With a generation of Christian right leaders dead or aging, the founder of the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family says he's concerned about the movement's future leadership.
James Dobson told a group of Christian broadcasters Tuesday night that the passing of Jerry Falwell, the Rev. D. James Kennedy and Ruth Bell Graham represent the end of an era.
The radio talk show host noted that others like Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson and Chuck Swindoll will also soon pass from the scene, and questioned the impact on the conservative Christian church.
"It causes me to wonder who will be left to carry the banner when this generation of leaders is gone," Dobson told an audience of nearly 1,400 at the National Religious Broadcasters conference. "The question is, will the younger generation heed the call? Who will defend the unborn child in the years to come? Who will plead for the Terri Schiavos of the world? Who's going to fight for the institution of marriage, which is on the ropes today."
Dobson's comments come as national groups like the Christian Coalition are struggling, and the organizational muscle of the movement now rests with local pastors, not national figures.
Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who stepped out of the race last week, had won widespread support among pastors and other evangelicals at a local level, but not with those heading influential national organizations and other conservative evangelical leaders.
Christian activists and other observers of the movement say that the next generation of leaders isn't as interested in polarizing debates and wants to broaden the evangelical agenda beyond divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage.
"Who in the next generation will be willing to take the heat, when it's so much safer and more comfortable to avoid controversial subjects," Dobson said. "What will be the impact on the conservative Christian church when the patriarchs have passed?"
Dobson, 71, said many of his comments on Tuesday were the same he made at Kennedy's funeral last fall, when he told those in attendance he's praying that the next generation of Christians will answer God's call to take up the mantle of leadership.
President Bush spoke to convention attendees earlier Tuesday, saying he would not let the 2008 presidential race affect how he will run the Iraq war. He also asked the audience to send their "love and prayers" to Billy Graham, who is recovering from surgery in North Carolina. Graham's wife Ruth died last year.
Graham "led the way for America's religious broadcasters," Bush said. "He brought the Gospel to millions, and many years ago he helped me change my life. A lot of Americans love Billy Graham, and I'm one. So, Billy, we're thinking about you."
Falwell, a television evangelist who founded the Moral Majority and became the face of the religious right in the 1980s, and Kennedy, a founding board member of the Moral Majority and founder of the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, both died last year.
Dobson stepped down as Focus on the Family president in 2003 but hasn't hinted at retirement. He remains the board chairman and the ministry's public voice on its flagship radio broadcast.
Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.