VIEWPOINTS: Who do you think is the most influential religious leader and why?

By Tracy Simmons

The Barna Group released a study in November showing that most Americans (41 percent) couldn’t think of anyone to name as the most influential Christian leader.

Those who could think of someone said Billy Graham (19 percent), followed by Pope Benedict XVI (9 percent) and then Barack Obama (8 percent).

Religion reporter Jeffrey Sheler said globally, the most well-known religious leaders are the pope and the Dalai Lama. Next, he said, is Rick Warren.

We asked SpokaneFAVS panelists what they thought.

Who do you think is the most influential religious leader and why?

Lace Williams-Tinajero

Martin Luther (1483–1546) stands out as the most influential religious leader, and with the help of the Gutenberg Press, he was able to reach a wide audience with his teachings. Things changed dramatically for the church and believers because of this 16th century reformer.

Nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany (1517) was Luther’s groundbreaking stand against the abuses of papal authority of his day (e.g., selling indulgences). More stands would come. In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, Luther refused to recant his writings, a stand that put his life in jeopardy. Using his linguistic skills, Luther was able to get translated copies of the Bible into the hands of ordinary people.

The Bondage of the Will” remains one of Luther’s most influential theological works. In it, he attacks the notion of free will. He argues that the human will, apart from God, is bent on evil, not good. Out of his personal struggle with guilt and striving to please God, Luther advocated for the unparalleled gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of being justified by grace through faith rather than by one’s efforts. Sola gratia (grace alone), sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), and sola fide (faith alone) will forever be the hallmarks of Luther’s life-changing theology.

Lace Williams-Tinajero

Rev. Bill Ellis

This is a very tough one because I don’t quite know how to understand the term “influential.”

So often religious insight gets distorted by subsequent generations into something that simply vindicates the perspective the followers would take on life and the world anyway without the work of the religious teachings they follow. So the question to me is not who has the biggest religion, or who had the most temporal success in his or her own lifetime, but rather, who got people, either by accident or design, to understand themselves and the world entirely differently than they otherwise would have, and where is this influence still alive?

By that criterion, I have to say either Gautama or Jesus; Gautama more by his teaching, Jesus more by the manner of his death in the context of the life he lived.  Gautama developed a path, a way, rooted in what he called noble truths.  That path is still travelled by a lot of people and when followed faithfully,  leads people into a life that is completely counter-cultural, a life of nonviolence, a life of reverence for the earth even as it fosters a certain kind of detachment from it.

Jesus left no writings of his own. The gospels notwithstanding, it is impossible to be sure of anything he said or did. Yet, his death had an electrifying effect on his followers.  Normally when your leader is murdered you either scatter in fear or swear revenge on the perpetrators. Jesus’ followers, under his influence, did neither. Instead they went out and proclaimed God’s all inclusive love and acceptance of the very people who killed him. Now that is weird, that is earth shaking. The first Christians were completely transformed by the death of Jesus into people who deeply understood the nature of unconditional love, and because of their association with Jesus declared this was the deepest meaning of the life and death of their leader, and the revelation of the true nature of God.  Now this message was later distorted horribly, but we have in the writings of Paul and others a critique of that distortion that keeps bringing us back to their own insistence on the true meaning of Jesus’ life and death.

In every generation some people get it, and keep that remarkable meaning alive.   So, I am inclined to say Jesus by his death in the context of his life, Gautama by his teachings, as the most influential religious leaders of all time, for they are the ones who turned the world upside down, even though ever since their followers have been busy trying to turn the world right-side up again.

Rev. Bill Ellis

Daya Goldschlag

I think one of the most compassionate of teachers in the world today is the Dalai Lama.  He is a great example of how not to return anger and violence with more of the same. He includes all beings in his prayers and keeps a sense of humor while aware and sympathetic to all the suffering in the world. If only government leaders around the world  would take some guidance from his words and presence.

 Daya Goldschlag

Pastor Eric Blauer

I’m not sure if I can answer this question for Christendom or the world. But for me, besides Jesus Christ, it would be Hannah Whitall Smith and Jean Guyon.

Both writers resuscitated my spiritual walk post-Pentecostalism. I was running on the fumes of religious externalism and was finding faith rooted in self effort is a poor source for spiritual fruit.

These ladies opened to me the world of a gospel of union with Christ within me vs a works based spirituality that found its sustainability in my own emotions, re-dedications, events, services or good works.

I’m forever grateful to these women of the past, for being shown the interior way of following Jesus.

Pastor Eric Blauer

Ernesto Tinajero

The most influential religious leader is a very tough question and at the same time easy for a Christian.

Jesus would be the most obvious answer for Christians. The older form of historical dating, A.D and B.C, belay how important he was in that his birth marks change from ancient to modern. Even the recent update to historical dating using Common Era (C.E) and Before the Common Era (B.C.E) still have Jesus as the point.

Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists or anyone other believer or non-believer,have to venture an opinion about the man. This is both from the pervasive influence of his followers and the fact even other faiths have official stance on the nature of Jesus (Islam still views Jesus as a prophet, some branches of Hindu view Jesus as another incarnation of Krishna and so on).

Our common carpenter from Nazareth seems to be everywhere 2,000 years later. Again, most people have various opinions as to who he was: he was God incarnate; he was a failed revolutionary; he was made up by the early church to control people; he was a code name for a drug; he was a prophet; he was a crazy man; he is an atonement for our sins; he was an Egyptian magician; he is one of the three-part Holy Trinity. I’ve read a full third of all humans alive report to follow Jesus, making his followers the largest faith in the world.

My own experience with Jesus, real and in my daily life, makes me aware of the central mystery as to who Jesus is. My faith in him has gone through an ever evolving transformation. My hearing what others say about Jesus has both deepened my faith and left me confused as some views simply make no sense. Those who claim he never existed and was simply a prop for the early church make no sense to me no matter how much I try to understand them.

The more I try to contain Jesus on a cross of history, a cross of theology, or a cross of sociology the more elusive Jesus becomes. He rises off any cross I attempt to put him on. But, the more I engage him in my person time or hang out with him, the more real he becomes. More real than even my own self.

Ernesto Tinajero

Rev. Alan Eschenbacher

I didn’t think this would be such a hard question.  My mind started wandering from sheer numbers of followers — Jesus and Mohammed both have lots of followers, as do many eastern religion leaders.

Within the Christian faith, Constantine had great influence on the future of Christianity but wasn’t, I don’t think, a religious leader. Luther gets credit for kicking off the reformation. Calvin, Zwingli and Wesley were great leaders in subsequent years.

There have been good Popes and bad over the years, both could be considered “influential.”

I will have to go with Martin Luther. Not just because I am a Lutheran, though I suppose that’s a factor since I did study him a bunch. I choose him because of the reformation, the fighting against the evils of the papacy at the time, the courage to stand in face of death, to translate a bible into common language so everyone could read for themselves about the grace and forgiveness he found in its pages and to insist that this was the greatest message the bible has to offer and the greatest message Christianity has to offer the world. Luther did have his moments, both of brilliance and folly. His, later in life, rants and venom for the Jews were unfortunate and assure me all of us sin and fall short of God’s glory. There is much in Luther’s writings that I have yet to discover, that which I have already found leads me to hold him up there with the greatest most influential leaders of religion given the good and bad things that happened in the wake of the reformation.

Rev. Alan Eschenbacher

Bruce Meyer

As far as Western Christianity goes, I think it’s hard to come up with a leader more influential than Augustine (354-430 CE). In the early part of his life, Augustine was a teacher of Greek philosophy. He had a conversion to Christianity and became one of the most important fathers of the Christian church, both Catholic and Protestant. His influence over almost every aspect of Western civilization, whether religious or secular, is difficult to overstate.

For me, however, Augustine’s impact was in his writings on religion and science, or what he called faith and reason. As both a Greek philosopher and a church father, Augustine argued for one truth but two means to knowledge: the book of nature and the book of Scripture. He described a bird with two wings, reason and faith.  Today we have a rise of fundamentalism, religious on one side and scientific on the other. Christian fundamentalists seek truth only from the Bible and reject science, while scientific fundamentalists believe all questions will one day be solved by science, denouncing religion as irrational. Augustine said otherwise. Both are indispensable to humanity.

Bruce Meyer

Pearce Fujiura

Wow, what a complicated question! There are a million ways to interpret this question. Who is/was the most influential religious leader globally? In my life? In my religion? Most of the world is Christian (approximately 2.2 billion Christians worldwide) making Jesus my shoe-in vote for the most influential religious leader in the world.

However that answer is a little too generic and impersonal for this blog. I believe that the most influential Buddhist leader globally is likely to be the Dalai Lama. In the western world, I believe that Thich Nhat Hanh is rapidly becoming the guiding light of western Buddhist. Many of the Buddhist ideals that the western world is exposed to are from the Zen tradition and Thich Nhat Hanh is the most prolific and articulate Zen Buddhist in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh has influenced millions of people in his lifetime, his books and his teachings focus on the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism that people of many different faiths can relate to. He is an activist for peace, interfaith communication, and non-violent conflict resolution.

His book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ”, is in my opinion, one of the best publications about harmony between Christianity and Buddhism. I find myself trying to follow his lead quite often, attempting to improve the lives of those around me through Buddhism without changing their religious beliefs. I believe that enlightenment is not just for the Buddhists of the world, it is for everyone.

He has taught me that I can share the roadmap to enlightenment with Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike and doing so can bring more joy and peace to the world. Thich Nhat Hanh now resides in a monastery in France where he practices Zen Buddhism and leads thousands of practitioners and pilgrims from around the world seeking spiritual guidance. While I do not believe or follow all of his practices I admire his message and his gift for delivering that message to people of all cultures and faiths.

