a huge event like this happens, it's tough for religion reporters to find something original to write, especially if they're located far from where all the action is taking place in North Carolina.

My hat is off to any scribes who manage to do so. There are all kinds of local angles out there, since Graham's work had an impact all over the place, in ways large and small.

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