In the time-honored tradition of Christians going bravely before the lions, evangelist Billy Graham faced a crowd of snarling reporters here today in his first public appearance in this country since remarking in Moscow that he had seen no evidence of religious repression in the Soviet Union.
Clearly concerned about the furor his remarks had created, Graham, mildly incandescent in a dark suit with the most delicate threading of silver, and with a tan one does not usually see on a returnee from Moscow, seemed to spend much of his news conference repenting.
He prefaced his remarks to the press by saying that he'd only been in Russia a short time and "in 5 1/2 days I certainly became no expert on the Soviet Union."
He said that, in answer to the signs he'd seen coming in from the airport, "I am not a communist and have not joined the Communist Party and was never asked to join the Communist Party."
He said he "did not see but one negative article" about his Russian statements while in Europe, and that was in an American paper. "Here in the States something must have been misinterpreted or misunderstood or I used the wrong phraseology."
Those who might have expected him to recant, however, were disappointed.
Did Graham stand by his comments that he had seen no repression in the Soviet Union and that there were more devout churchgoers in Russia than there were back home, the reporters asked.
"Yes and no," said Graham. "You asked me what I saw. I saw three churches Saturday midnight packed with people preparing their hearts for worship on Sunday. I said they wouldn't do that in Charlotte. But it sounded like more people went to church in Russia on Sunday than go to church at home on Sunday, which I didn't mean . . . . "
"You have to distinguish between freedom of worship and freedom of religion," said Graham, "You can go worship, but you do not have Sunday schools, evangelical campaigns, other types of organizations that we have here . . . . " Later he added, "I think there's only one Baptist Church and one synagogue in Moscow but I believe anyone, if he could get in, could go."
Pressed on the issue of religious freedom, he said that freedom in this country was "tremendous here compared to the Soviet Union" and that freedom in the Soviet Union was "a bit more than I might have anticipated."
He also denied the suggestion that his desire to be allowed to conduct a crusade in Russia in the future made him an extremely cautious guest.
"I made no deals with anybody," he said.
Other issues he dealt with obliquely.
Asked if he might have been used for propaganda, Graham said, essentially, that it was too early to tell.
"I don't know," he said, "I've only just gotten here."
Asked about his comments in 1954 that "either communists must die or Christianity must die," and whether his opinions had since changed, he said they had varied only in that he knew "the ultimate triumph is going to be to the Kingdom of God."
Nor did suggestions of "selling-out" rankle him. TV commentator Bill Moyers had remarked that it "was not easy to sup with power and get up without spots," a CBS reporter told Graham. Hadn't he, perhaps, to put it bluntly, been selling out?
"That certainly never occurred to me," said Graham, "but Bill would certainly know about that . . . . He's supped with power quite a lot . . . , quit the ministry to become a political correspondent . . . . "
Likewise, he was as smooth as his tailoring when told that there were reports KGB agents were among the Jewish leaders with whom he talked.
"That's the first I've heard of it," he said, his eyes wide and sincere. "I hope, though, that if there were KGB they were in the Moscow Baptist Church Sunday when I talked because I really gave them the gospel and those are the kind of people I really want to reach . . . .