All hail, Bill Gates the Great

BILL GATES bsodI meant to post this flashback last night, but was caught up in that server crash that shut GetReligion down for several hours.

So here goes.

Several days before control of Hong Kong was handed back to the regime that runs China, I took part in a small conference in that mega-city focusing on journalism and religious liberty. During that meeting, I ended up at a dinner table — containing one really, really large fish — talking with a powerful local publisher.

As you would imagine, we were talking about the subject of the day — the handover. At one point, he made a statement that went something like this (it was not a setting in which one pulled out a notepad and took notes): “There are, you know, only two men in the world that the leaders of China truly fear.”

Everyone at the table gestured for him to tell us more and he replied, “They are Bill Gates and Pope John Paul II.”

We all gestured again: Why those two?

The first of the two men, he noted, wanted to designate how a country carried out almost any kind of transaction in business, educational, politics or culture. All of those activities, in this day and age, involve computers in one way or another, and Gates wanted to set the standards and write the rules for all of that. You could either work with him or you had to oppose what he was trying to do, and that would be very hard.

And then there was Pope John Paul II, a man who was very difficult to control because his followers were committed to honoring an authority far higher than the state.

One man wanted to control this life (or most of its public expressions), while the other’s authority was rooted in the life to come. For a totalitarian state, these were two very different threats.

I thought of this while working through one of the lists that the editors at USA Today have started posting as part of the celebration of the newspaper’s 25th birthday. They started with a bang:

They are the 25 most influential people of the past 25 years — those who changed our world, transformed technology, mapped the human body and affected the way we relate to one another.

And who was No. 1? Ask the Chinese authorities:

1. Bill Gates, software entrepreneur

His Microsoft software shaped the way millions use the technology that has transformed communications and commerce — making him the world’s richest man and, now, a leading philanthropist.

As you would imagine, this immediately made me want to know where Pope John Paul II finished in this race. So I looked down the list. And down the list. Here is what that looks like, in terms of the rest of the Top 10.

2. Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president

Elected in 1980 and re-elected in 1984, he put the United States on a more conservative course, restored buoyancy and confidence in the presidency and forged a partnership with a reformist Soviet leader that helped end the Cold War.

3. Oprah Winfrey, talk show host

As a talk-show host, first at WLS-TV’s AM Chicago in 1984, she pioneered a form of intimate public discourse that brought taboo subjects into the open and sparked a confessional, self-help culture.

4&5. Francis Collins & J. Craig Venter, mappers of the human genome

The Human Genome Project headed by Collins and a parallel private effort by Celera Genomics under Venter jointly announced the mapping of the human genome in 2000, opening the door to breakthroughs in identifying, treating and preventing the world’s most feared diseases.

6. Osama bin Laden, terrorist

For most Americans, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by the al-Qaeda network he leads marked the beginning of a global battle against radical Islamists 12 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War.

7. Stephen Hawking, physicist

In the tradition of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, he explored the nature of the universe. He popularized science, wrote the best-selling A Brief History of Time in 1988 and remains a puckish personality despite being severely disabled by Lou Gehrig’s disease.

8. Lance Armstrong, cyclist and cancer activist

He won a record-breaking seven consecutive Tour de France races, cycling’s most prestigious event, after battling testicular cancer. Sales of his iconic “Livestrong” wristbands have raised millions of dollars to help fight cancer.

9. Pope John Paul II, pontiff

Polish-born Karol Jozef Wojtyla helped propel a peaceful revolution in Poland in 1989 that ended Soviet domination and reverberated through Eastern Europe. In a 26-year papacy, he defined the Roman Catholic Church’s role in modern times.

10. Bono, rock musician and activist for Africa

Born Paul Hewson, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2 has shrewdly pressed world leaders to forgive third-world debt and address the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

oprah secretNow what is amazing to me about this ranking for this pope — behind Lance Armstrong? — is that the editors linked John Paul the Great to Poland and the fall of the Soviet empire and still put him at No. 9. Did we live through the same quarter century?

This lists are made to cause arguments. The key to me is the various forms of religion and faith that are found in the list of 25. You should strive to do a LeBlancian analysis of the list, so to speak.

Go through the list yourself. Count the people who you consider to be “religious leaders” in one form or another. Yes, Oprah has to be in there. Ditto for Bono. We live in the mass media age, for better or for worse. And it is even hard to remove the Bible Belt trappings from the career of Sam “Wal-Mart” Walton and the causes he backed.

More questions: Is coffee a sacrament? And is Homer Simpson a real person?

Well, there you go. That offers a few clues as to my thinking. What think ye?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    And is Homer Simpson a real person?


    That’s also my feeling about those on the list as a whole.

  • Stephen A.

    Lance Armstrong? Really? Lance Armstrong? ????

    I’m in awe of his public relations people, I really am.

  • michael krayenvenger

    I don’t know about you folks but I left my car in the dust and only peddle a bike in service and honor of Lance Armstrong!

    Isn’t coffee a sacrement?

    There are many half drunk American dads on during sunday Football time who are indeed real Homer Simpsons………and feel it is there specific duty to honor him at that time……

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m surprised Pope John Paul II even made the list. The secular world always ignores the strength and staying power of religion. The editors of USA Today putting the pope who pulled off a peaceful revolution greater than Ghandi’s behind a bicyclist makes them as blind as those who tried to wipe-out religion in the Communist Empire.
    What I find interesting is reading lists of noted world leaders from history who are famous for their non-violent philosophy and witness—and they never include Pope John Paul II, or Lech Walesa, or Cardinal Sin of Manila. It is as if those in the academic world and the media who frequently make the lists of famous non-violent leaders–like Ghandi or Thoreau or the Dalai Lama– just can’t bring themselves to put a Catholic leader on their list of heros.