– Pearce Fujiura

Do you have a question for the SpokaneFAVS panelists? Email it to

4 responses to “VIEWPOINTS: Who do you think is the most influential religious leader and why?

  1. From the perspective of the history of Christianity i have to agree with Bruce about the importance of Augustine. Not only are Bruce’s points well taken, Augustine himself also became the source of much of Catholic and Protestant theology. That is true of exctly no one else, except St. Paul. Indeed, my initial answer to the question was Augustine, until I reframed it in the terms I describe in my response, at which point I opted to cheat and offer two possibilities.

  2. Pearce Fujiura

    I think it is a very interesting coincidence that the only two living religious leaders listed by the bloggers happened to be Buddhists. I am still hopeful that I may get a chance to meet Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama sometime in this life. Who are the influential Christian leaders alive and walking the earth in a literal corporal form today? Which Christian leaders would you (the collective Christian audience) like to meet in this lifetime?

  3. P.S.

    Alive and Kicking:

    Eugene Peterson is alive, I’m a big fan and am greatful to have met him.

    Stanley Hauerwas…said to be one of America’s greatest Theologians. I’m not qualified to agree or dissagree but he’s one of my favorite peace voices.

    I think Bono represents an artist and activist worthy of time and place.

    Dead but still speaking catagory:

    I would of said Mother Teresa…a few years back.

    MLK JR is dead…but he’s in my top10 to get to talk to in heaven.

  4. hananeneffloutf

    Thank you guys for sharing your thoughts:)
    Personally, every time I read the Quran I am amazed by the astounding personalities of all the Prophets of God peace be upon them, every one of them is inspiring in different aspects. For example Prophet Moses is one of the most successful leaders that walked the earth and the similarities between him and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are overwhelming.
    For me, the most influential and most successful leader of all times is Prophet Muhammad and many Muslims and non-Muslims still celebrate his great legacy regardless of the harm he suffered during his life and the harm being done to his image today.

    Michael Hart says in his book “The 100, a Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History”:
    “My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels. Of humble origins, Muhammad founded and promulgated one of the world’s great religions, and became an immensely effective political leader…”
    1. Prophet Muhammad
    2. Isaac Newton
    3. Jesus Christ
    4. Buddha
    5. Confucius
    6. St. Paul
    7. Ts’ai Lun
    8. Johann Gutenberg
    9. Christopher Columbus
    10. Albert Einstein
    11. Karl Marx
    12. Louis Pasteur
    13. Galileo Galilei
    14. Aristotle
    15. Lenin
    16. Moses
    17. Charles Darwin
    18. Shih Huang Ti
    19. Augustus Caesar
    20. Mao Tse-tung
    21. Genghis Khan
    22. Euclid
    23. Martin Luther
    24. Nicolaus Copernicus
    25. James Watt
    26. Constantine the Great
    27. George Washington
    28. Michael Faraday
    29. James Clerk Maxwell
    30. Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright
    31. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
    32. Sigmund Freud
    33. Alexander the Great
    34. Napoleon Bonaparte
    35. Adolf Hitler
    36. William Shakespeare
    37. Adam Smith
    38. Thomas Edison
    39. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek
    40. Plato
    41. Guglielmo Marconi
    42. Ludwig van Beethoven
    43. Werner Heisenberb
    44. Alexander Graham Bell
    45. Alexander Fleming
    46. Simon Bolivar
    47. Oliver Cromwell
    48. John Locke
    49. Michelangelo
    50. Pope Urban II
    51. Umar ibn al-Khattab
    52. Asoka
    53. St. Augustine
    54. Max Planck
    55. John Calvin
    56. William T.G. Morton
    57. William Harvey
    58. Antoine Henri Becquerel
    59. Gregor Mendel
    60. Joseph Lister
    61. Nikolaus August Otto
    62. Louis Daguerre
    63. Joseph Stalin
    64. Rene Descartes
    65. Julius Caesar
    66. Francisco Pizarro
    67. Hernando Cortes
    68. Queen Isabella I
    69. William the Conqueror
    70. Thomas Jefferson
    71. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    72. Edward Jenner
    73. Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen
    74. Hohann Sebastian Bach
    75. Lao Tzu
    76. Enrico Fermi
    77. Thomas Malthus
    78. Francis Bacon
    79. Voltaire
    80. John F. Kennedy
    81. Gregory Pincus
    82. Sui Wen Ti
    83. Mani
    84. Vasco da Gama
    85. Charlemagne
    86. Cyprus the Great
    87. Leonhard Euler
    88. Niccolo Machiavelli
    89. Zoroaster
    90. Menes
    91. Peter the Great
    92. Mencius
    93. John Dalton
    94. Homer
    95. Queen Elizabeth
    96. Justinian I
    97. fJohannes Kepler
    98. Pablo Picasso
    99. Mahavira
    100. Niels Bohr

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