As word of Billy Graham’s death spread on Wednesday morning, commentators observed that since he retired in 2005, no evangelical leader has emerged to occupy his unique place in American society.
But even if there were anyone out there with the same talents that enabled Graham to represent all of evangelicalism, we likely would never know it. The cultural context in which Graham became one of the most important religious figures in American history was radically different than the one that exists today.
“The America that emerged from World War II and the Great Depression was exceptionally unified and cohesive, and possessed of an unusual confidence in large institutions,” Yuval Levin wrote in his 2016 book, “The Fractured Republic.”
“But almost immediately after the war, [America] began a long process of unwinding and fragmenting,” Levin wrote.
And so, the fact that American Christianity hasn’t given rise to a leader like Graham over the last two or three decades isn’t just a result of the fracturing of evangelicalism into different factions …
It’s also a story about the fragmentation of American life — arguably a reversion to the norm in American history rather than a departure from it.