A friendly debate has been joined in the blogging world. It started when Hugh Hewitt asserted that Dr. James Dobson is the most influential person in America who is not in government.
Joshua Claybourn said, No, that designation belongs to Oprah Winfrey, which made sense to me.
Joe Carter has replied by saying that both answers are wrong. His candidate is Rick Warren.
Part of the problem with this discussion is something to which Hugh has already referred: how one defines influence.
Another is how one measures influence.
While Joshua has offered one, I'll take a stab at a definition: Someone with influence, it seems to me, is a person who, by whatever means, shapes or causes us to change our behaviors or our views.
Governments, of course, can coerce some of these elements of our lives. Hugh's very framing of this discussion acknowledges that and would almost seem to suggest that no individual outside of government can have as large an influence on us as those who are in government. Real shaping and changing though, happen not as the result of coercion, but of persuasion.
I think it's fair to say that few people influence others over sustained periods of time at the macro-level.
Think about it: Who are the people who have exerted the greatest influence over your life? Go ahead, name your top ten...I'll wait.
Okay, got your list? The ten people who have shaped or caused you to change your behaviors or views?
Now, I'm going to exercise blogger's prerogative. (A power I just made up.) If you're a Christian, I'm going to ask you to eliminate Jesus from your list. While I obviously think that Jesus is the best influence we can have in our lives and that, like other nominees for consideration, He is living right now, His designation hardly seems in keeping with Hugh's original intent. Besides, Jesus' deity and the promotional abilities of the Holy Spirit that back Him up give Jesus certain advantages over other potential entrants in this contest.
Having said that, I'll make a guess about your list. I surmise that the lion's share, at least six of the ten entries, are people you've personally known. Your father. Your mother. A friend. A teacher. A grandparent. A neighbor. A pastor.
Compiling such a list should put us all onto something: Our lives matter! That's true whether we're in the public eye or not.
Important as the work of journalists, scientists, theologians, politicians, business executives, musicians, and others may be in affecting the lives of people, the greatest influence is exerted by those with whom we interact in everyday life. They're the ones who shape or cause us to change our behaviors or world views, for better and for worse.
It's easy for us to underestimate the influence we wield over others. In Old Testament times, King Saul was upbraided for doing just that. His drifting ways and lack of confidence, born of a distorted relationship with God, were causing him to fail in his duties as king. "You may be small in your own eyes. But you are the king!" he was told. (This was the prophetic equivalent of Cher smacking Nicholas Cage and shouting, "Snap out of it!")
One of many great insights to come from Martin Luther was that parents hold the highest office in all creation. God entrusts the shaping of little lives in parents' care. Their work is more important, then, than that of any president or king. Parents are major-league influencers!
Those who influence us at more global levels over sustained periods of time are few. In history, the list would include people like Gallileo, Luther, Gutenberg, Lincoln, Dickens. People on such a list will have proven that they belong on it because of the continuing ripples emanating from their ideas or achievements.
But who is it that exerts the greatest influence on our lives today?
Hugh, Joshua, and Joe have all weighed in. Their choices each have merit. I might add other candidates: Roger Ailes, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, JK Rowling (not an American, but certainly a huge influence), Osama bin Laden. (I don't endorse the views of everyone on that list; I simply note that they have influence, positive and/or negative, on us.)
But we need to be careful about this whole business. In his famous phone call from the Oval Office, Richard Nixon told Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, standing on the moon, that their landing on the lunar surface was the most astounding event "since Creation." Nixon loved superlatives, of course, and he might be excused his enthusiasm, even though his declaration overlooked God's incarnation in Christ, along with Christ's resurrection, as well multiple centuries of stunning events and scientific achievements. Superlatives are iffy things.
But it seems clear to me that in order to be designated "most influential person not in the government," a person must probably enjoy widespread trust. Very few people in the public eye, known to us only through TV, radio, newspapers, films, and the internet, will elicit that from us.
Our greatest influencers and our greatest opportunity to be positive influences on others are close to home.
Just a few lunchtime thoughts.