The Rev. Billy Graham has caught hell, as it were, for making a holy fool of himself in the Soviet Union.

He went there as a guest of the Soviet Ministry of Religion to ornament with his presence its "World Conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe": a propaganda exercise as absurd as its title.

After speaking in a church crammed with KGB agents, Graham marveled that so many had turned out to hear the word of God. Afterward, pleading inadequate information, he declined to say that "religious freedom" is lacking in the Soviet Union, where believers must "register" lest their observances be deemed illegal.

Graham's childlike assessment of the status and prospects of faith in the Soviet Union has disgusted former admirers, right and left. They weighed his ingenious defense (that he is making a proximate peace with the Soviet authorities, even as St. Paul made one with Rome) and found it wanting. They decided that America's most famous evangelist is serving mammon.

But speaking as one who has never especially admired Graham, I am not sure they are right.

Graham's critics base their condemnation on a secular view of the politics of religion. No one is in danger of confusing Billy Graham with St. Paul, that infinitely subtle apostle to the Gentiles. But in some ways the comparison is less farfetched than one might suppose.

St. Paul's missionary journeys to indifferent and hostile places were energized by the belief that what had happened to him as a scourge of the faithful could happen to anyone--by an agency beyond this world's comprehension.

What happened to St. Paul could conceivably happen to the Politburo, although if it did the gunfire would probably drown out the singing. The Romans were more civilized than the leaders of the Kremlin. If God intends to turn their hearts, He will have his work cut out.

The mystery of the Graham episode, more mysterious than Dr. Graham's blindness to a systematic persecution of religion, is that the evangelist's disillusioned admirers have only now discovered his propensity for finding redemptive possibilities in unlikely people and places.

Billy Graham has been the companion and comforter of the mighty for years, a complacent ornament of their gathering places, often discovering in the powerful a pleasant (if well-concealed) sweetness.

He began to doubt Richard Nixon's saintliness only after the Watergate tapes showed Nixon talking in what, in Billy Graham's home town, would not be regarded as a Sunday School vocabulary. It was a real spiritual crisis.

In his recent biography of Dr. Graham, Marshall Frady documents the credulous inanities that long have marked the evangelist's comments upon those who wield worldly power, many of whom were hardhearted men indeed. The spectacle brought to Frady's mind Melville's innocent young seaman, Billy Budd, who "had none of that intuitive knowledge of the bad which in natures not good, or incompletely so, foreruns experience."

Billy Graham tends to separate the world from the devil in watertight realms, a major problem with his brand of evangelical Christianity. It scants the prophetic tradition--the tradition of Nathan and Amos and Jeremiah--to emphasize redemptive hopes. It soft-pedals the prophetic assault on secular pride and position in favor of an unearthly trust that the wicked may be turned from wickedness by supernatural intervention.

Thus Billy Graham, like St. Paul, is sounder on hope than on the messy realities with which great prophets have concerned themselves. So it is hardly shocking now that he seems to wink at Soviet practices that no prophet could have stomached, and pleads, in extenuation, the Letter to the Romans.

Unlike Dr. Graham's recently disillusioned admirers, I find here the same old Billy Graham. Even so, I am not sure we can predict how the battle over the soul will turn out in the Soviet Union.

Graham makes mistakes that his secular critics would never make, says things that sound disgustingly complacent to those who know the harsh reality of religious persecution. In his simple-minded way, nonetheless, he clings to the root of the matter as St. Paul saw it: to the faithful, all things are imaginable.