He takes it on the chin from the press. Is religious freedom relative?

Not in 30 years of public ministry has Billy Graham been the center of as much controversy as he was during his six-day visit to the Soviet Union last month. Graham was invited to Moscow to address a Kremlin-approved peace conference (see accompanying story), to speak at a Russian Orthodox church service, and to preach a sermon in Moscow’s only Baptist church.

From a religious point of view, the visit had genuine significance. It brought Russian Orthodox and Evangelical Christian-Baptist leaders together on a spiritual basis, and both sides learned they had much in common. Because of the evangelist’s close contacts with Orthodox leaders, they “accept him as a real servant of Christ,” observed Alexei Bychkov, general secretary of the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. This is highly significant in light of any future visit of Graham to the Soviet Union, he explained. Already, a number of Orthodox leaders have invited Graham to preach in their churches if he is able to return for an extended preaching tour. He touched spiritually responsive chords among them. (No official figures are available, but Orthodox strength is estimated in the tens of millions, with about 7,000 churches still open.)

As for the Baptists, Graham’s preaching visit on Sunday, May 9, was “a great event in the history of our church,” commented Bychkov. Many Christians were inspired to witness more boldly for Christ, he added.

Such developments are notable in light of the government’s published policies of the past in which increased zeal among believers and spread of the faith are frowned on.

For years, Soviet Baptist leaders kept bumping into Graham at Baptist World Alliance and other meetings, where they expressed hope he could some day come and preach in their homeland. (He had visited the Moscow Baptist Church in 1959, but his tourist visa restricted him from speaking in a public meeting.)

After more than a year of negotiation and preparation, that day finally arrived May 9, a glorious Russian spring day. Graham was originally scheduled to speak at the 6 P.M. Sunday service, but for crowd-control reasons, he was shifted at almost the last minute to a special service at 8 A.M., when there is relatively little public transportation available. Attendance was only by pass, and the normally full overflow rooms at the church were closed. (Graham’s visit was unannounced in Moscow, but the news was carried into the country by a Voice of America broadcast.)

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In all, nearly 1,000 people, many of them standing, were already in place when the evangelist entered the building, the only Baptist church in the city of 8 million. Church sources said about one-third of the people, including the choir members, were from the church, one-third were from out of town or news reporters and visiting foreigners from the conference on nuclear disarmament, and one-third were outsiders, including a number of security personnel. Western news people reported that officials were nervous over the possibility of disruptions by dissidents.

As the two-hour service wore on, hundreds of additional worshipers arrived, but they were kept behind barriers a block away, where they broke into hymns. Many had traveled hundreds of miles to hear Graham. Among them were ten teen-agers who had come by train from Tula, 100 miles south of Moscow. A 16-year-old told reporters they had come to hear Graham because “God speaks through his mouth.”

Inside the church, Alexei Bychkov introduced the evangelist. He asked how many had read Graham’s book Peace With God, and nearly half the hands in the auditorium shot up. (Some books are brought in from outside the country; others are hand copied or duplicated by other means. Through such methods, Graham’s writings are fairly well known among the estimated four million Protestants in the Soviet Union.)

Graham preached for nearly an hour on the healing of the paralytic man in John 5, likening it to conversion. He asked those who wanted to recommit their lives to Christ or receive him as Savior to raise their hands. Scores responded, prompting ripples of praise throughout the congregation.

As the evangelist headed for the door, late for his appearance at the Orthodox Cathedral of the Epiphany, the congregation sang “God Be with You till We Meet Again,” waving handkerchiefs at him. Some wept.

Well over 1,000 persons, including a number of young people, were on hand at the cathedral for a colorful two-hour service of liturgy and music centering on the Eucharist. Shifts of priests clad in golden robes and colorful headdresses moved about the platform, and from the balconies three choirs sang antiphonally. Then came nearly an hour of sermons and greetings. Graham delivered a condensed version of his John 5 sermon. Whenever his Orthodox interpreter slacked off, hundreds at the rear of the church cried, “Louder! Louder!”

Clearly, to Graham and his retinue, the trip was a success. But reports from Western newsmen covering his visit were painting a much different picture. Their accounts were sharply critical and noted that Graham was trying especially hard to avoid embarrassing his Soviet hosts by not criticizing the nation’s oppressive religious restrictions. News stories in U.S. papers suggested Graham was keeping silent in order to win permission to return to Russia with a full-scale crusade.

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If that wasn’t bad enough, according to the press reports, Graham seemed to be going out of his way to provide grist for the Soviet propaganda mill. He was said to have told reporters at one press conference that he had seen no religious persecution in the Soviet Union, thereby implying that it wasn’t a severe problem. He was reported to have suggested that the Soviet churches are freer than the Anglican church, because the latter is a state church headed by the monarchy, whereas Soviet churches are “free.”

