Graham In Moscow: What Did He Really Say?

Billy Graham presented the claims of Christ to many who had never heard before and might never hear again.

What many hoped would be the climax to the life of an evangelist devoted to preaching the gospel has threatened instead to end in tragic rejection by friend and foe alike. Scarcely had Billy Graham arrived in Moscow last month when the quiet warnings of some people rapidly crescendoed to a roar of disapproval. Never before in all his career has the evangelist faced such condemnation from the American press and from evangelical leaders.

Of course, the jury is not yet in with the final word. But in the continuing furor, two quite different questions must be examined: (1) Should Graham have gone to Moscow; and (2) Did he betray his own cause by things he said or omitted saying while there?

These two questions are intertwined. If making this trip of necessity required such a betrayal, then the answer to the first question is: No, Graham should not have gone.

The evidence, however, does not warrant linking betrayal with his going. Many religious leaders—members of the National Council of Churches, extreme theological liberals, mainline liberals, Southern Baptists (President Bailey Smith, for example), independents, and parachurch leaders (such as Bill Bright)—have all at one time or another visited the Soviet Union. Many church leaders attended the same conference on nuclear war.

In the past, no one has objected to others undertaking such trips. We must conclude, therefore, that there was nothing inherently wrong or unwise about Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow. Given Graham’s goals, his priorities, and the promises made to him, we are convinced he chose rightly. Any evangelical with similar goals, priorities, and promises would have—and should have—made the same decision.

But what were his goals? And what assurances did he secure from the Soviets before he went?

First of all, Graham did not go blindly or naively. He realized he would be used. In one interview, he said: “I knew there were risks involved in this mission. I knew I risked being misunderstood and even exploited, but I considered the risk worth taking.”

Graham’S Goals

1. He wanted to preach the gospel publicly at the nuclear conference, at the Orthodox cathedral, at the Baptist church, and privately to Soviet political officials and church leaders.

This he was able to accomplish. In each of these places, Graham presented the claims of Christ to many who had never before heard them and might well never hear again.

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2. He wished to plead the case for religious freedom in private meetings with high Soviet officials.

Graham was assured that he would have opportunity to plead the case for the “Siberian Six,” the unregistered evangelicals, the registered evangelical churches, and for freedom of religion in general. This request was honored. He did in fact plead their case in private, and the results are yet to be seen. While direct confrontation has sometimes been effective, it is not the only way to move the Soviets to action. It would seem the act of charity and of wisdom to allow Billy Graham to attempt nonconfrontational, behind-the-scenes diplomacy in an effort to win some relief for the people of Russia who are being persecuted for their religious convictions and practices.

Before he finally decided to make the trip, Graham consulted many world leaders: individuals who are highly knowledgeable about Soviet affairs—including such people as Henry Kissinger, the Pope, scholars, diplomats, and many evangelicals. Their advice, overwhelmingly, was that quiet, nonconfrontational diplomacy would be far more likely to secure concessions for the persecuted in that land than direct confrontation and mass-media exposure.

3. He wanted to warn of the tragic consequences of nuclear buildup and the armament race.

More and more, Graham has become convinced of the horror of nuclear warfare. He sincerely hoped to do something dramatic to bring the world to its senses so that tens of millions—perhaps hundreds of millions—will not be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. He is not a pacifist. He is not even a nuclear pacifist. He did not argue for any unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons. Rather, he warned of dire consequences to come if the nations continue their current nuclear buildup and prolong indefinitely the arms race. He called for a negotiated reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear armaments and other weapons of mass destruction. Such disarmament would have to be by mutual agreement, and carried out with adequate means of verification. It is a sane, feasible, and very necessary approach to the present arms race. It would protect the innocent, yet it would hold out possibilities for great relief to our entire planet, and especially the tax-burdened peoples of Russia, Western Europe, and the United States.

4. He hoped to be permitted eventually to hold preaching missions in large cities throughout the Soviet Union.

Right from the first, this goal did not loom as large for Graham as it did in the public news media. Yet, he is convinced that Soviet leaders are open to the possibility of such a mission. He is still convinced that there is at least a fifty-fifty chance that he will be able to do this. Though Graham is aware that there would be great risk in such an evangelistic tour, he also knows that so far his public and private messages have not been censored. He also knows that many Soviet religious leaders wish such a mission.

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Certainly these are worthy goals. No fair-minded person—let alone any evangelical Christian—could object to them.

The Cost To Graham

But what price did Billy Graham pay to achieve his goals? Was the cost too great, as his critics claim? To gain his ends, did he have to sell his soul? Or, more accurately, did he have to compromise his own integrity as a Christian, as a man who loves justice and freedom, as one who prizes religious freedom above life itself, and who wishes to be a loyal American? What was the price tag for Graham?

He was free to preach his gospel message; he did not have to deny his own precious conviction of freedom. Undoubtedly it was assumed by both sides that he would not make open and public denunciations of Soviet policies, including its repression of political and religious freedoms.

But Graham was not silent about political and religious freedom. In private, he pled the case for the Siberian Six and for the 150 imprisoned pastors. In his public address, he boldly called upon the nations of the world to uphold rigorously the Helsinki agreements. He pled especially for full freedom of religious worship and practice, for without freedom and justice there will be no peace: genuine justice is the foundation for peace. (See the full text of Graham’s speech, beginning on page 20.) His one concession on this occasion was not to single out specially, and bluntly condemn, the Soviet Union for its lack of religious freedom.

All of this Graham clearly understood. Yet he thought he could accomplish more through quiet diplomacy and public preaching of the gospel than by openly denouncing the Soviet government for lack of religious freedom. Was that price too great? Billy Graham thought not. We agree. But the decision of others will depend on the relative values each assigns, on the one hand, to preaching the gospel, to quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy on behalf of freedom, and to the necessity of warning against nuclear war and the armament race, and, on the other hand, to the opportunity to speak out publicly in condemnation of Soviet violations of political and religious freedom.

