Most Americans have never heard of Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. He was a roundish man who wasn't a great orator and never hosted a radio or television show. He practiced his conservative politics mostly behind the scenes.
But during his 52-year career, Bright--who died Saturday at age 81--was as influential as the Rev. Billy Graham and Focus on the Family's James Dobson.
As a young man, Bright said he got an "impression" from God that his mission was to reach college students. The idea was to persuade the "best and brightest"-the next generation of leaders-to become evangelicals. Bright drew up a pamphlet called "The Four Spiritual Laws." The tract included four statements, essentially a formula for pitching the gospel. The first and best-known is "God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life."
It is this strategy that was Bright's main contribution to evangelical Christianity and the wider culture. He was one of the first Christian entrepreneurs to mix marketing and religion; his formula resulted in the conversion of thousands.
"He's been tremendously influential, particularly in encouraging people to share their faith and in teaching ordinary people to do that, not just evangelists," said Kathryn Long, a church history professor at Wheaton College and former Campus Crusade staffer.
Probably his most enduring legacy is the Jesus film, which he produced in 1979 as an evangelizing tool for missionaries with the help of his friend, oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, who put up $4.5 million. Today, the film has been translated into 816 languages and has been seen by an estimated 5.6 billion people.
Hunt said in a 1998 interview that he immediately liked Bright's idea for Campus Crusade when they met in the early 1960s. "That's really where the problems were coming from, from leftists on the campus. This would be a means of balancing that situation."
The two stayed in touch.
"My theology and his theology are quite similar," Hunt said. "I'm not really a stickler for details as long as people believe in Christ and are honest about it."
Though he professed no involvement in politics, Bright seemed to relish his links with Republican leaders and liked to share memories of sitting between powerful senators at the 1980 Reagan inaugural. In the 1970s, he was embroiled in some public political skirmishes. Jim Wallis, the prominent liberal evangelical who is founder of Sojourners, remembered unfurling anti-Vietnam War banners in the middle of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas during Explo 72 and chanting "stop the war" as Bright was conducting a military celebration.
Later, Wallis published an article accusing Bright of using his ministry to promote right-wing politics. The article charged Campus Crusade with using its hundreds of Bible study groups as a political staging ground. It also charged Bright with political networking at Campus Crusade's Christian Embassy in Washington. The embassy offers counseling and prayer services to government officials.
Billy Graham publicly opposed the embassy, saying he was against organizing Christians into a political bloc. A flurry of attention followed, with national news organizations sounding the alarm about "politico-religious groups."
Bright vigorously denied a political scheme. "There was a left-wing element in our government, and the media tried to paint anything I did as being right-wing, bigoted, and anti-intellectual," he said in 1998.