He was reported to have preached in the Baptist church that believers should obey authorities, according to Romans 13, thereby implying that Christians should not kick against religious intolerance. He was taken to task for preaching in a Baptist church full of KGB agents and other officially approved ticket holders, while the crowd of genuine believers could not get in.

The press implied that Graham had done wrong by not protesting when a young woman in the Baptist church was led off by police for opening a small banner that read “We have more than 150 prisoners for the work of the gospel.”

Graham’s activities, based on the news accounts, caused confusion and disappointment among some conservative churchmen. Edmund Robb, a United Methodist who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, said Graham had been “manipulated to give legitimacy to a conference controlled by the Soviet government.” Lynn Buzzard of the Christian Legal Society described the reported statements as “tragic” or at best “incredibly naïve.” Buzzard has been to Moscow twice recently in efforts to free the Siberian Six. “There’s something wrong when in order to preach the gospel you turn your back on those who live the gospel,” Buzzard said. Mark Azbel, a Soviet dissident who appeared with Robb on David Brinkley’s ABC television program, charged that Graham had betrayed religious people in Russia.

There were also some indications, however, that the hot reaction was deliberately one-sided. Moral Majority spokesman Cal Thomas was phoned by NBC radio and asked for a comment on Graham’s statements. When Thomas told the reporter he would be glad to speak but would not be critical of Graham, he was not interviewed. Theologian Carl Henry was contacted by an NBC newsman in New York and told that he could be on national news if he would criticize Graham. Henry declined to do so, even though he was troubled by Graham’s participation in the peace conference. Charles Colson, canny about press reports from his days in the Nixon administration, gave Graham the benefit of the doubt. “I admire a guy who takes risks.… I don’t think the jury is in yet,” he said. Colson added that he doesn’t put much faith in “fragmented reports from secular reporters.”

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When Graham was on the Brinkley show, he was interviewed live by satellite relay from England, where he had just arrived from the Soviet Union, and he was largely unaware of the reaction against him building in the West. He wasn’t told ahead of time that Robb, Azbel, and others would be on the show to ambush him, and he was taken aback at the stridency of the remarks—without time to prepare a defense. This interview was picked up widely by U.S. newspapers, and it fanned the flames.

Graham and the people who accompanied him to Moscow were surprised at the reaction, since European newspapers were generally friendly. Their reports centered on Graham’s peace conference speech (see page 20), in which Graham said, “We should urge all governments to respect the rights of religious believers as outlined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The statement that caused Graham the greatest problem when filtered through the news media reports was his reference to the status of religious freedom in Russia. He made this statement at a press conference and was responding to a question from television reporter Bruce Bowers of WSOC-TV, Charlotte, North Carolina, who was in Moscow. Bowers asked, “Before you arrived, Metropolitan Gregorius [of India] said that this conference dispels the myth that there is no religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Have you reached any conclusion on that subject?”

Here is Graham’s response, based on a tape recording of his remarks:

“That [religious freedom] is a relative term, I think, because in the various countries I go to around the world—some 50 in all—there are various kinds of restrictions or various kinds of laws and formulas. Here in the Soviet Union, you have many religions. You have Muslims, Buddhists, various branches of denominations, I think some 40 denominations here in various parts of the country. The country is so huge that it would be impossible for me to come to Moscow and in six days make any personal evaluation.

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“There are differences, of course, between religion as it’s practiced here and, let’s say, in the United States, but that doesn’t mean there is no religious freedom. Because, just from my own point of view, not one single person has ever suggested what I put in the address I gave to the congress or the sermons I preached here, and I took the liberty, and maybe sometimes the presumption, of presenting the gospel as I know it to everybody I was with. I didn’t want to leave one single person without having presented what I believe to be the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I have not had anyone say ‘no,’ or ‘don’t tell me,’ or ‘say this,’ or ‘say that.’ So I have experienced total liberty in what I wanted to say. So, from my personal experience, I have had liberty.”

Bowers then asked, “Are you saying that you agree in effect with Metropolitan Gregorius?”

Graham replied, “Not necessarily. I’m just telling you that I don’t know all about it. I’ve only been to Moscow and I’ve had all these meetings, and I haven’t had a chance [to see everything]. But Saturday night, I went to three Orthodox churches. They were jammed to capacity on a Saturday night. You’d never get that in Charlotte, North Carolina [laugh]. On Sunday morning the same was true of the churches I went to, and it seemed to me that the churches that are open, of which there are thousands, seem to have liberty of worship services.”

