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Christians doubt whether another religious leader could again enjoy such wide appeal and political influence

Even before Billy Graham died on Wednesday, Christians in the U.S. had been asking for years, “Who can be the next Billy Graham?” Now that the celebrated evangelical preacher is gone, the answer seems clear: There isn’t one now, and there may never be again.

A towering figure of American life in the 20th century, Mr. Graham preached to millions in person and through the media, becoming the first celebrity spiritual leader of the television age. His simple, optimistic message of redemption won him respect from Christians of many denominations, including non-evangelicals, and from American political leaders. For a half-century, both Republican and Democratic presidents sought his counsel. He reached more than 200 million people world-wide with his message. Hollywood honored him in 1989 with a star on the Walk of Fame.

Mr. Graham’s widespread appeal and political influence would be difficult to replicate today, with our fractured media landscape, polarized political climate and declining levels of religious involvement. Many Christian leaders were quick to acknowledge as much in the wake of his death.

“There simply will never be another Billy Graham,” Beth Moore, an evangelical author who draws huge crowds in her own right, wrote Wednesday on Twitter.

Mr. Graham was telegenic and scrupulous in his person life, which kept him away from the scandals that knocked some of his contemporaries off course. But he also happened to come along at the right time, according to biographer William Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”

Interest in Christianity was booming in the U.S. after World War II, as the country was becoming a superpower. The evangelical movement was starting to coalesce but did not yet have a leader, Mr. Martin said. Mr. Graham stepped into that role, making himself the face of evangelicalism on television and at his “crusades” in stadiums. His reach grew alongside his country’s, and on trips abroad he was seen as an ambassador from the most powerful nation on Earth.

“Evangelical Christianity has become so large and diverse and multifaceted that no one person can dominate it,” Mr. Martin said. “The reason that’s true is in large measure because of what Billy Graham did.”

The media landscape, too, is now too vast and diverse for anyone to dominate it the way that Mr. Graham did in the 1950s, when there were only three television networks.

Diane Winston, a professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California, said that although there were many evangelists working in the 1940s and ’50s, Mr. Graham “crossed over from the religious world to the secular world” because media moguls like William Randolph Hearst backed him, putting him on the front page of newspapers and the cover of Time Magazine.

Mr. Graham’s eldest son, Franklin Graham, said that, in some cases, his father would make sure he was the only thing on television in certain parts of the country. “In some markets, he would buy all three stations one night, so if you wanted to watch TV, you had to watch Billy Graham,” he said. “I’ve met people who were not happy about that.” Mr. Graham’s media presence made him a household name in homes that were not evangelical or even Christian.

Today, pastors are still able to draw huge audiences, both on television and social media, where many live-stream their weekly sermons to people all over the world. But viewers have far more choice, making it harder for any one religious leader to command their attention.

Successful televangelists such as Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn compete with each other for audience—as well as with hundreds of other stations, Netflix and YouTube. “None of them enjoys the sort of mainstream popularity that Graham had,” Ms. Winston said.

The change since Mr. Graham’s heyday can be seen in his own family and ministry. Franklin Graham has positioned himself, in some ways, as a successor to his father. He is president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which his father founded in 1950, and he gave the benediction at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, something his father did for presidents of both parties. In 2016, he led a series of rallies around the country urging Christians to vote for “candidates who uphold biblical principles.”

But Franklin Graham is a more partisan—and divisive—figure than his father was. He criticizes political liberals on social media and has called for a total ban on Muslims entering the country. Last year, he denounced critics of Roy Moore’s campaign for senate in Alabama after charges of sexual misconduct emerged—leading to criticism from some fellow evangelicals, who are increasingly divided over how to engage in politics. It is difficult to imagine him advising a Democratic president.

Franklin Graham said it would be “much harder today,” in the polarized political environment, to play the kind of nonpartisan role his father played. “My father preached the gospel. He never politicized his message.”

Many pastors continue to emulate the elder Mr. Graham. Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, first felt called to the ministry while watching Mr. Graham on television. Like Mr. Graham, he has advised presidents of both parties (on immigration and other issues) and has met with foreign leaders about religious freedom. “I want to be just like Billy Graham when it comes to engaging in the political sphere,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

Still, he said, no one person would likely fill the role Mr. Graham long played. “Instead of one Billy Graham, we’re going to see a number of Billy Grahams,” he said. “If we define Billy Grahams as preachers of the gospel committed to truth, grace and love, his legacy will give birth to many spiritual sons and daughters.”

Franklin Graham said that his father always hoped that many preachers, not just one, would pick up his work. At a gathering of evangelists in Europe in the 1980s, he said, his father looked out at the crowd, pointed at them and said, “You are the next Billy Graham…Go and preach.”

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