Every time a preacher gains national prominence someone applies the tag of “the next Billy Graham.” In my memory, it was Southern Baptist-turned-Pentecostal TV preacher James Robison whom I first heard identified in that way — but there have been others.

The Economist has a story giving that title to Rick Warren, who ably queried the two presidential candidates last night in a “civil forum.”

I liked both the title of the event and Warren’s introductory statement: “We’ve got to learn to disagree without demonizing one another.” My guess is that Warren has seen enough of the other approach in both the American political arena as well as his own Baptist world.

Though with deep respect for the aging evangelist, identifying the frumpy and creative Southern California preacher as “The next Billy Graham” is unnecessary and inapplicable in many ways.

No one is going to fill Billy Graham’s shoes — not because his stature is so great (and it is) but because the world has changed so much. The religious diversity of America, the sense of a smaller world and the demise of stadium evangelism are just a few reasons.

Neither T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, offspring Franklin Graham on any other is going to take up where the elder Graham left off.

Yet, in a sense, Warren is a more likely candidate to assume Graham’s pastoral role on the national scene. His blend of conservative theology and social compassion has wide appeal.

Unlike so many prominent preachers, Warren attracts persons from a wide range of backgrounds rather than repelling those unlike him with arrogant condemnation. It was encouraging to watch a Baptist leader listen to the presidential candidates last night rather than dictating to them the ideologies that must be embraced in order to get his and his followers’ support.

So often, so-called Christian leaders (including several Baptists) appear in the national media only to embarrass many of us. Yet, Warren — with his compassionate heart, broad world view and genuine warmth — did not.

No wonder both candidates consider him to be a friend who treats them fairly even at points of disagreement. Civility may make a comeback after all.

Also Warren is honest with the viewing audience. Unlike the personalities of the waning religious right, he does not praise one candidate as being God’s choice and caution against the fall of the nation if the other is elected and THEN state: “However, I do not endorse candidates for office.”

After weeks of negative political ads and ridiculous proclamations by pundits, a serious, civil conversation felt good on a Saturday night. Even the absence of neckties seemed to help those involved in presidential politics to relax a little.

I also liked the way Warren called them “John” and “Barack” — not out of disrespect for two U.S. Senators but as an embrace of their humanity. Whoever wins the November election, it seems likely he will have Warren’s number in his cell phone.

Influence should be won rather than coerced. Warren’s civil approach to political debate and deep commitment to tackling the toughest challenges facing the world (AIDS, human trafficking, conflicts, poverty, etc.) give him a platform for participation in the political arena.

The next Billy Graham? No, it seems that being the current Rick Warren is just fine.

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