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It should not surprise us that many people disagreed with Graham. One leading newsman, who reacted strongly against Graham, denounced him bitterly: “Graham was a dupe—a fool. Mouthing the gospel to Soviet leadership and privately urging them to act contrary to their basic convictions was an utter waste of time. Of course, he could preach his gospel and tell them in private to relax their restrictions against religion. But do you think Graham will convert those Communists or move them to lower their tyrannic grip? Of course not. Graham was a fool to think so. He was duped by them to fit into their propaganda and their Marxist program for nothing in return.”

That criticism sums it all up. But Billy Graham believes that God can and does use the frail human preaching of the gospel to transform people. It is not his business to preach the gospel only to likely candidates, but rather to every human creature. Moreover, Graham manages his life and ministry by the long look. The gospel is a time bomb. Working quietly through it, the Spirit of God can overturn nations and civilizations. The first Christians rarely mentioned slavery, the rights of women, the gladiatorial shows, and direct governmental involvement in moral rottenness. In time, though, the dynamite of the gospel penetrated the Roman empire and its tyranny.

Was Graham Right?

The question of whether Graham did the right thing in going to Moscow depends on how highly a person values the proclamation and the power of the gospel. Only time and eternity will reveal the full answer. But at this point we are not prepared to condemn him.

The second and equally crucial question concerns what Graham said in Moscow. Did he, in the give-and-take with the press, inadvertently and foolishly betray his own cause and the cause of freedom? In short, did he play his hand properly and adroitly at every point during his six days in Russia?

Billy Graham would be the last person to claim infallibility for himself. Reflecting upon the outcry that greeted him on his return, he commented: “I am an evangelist—not an expert in church-state relations in the Soviet Union. I regret that some of the statements I made regarding my visit to the Soviet Union were misconstrued and misinterpreted by the media. I care deeply about the plight and suffering of believers everywhere in the world where religious freedoms are restricted, including the Soviet Union. I sincerely regret any public statements which I made that might seem to indicate otherwise.”

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But we insist that the record be set straight. By taking Graham’s words out of the context in which they were spoken and placing them in an alien context of their own concerns, some news people, consciously or even unconsciously, falsified many of Graham’s statements. They thus wrongly pictured him as betraying his own deepest convictions.

For example, Graham never advocated a U.S. retreat before Russian aggression. He warned of the awful consequences of the nuclear arms race and called for mutual, negotiated, verifiable disarmament. Likewise he did not ignore publicly the issue of political, social, and religious freedom. Rather, in a most pointed manner, and in a most public way, he called the nations of the world to justice and freedom. He did so in a manner that all understood to be a rebuke of Soviet failures in this regard.

He got no applause when he made this point at the Soviet congress. He was met with only a stony silence. Nor did he declare in answer to direct questions that Russia is a land of religious freedom. He conceded instead—something that implied the opposite—that there was more freedom there than he had thought before going, and more than in today’s China, though it is not like the United States. And it is hardly an affirmation of approval to state that a political leader is not so bad as Hitler.

Neither did Graham say there is more religious freedom in Russia than in Great Britain. In a context not of religious freedom but of church-state structures, he pointed out that Britain, unlike Russia or the United States, has a state church of which the queen is the titular head. When someone called to his attention how his words had been interpreted, his response was: “Ridiculous! There is no comparison between the religious freedom in Britain and that in Soviet Russia.”

One of the most disturbing comments recorded in the news was Graham’s statement, “I have seen no religious persecution during my stay in Russia.” Out of context this sounded like a blanket endorsement of religious freedom in Russia. Yet Graham’s answer was a reply to a very explicit question: “Have you personally witnessed any religious persecution while you have been here?” Graham later expressed deep regret that he had not cited the Siberian Six. He added: “I recognize that there is a difference between religious fervor, which is great in the Soviet Union, and religious freedom, which is severely restricted. The Soviet Union is an officially atheistic state, and many believers pay a price to follow Christ.”

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The same can be said for his point that a Christian ought to work hard, be a better citizen, and obey his government. Scripture says all of this. But Graham himself has acknowledged that if he had the chance to do it over again, he would not have referred to these biblical truths in a context where they were liable to be interpreted far beyond what the Scripture passages really mean.

All of us can remember times when we should have said more about something, or less, or even differently. But we who sit on the sidelines in this classic struggle should be the last to condemn Billy Graham for lack of foresight in offhand comments to one or more newsmen. We should judge him on the basis of his stated goals and the main thrust of his formal messages. An ocean voyage does not make a missionary, and we should not expect a trip to Moscow to make an instant diplomat. After all, Billy Graham is an evangelist.

An even more obvious lesson to be learned from the news coverage of Graham’s trip to Moscow is that evangelicals dare not trust the secular news media’s coverage of religious news (see News, pp. 46–48, for further illustrations of the dilemma this poses). On the basis of initial reports, many evangelicals were dismayed at what they believed Graham said. Others became angry and violently attacked Graham for betraying the persecuted people of Russia. Among evangelical leaders, Jerry Falwell and Charles Colson stood out for their temperate response. Perhaps their own experiences with a press not careful to get things straight have taught them to be more understanding.

Finally, those of us who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is the dynamite of God, able to blast away sin and the sinful structures of an unjust society, may indeed regret any slips and the unfortunate infelicities of unplanned spontaneous comments. But we rejoice at the opportunity to preach the gospel—actual and potential—with the hope that the power of the gospel can change the hearts of men, as well as the evil structures of even a Communist society.

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