Graham was also chastized for saying that Russian churches are freer than the Church of England. Here is his full response: “Thousands of churches [in the Soviet Union] are open. Now they may have different relationships [with the state] than, say, they have in Canada or Great Britain. And in Great Britain you have a state church and in other countries you have state churches. Here the church is not a state church. It is a ‘free’ church in the sense that it is not directly headed, as the church in England is headed, by the queen.”

Upon his return to the United States, Graham held a press conference in New York City to defend his statements, and then he was interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAY editors. Commenting in the interview on the news stories implying that Graham believed there was more church freedom in the Soviet Union than in Britain, he said, “Never in a million years have I said that.” He said he was using the “free church” term in its ecclesiastical sense (as in, for example, the Evangelical Free Church denomination), not its political sense. “That got so out of proportion I couldn’t believe it,” Graham said. “Of course, today, in an unofficial way, the [Soviet Union] has a great deal to say about the church and, I’m sure, about certain leaders in the church.”

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In his New York press conference, Graham was asked about the value of preaching at the Baptist church, since there were so many security agents present. Graham replied that he hoped there were plenty of KGB agents present: “Those are the kinds of people I’ve been trying to reach for a long time” with the salvation message.

In the interview, Graham flatly denied what was most widely attributed as his main motive—a determination to say nothing that would harm his chances for a full-scale crusade in the Soviet Union.

Graham said that was not the reason he refused to speak strongly in public about Soviet religious persecution. He said he was there to spread the gospel of Christ wherever he could. He said he knew he might be used for propaganda purposes, but he said, “My propaganda is greater than their propaganda.” Graham said he met more top Soviet officials then he ever thought he would get to meet, and he said many of them had never before met a Western churchman, let alone an evangelical. To every one, he said he gave a witness of his faith. To only two officials, he said, did he even mention the possibility of conducting a crusade, since he believed it would be out of place to press for it. He estimates his chances of returning as only fifty-fifty.

Regarding the Baptist church service in which the woman was led away for holding up the banner, Graham said he couldn’t read the sign, and he didn’t understand fully what happened when the reporters accosted him about it. In his New York interview, he said, “What she didn’t know (or the press either, apparently) was that I had the names and addresses [of the 150 Christian prisoners] with me, and their pictures, too, and I gave them to the proper person [in the Soviet bureaucracy].” He acknowledged that his list might have been different from hers, because his had only 147 names on it. Graham said that if he had “shouted and screamed” in public and made his trip a big media event, he would have been able to accomplish very little, and certainly would not have been able to see the people whom he did see. He said that experts on Soviet affairs told him this was a proper course to take.

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In the interview, Graham also responded to the reports about his preaching on Romans 13 and saying that Soviet Christians should obey their government. He said he was not preaching on Romans, but on John 5 in which Jesus is accused of breaking Jewish law by healing on the Sabbath. The sermon, Graham said, contains a reference to Romans 13, and he said he has preached that same sermon about five times before, during his New England crusade. The Romans 13 passage is such a natural part of the sermon that he used it in Moscow, but he said he believes he did not apply the Romans passage to Soviet Christians. Had he suspected that anyone would apply the Romans reference to the plight of Soviet believers, he never would have used it, he stated.

In the interview, Graham expanded on his relationship to the press and the pressures of being a public figure:

“There is something I have to think about, and all of us do. It’s that the time is drawing closer to when I cannot engage in this type of schedule, and all the pressures of being a public figure [Graham is 63]. I was talking to a newsman about it. He was saying, ‘The Pope is never exposed to what you’re exposed to. You stand naked before the press in every city.’ He said there’s no other public religious figure who has to face this all the time.” Later Graham added, “I’m so different from the rest of them. I’m not sheltered by a big denomination.”

He also said in the interview, “I feel that I’m not intellectually, spiritually, or physically capable of carrying this [responsibility] out to perfection. I walk scared all the time that I’ll do something that will bring disrepute to the Lord. It’s been many years that I’ve been doing this, and when issues like this come, I just keep asking the Lord to just ‘keep me in your will,’ and I find myself praying almost full-time.”

Graham said that in spite of all the ruckus over his Moscow trip, he has a feeling of serenity about it: “I determined that if I did not preach the gospel, that God might remove his hand from me. Now I know that all of this that has come is from the Lord, because I have the greatest sense of peace that I was in the will of the Lord.… There might have been one or two little things I would have changed, like that verse of Scripture … but I believe the whole thing was of God. Now, I do not see all of that at this moment, but I’ll see it in six months, or a year later, or maybe never in this life. But I believe I went in the will of God, and I feel it more strongly now than when I left here.”

