The long-expected resignation of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson highlights an open secret among America’s roughly 70 million evangelicals: There are no obvious successors to the group of evangelical leaders who created massive organizations or built up media empires in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Mr. Dobson, 72, who resigned last week as board chairman of one of the country’s most influential evangelical organizations, is one of the last of a great generation of evangelical leaders.
Some have died: the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority founder; theologian Carl F.H. Henry; Florida pastor D. James Kennedy; Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright; and Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, who founded L’Abri Fellowship.
Others have either retired or have passed on the bulk of their duties, such as the Rev. Billy Graham, 90; televangelist Pat Robertson, 78; author and activist Tim LaHaye, 83; and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, 77.
“It’s a changing of the guard,” said Brian McLaren, 52, cited in 2005 by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
“There is a possibility the religious right will collapse on itself. Or someone will articulate a new religious center. The evangelical community has been slowly diversifying, and there may not be a center anymore.”
The Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and the man picked to deliver the invocation during the inauguration of President Obama, seems an obvious choice to fill the void.
“But I don’t know if he is the guy,” said John Whitehead, 62, founder of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, who was an attorney for Mr. Schaeffer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “He doesn’t seem to be garnering a huge following, and he doesn’t seem to want to be in the spotlight.”
Evangelicals also lack a galvanizing issue these days, Mr. Whitehead said.
“It used to be the pro-life movement,” he said, “but I am not sure there is an issue now. The issue evangelicals key on is the gay movement, but they have lost that issue. There is no cause for a leader to emerge in now.”
That may be a result of American evangelicals being a disparate group with liberal and conservative wings, Mr. McLaren said.
“James Dobson was never a leader of evangelicalism as a whole, but he was a leader of the conservative side,” he said. “The question is: Who will fill those shoes on the conservative side? I wonder if Rick Warren will take that mantle. He strikes me as a good candidate.
“The more moderate or progressive side doesn’t need the authority figure in the same way,” he added. “There tends to be a kind of collegiality among us - a lot of good leaders, rather than just a few.”
Another possibility is Tony Perkins, 45, head of the Family Research Council, founded by Mr. Dobson in 1983 as the Focus on the Family’s policy arm.
“He is telegenic, he’s young, he has all the credentials for the conservative wing of American evangelicalism,” said D. Michael Lindsay, Rice University sociologist and author of “Faith in the Halls of Power,” a book about influential evangelicals.
Other possible successors include politicians, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 53, or Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 45, both of whom campaigned unsuccessfully for the White House last year.
“Huckabee is doing an interesting thing with this TV show,” said Mr. Lindsay, referring to Mr. Huckabee’s weekly Saturday talk show on the Fox News Channel, “and building his fan base.
“He’s got that sort of cosmopolitan air, and he appeals to various bases. He plays the bass guitar, and he also goes hunting.”
Other famous evangelicals who have drifted in and out of nationwide exposure include the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, 55, a mentor to former President George W. Bush; apologist and philosopher Ravi Zacharias, 62; rock band U2 vocalist Bono, born Paul Hewson; Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, 62; Sojourners President Jim Wallis, 60; evangelist Franklin Graham, 56, the eldest son of Billy Graham; and the Rev. Joel Hunter, 60, an evangelical megachurch pastor from Florida.
“There’s no one with quite the niche Dobson has,” said Mr. Land, who also made Time magazine’s list. “He’s not a minister but a psychologist. That puts him in a unique category. No one person will succeed him. You’ll see a broader group of leaders with their own constituencies, but not a narrow band.”
But, he cautioned, “Anyone who thinks evangelicals are going away as a social force is smoking something illegal.”