MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) — In the wake of the Rev. Billy Graham’s death, religion scholars say this much is clear: There will never be another American spiritual leader with his reach and influence.
The evangelical movement that Graham helped solidify and embodied for much of the second half of the 20th century has splintered. The media he used so effectively has fragmented, too, since the days when baby boomers had a choice of only three TV stations in their living rooms. And politics has become more polarized, even toxic.
It’s hard to imagine another U.S. religious leader like Graham filling a stadium for days on end and moving so deftly through the corridors of power that he could minister to Democratic and Republican presidents alike.
“I think his legacy will be the inclusiveness of his understanding of the Gospel,” said Grant Wacker, a retired professor at Duke University’s divinity school and author of the 2014 biography “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.” ″Bring as many people in as possible.”
Graham, who died Wednesday at 99, reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide through his preaching engagements and his pioneering use of modern mass media, especially television.
Bill Leonard, a professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina, said there will never be an evangelist as influential as Graham, owing partly to the fracturing of audiences and media since the pre-cable, pre-internet era in which Graham commanded his large audiences.
“The media that Graham used so well early in his crusades then became so pluralistic, so diverse, that there was no longer room for one central person who could pull together those evangelical subgroups,” Leonard said.
Even by the 1980s, Leonard said, it was clear there wouldn’t be a single evangelist after Graham who could wield such broad clout, because of the emergence of “a variety of ‘Billy Grahams’” with their own followings and because of the rise in politics of the hard-line religious right, from which Graham kept a certain distance.
“Evangelicalism itself became more polarized,” Leonard said. “Graham came of age at a more ecumenical sort of time.”
Leonard said Graham’s own son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, is representative of how the movement has changed in the past generation. The younger Graham is seen as more ideological than his father; he has criticized Islam and backed President Donald Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.
“Franklin’s evolution is illustration of the way in which the religious culture changed between his father and himself,” Leonard said.
Some of the biggest changes happened in the last decade or so of Graham’s life, after he had all but retired. When he held his last crusade in 2005, gay marriage was allowed in only a couple of places in America, and the rise of Trump and the corrosive political environment of recent years were still in the future.
Even Charlotte, North Carolina, the world headquarters of Graham’s evangelical empire, has moved in a more liberal direction, the result of an influx of non-Southerners. In 2016, the city passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use restrooms of their choice, triggering a fierce statewide battle.
For all his efforts to promote ecumenicism, there were, of course, limits to Graham’s inclusiveness. As the civil rights movement took shape, he did not join his fellow clergymen in taking part in marches. Later, his ministry took out full-page ads calling for a ban on gay marriage.
Still, Faisal Khan, a Muslim-American and founder of a youth advocacy and peace organization near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, credited Graham for admitting his mistakes and for making conciliatory statements about Islam.
“He was generally very receptive and forthcoming — he openly said Islam is much closer to Christianity than people think,” Khan said.
Jeremiah Chapman, a 40-year-old student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, said Graham’s legacy remains relevant — despite, or perhaps because of, the current divisions inside evangelicalism.
“He was moral guidance to generations regardless of which side. If you’re a Democrat or Republican or liberal or conservative, he was willing to step in and be … God’s voice in culture,” Chapman said.