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Although Graham was roundly criticized for saying there was more religious freedom in the Soviet Union than he thought, he is not the only one expressing similar views. A New York Times article written from Moscow during Graham’s trip noted that the Soviet press frequently mentions the increasing numbers of young Russians who are turning up in churches.

Roy Bell, a Canadian member of the American Baptist church, and a vice president of the Baptist World Alliance, also visited the Soviet Union within recent weeks. He reported seeing “a large measure of freedom in which many Christians operate,” and he said the freedom depends on the strength of the local government bureaucracy. He said that conversions to Christianity, as well as baptisms, are taking place, at least in the registered Baptist churches he visited in Moscow, and in Tashkent in Soviet central Asia. The registered churches are those that cooperate with the government’s strict laws limiting the practice of religion in the Soviet Union. It is the unregistered congregations, which do not recognize the government’s control over religion, that find themselves in trouble.

Graham’s serenity in feeling he had done and said in Russia what he felt led to do and say seemed to be matched at home by the public response that began surfacing after initial press reports subsided. As he resumed the New England crusade, which he interrupted to make the Soviet trip (CT, May 21, p. 28), the crowds were once again large and responsive, and the mail coming into his Minneapolis headquarters was running in his favor.

American Churchmen Rewrite Some Soviet Propaganda

The peace conference wasn’t so peaceful.

One of the roles the Soviet government has assigned churches in the USSR is the propagation of Soviet views of peace. So it is no surprise when Soviet religious leaders announce the convening of peace conferences like the recent “World Conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe” in Moscow. But it is a surprise when things don’t go according to the script. The script, in fact, was rewritten at the Moscow conference, thanks to the efforts of a trio of strong-willed American denominational leaders. The Soviet press suddenly fell strangely silent.

Some American participants privately described the alterations as a major defeat for the Soviet propaganda mill, and there is some concern among them over what repercussions might be felt by the sponsoring agency, the Russian Orthodox church.

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The conference’s nearly 600 participants had come from all over the world. Among them were about 30 Americans, including four executive heads of denominations: William P. Thompson, United Presbyterian Church; Avery Post, United Church of Christ; David Preus, American Lutheran Church; and Arie Brouwer, Reformed Church in America.

Organizers had asked councils of churches and other groups for recommendations, but final selection of participants was made in Moscow.

A multipart, heavily pro-Soviet statement, earmarked for release in the name of the conference, but drawn up in advance in Moscow, was redrafted with much greater balance. The revision effort was spearheaded by Brouwer and Preus, with Post working the point in the background, getting key leaders from East and West together to agree on a compromise arrangement.

The original statement had been lavish in its praise of Soviet peace moves and critical of the U.S. Under the revision, both Moscow and Washington were urged to dismantle nuclear weapons before it is too late. The paper warned that mankind is “near the brink of total annihilation.” It called on the two superpowers to freeze production of nuclear arms and start scrapping a large part of their existing arsenals.

With the exception of evangelist Billy Graham’s address, many of the early speeches of the conference were blatantly pro-Soviet and anti-American. When it came time for Preus to serve a stint as conference chairman, he launched a defensive strike, warning that “this conference is in danger of becoming a political forum heavily tilted against the West, or the country that I represent.” He cautioned: “If we make of this conference mainly a series of charges and countercharges against West and East, we will go home with no great summons to the nations to rise above enmity and nuclear confrontation.”

Preus went on to plead with subsequent speakers to speak “out of religious conviction and to honor the principle of evenhandedness. Do not send any delegate home to be asked why he or she did not respond in anger to the charges made against his or her country.” Unity, he said, was needed in order to speak effectively to all nations.

Brouwer picked up the appeal in a major speech to the conference, departing from his prepared text to acknowledge that while the “primary focus of the American churches is on the policies of our own government, we of course lament the participation in the arms race by the Soviet Union and other countries.” Self-criticism, he said, does not “mean that we consider the U.S. to be unilaterally responsible for the problems of the world.”

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Members of the drafting commission reportedly met amid fierce infighting until 3:30 A.M. on the day the conference was to receive and vote on the proposal.

The outcome seemed to stun some delegates, and the Soviet media failed to report the compromise agreement.

Another dispute involved Wim Bartels, international secretary of the Dutch-based Interchurch Peace Council, who was not permitted to deliver a speech that spoke favorably of the Polish trade union Solidarity, the East German peace movement, and the Charter 77 human rights group in Czechoslovakia. He walked out of the meeting after he was denied the floor.

Participants at the next Moscow peace conference may be selected more carefully than this year’s batch.

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