  • Dale

    My nominees:

    John Paul II: Crucial figure in 20th century political and religious history. I don’t think this man will ever be a footnote in a history book.

    Alasdair MacIntyre–This Roman Catholic Thomist philosopher, now a professor at Notre Dame, published the influential book “After Virtue” in 1981. His critique of the Enlightenment’s project of creating a universalizable code of ethics (particularly classical liberalism) has influenced Christian theologians, political thinkers and philosophers as diverse as Stanley Hauerwas, the “theo cons” of First Things and the Radical Orthodoxy movement.

    Billy Graham–Continues to be the figurehead for American evangelicalism. As his activity fades, the organizations he helped to create come into their own.

    Dalai Lama–Besides being a “poster boy” for trendy Hollywood spirituality, he has become a symbol of resistance to Chinese religious persecution and an exporter of Buddhist philosophies to the West.

    Elie Wiesel– The person who best represents the efforts made to remember the moral disaster of the Holocaust. Holocaust memorials, museums, films–Wiesel was behind much of it.

    Desmond Tutu–The spiritual leader of the anti-apartheid movement. With Nelson Mandela, largely responsible for the nearly miraculous peaceful transition in South Africa.

    Corazon Aquino– A faithful Roman Catholic, her leadership of the “People’s Power” nonviolent revolution against the Marcos regime in the Phillipines presaged similar mass actions in Eastern Europe 6 years later.

    John Richard Neuhaus–crucial figure in ecumenical efforts between Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants in the U.S.

    N.T Wright–Most influential conservative Bible scholar.

    Dominic Crossan–Most influential liberal Bible scholar.

    People who I wish weren’t influential but probably were:

    John Shelby Spong– Always available to provide quotes for the latest “shocking” feature about the Bible in the mainstream media. Popularizer of fading liberal theologies. Like the character of Hazel Motes from Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood”, sets out to improve the Church by getting rid of Christ. Worthy obnoxious counterpoint to Jerry Falwell.

    Jerry Falwell– While building his Lynchburg empire, manages to embody most of the negative stereotypes of American evangelicalism, and becomes “go to” man for mainstream media looking for “gotcha” quotes. Alienates quite a few of his fellow evangelicals in the process and reaches a milestone in evangelical–Roman Catholic relations: John Paul II is twice as popular among evangelicals than cousin Jerry. Useful person to induce self-righteous fulminations by John Shelby Spong.

    The Bakkers–Their PTL Club broadcasts were exercises in the mortification of the flesh for anyone who had a scintilla of taste. Endless fodder for Saturday Night Live skits. With pyramid schemes, Playboy Playmate secretaries and air-conditioned doghouses, the Bakkers made Elmer Gantry look good. Tammi Faye goes on to become camp celebrity in the gay community (an evangelical first), and then shows us what she’s really made of by facing death with faith and courage.

    Jimmy Swaggart–The instigator of the crash-and-burn televangelist spectacles of the 80s. Swaggart denounces the sexual indiscretions of Jim Bakker and others, and promptly gets caught with a prostitute. After showy weeping apology, defrocked by Assemblies of God but shamelessly continues TV “ministry”. Gets caught again with prostitute, and this time tells congregation that God says it’s none of their business.

  • MT

    I don’t know about you folks but I left my car in the dust and only peddle a bike in service and honor of Lance Armstrong!

    Where do you peddle bikes? I’m looking for a new one.

  • KermodeBear

    Oprah? Lance Armstrong? Bono? How on earth can someone compare their contribution to the world to those of Hawking and Pope John Paul?

    Sure – Oprah has a popular television show. She has a book club that can make or break pop-culture authors. That’s about it. Armstrong won the Tour de France a bunch of times and survived cancer. Bono flies around and makes himself feel good by talking about Africa.

    Big deal.

    These people haven’t pushed the boundaries of science. They hasn’t stopped, or caused, war. They haven’t brought us to a new state of thinking or changed the face of the world.

    The mass media constantly ignores the influence of religion – for better or for worse – and I’m (pleasantly) surprised to see the Pope listed at all, though he is nowhere near the top which is exceptionally disappointing.

  • David (from Edinburgh)

    The site doesn’t make it clear whether these are supposed to be the most influential people in the world, or just in America. I would suggest it leans HEAVILY towards the latter, when Nelson Mandela is eleven places below a (very good) cyclist and Oprah Winfrey is seen as more powerful than the Pope (whose influence is not limited to the English-speaking, tv-watching world).

  • Chris Bolinger

    Folks, it’s USA Today. And you can’t take anything in USA Today too seriously.

  • David Blomstrom

    Everyone knows Bill Gates is the world’s richest person (or second richest, now that he’s been eclipsed by some Mexican tycoon), but I’m sick of hearing the big lie about Bill Gates being a leading philanthropist. The Bill and Melinda Gates is an INVESTMENT FIRM. For crying out loud, the SOB even scr*wed Seattle taxpayers out of several million dollars in acquiring a new headquarters.

    Bill Gates is one of the world’s greatest criminals, and I believe he owes his success in large part to his father, who is one of Seattle’s sleaziest attorneys.

    I’m working on a series of articles about Bill Gates that I hope to have online in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’m running for public office here in Seattle and making Gates a campaign issue. Please see my campaign website at (It, too, should be revised after this weekend.)

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  • glenn

    Oprah Winfrey, of course.
    Her modern revival hour is on TV everyday.
    She gives gifts. She hosts the beautiful people.
    Every statement she makes is greeted with shouts and applause.
    She makes her audience FEEL GOOD.
    I’m surprised she was not #1.