Is Billy Graham, America's convert-maker, in the midst of a conversion himself?

It appears so. In putting on the new man, Graham's hour of decision suggests that his conversion has nothing to do with sanctity defeating sin but with a more painful and self-revealing transition: moving from the ranks of the naive to the aware.

The issue is war and peace. Graham, father confessor to Lyndon Johnson and court chaplain to Richard Nixon - two of this century's most fanatic believers in war - has long lavished his blessings on the American military machine. He has been both a militant anti-Communist and a supporter of the Vietnam war.

His tone is now different. In a recent interview on the CBS Evening News, Graham said: "I'm in favor of disarmament and I'm in favor of trust. I'm in favor of having agreements not only to reduce, but to eliminate. Why should any nation have atomic bombs? As I look back - and I'm sure many people will disagree with me on this - but as I look back, I think Mr. Truman made a mistake in dropping that first atomic bomb. I wish we'd never developed it."

These words are from the man who issued this war-whoop in 1965 during the debate on troop escalation in Vietnam: "We have to have our men. We have to have police forces, whether it is police in a great city or police on an international scale to keep those madmen from taking over the world and robbing the world of its liberties."

Although Graham has not come so far along as to call for unilateral disarmament, his being born again into this new thinking has aligned him with a large number of peace groups. They are delighted with his conversion.

Raymond Wilson, a Quaker who created in 1943 the Friends Committee on National Legislation, says that with Graham's large following among the evangelical wing of American Protestantism, "he'll be a big help. He's always been a good man but now he's also a concerned man. He's more than welcome to the peace movement."

According to a Graham friend who regularly talks with the evangelist, Graham began seeing the lights in the darkest of places: on a 1977 trip to the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. The vibrancy of religion in places like Poland opened Graham's eyes to an aspect of the East-West standoff that he hadn't considered before: Communism might still be the work of the devil, but it isn't so bad as to take the global risk of nuclear annihilation to stop it. As Graham told CBS, "We don't realize the proliferation of these weapons and the arms race of $400 billion that we're spending on arms in the world. Insanity. Madness."

Graham, who at 60 has been a national figure since 1949, comes late to his current awareness. Until now, his apostleship as the nation's most acclaimed Bible-thumper has been marked by country-boy naivete. He let himself be used by the rich, famous and powerful. Dutifully, he has reported that we have had it wrong about them.

He said of Lyndon Johnson: "He was a deeply religious man. Most people didn't know that. Most times I was with Johnson it was in his bedroom. He'd lie in bed and read the newspapers and watch his three television sets. Every time I'd ask him to pray, he'd get out of bed and down on his knees in his pajamas. That's how much respect he had for prayer."

It's been worse. In an article in Nation's Business, Graham gushed about the joys of money-making: "Thousands of businessmen have discovered the satisfaction of having God as a working partner. It puts integrity into their organizations, sincerity into their sales and spiritual and monetary profits into their hearts and pockets."

As for the paradise in which these holy businessmen will spend eternity, Graham once said it would be free of earthly corruption: "no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease."

Thirty years of such flackery and toadyism aside, it may well be that Graham's new-found fervor for peace - moving from a view that "we must maintain the strongest military establishment on earth" to calling such a show of force "insanity" and "madness" - proves to be effective.

No question exists that Graham has been effective from his pulpit. Through his pop celebrity as the nation's favorite evangelist, his passion for the Gospel has moved numberless people to redirect their lives. He has a personal graciousness that is authentic. On the two occasions I have been-with him - once for a round of golf. another at a group lunch - he was an honest, kindly and unposing man.

What his career has lacked is immediacy, of taking his religion out of its convenient systematized form and using it to confront and impinge on society's institutions that find docile churchmen useful for survival. Perhaps this was asking too much of Graham - a North Carolina farm boy who went from a Tampa Bible college to be the confidant of kings, presidents, and board chairmen. Enchantment with the glitter would have captured anyone, not merely a down-home preacher.

In the new and refreshingly perceptive book, "Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness," Marshall Frady describes the uneasiness that has come into Graham's life: "Especially for the past several years now - as it happens, since Nixon's own humiliation and banishment, and with that, the sudden fall of the high sun of Graham's own golden season in the life of the nation - Graham reports that he has noted, 'Whenever I enter a restaurant now, any public place, I can see the mockery in their eyes, I can see the hostility. I can see people punch, nudge each other, whispering among themselves - Watch out, here comes Billy Graham. Be careful, don't get converted. I'll be very happy when my time comes to go to heaven.'"

Until then, it appears that Graham will be speaking out against America's militarism. Veterans in the peace movement are saying that if he is to be effective he must move beyond bland words. These have always come easy to Graham, the former Fuller brush salesman.

Instead, he may have to risk offending his flock, for whom disarmament has never been a holy passion, nor even a passing interest. Can Graham stir them? Will he risk being ostracized by the powerful as he shifts from his customary pap that denounces sin to some righteous anger that denounces specific weapons and specific policies?

In brief, is Graham up to being not only a smooth New Testamant evangelist but also an unruly Old Testament prophet? CAPTION: Picture, Billy Graham now refers to militarism as "insanity." By Charles Del Vecchio - The Washington Post