Playing It Safe in the Pulpit : A PROPHET WITH HONOR: The Billy Graham Story, By William Martin (William Morrow: $25; 618 pp.)

D'Antonio's new book, "Heaven on Earth: Dispatches From America's Spiritual Frontier," will be published in February by Crown

The American South produced two great preachers in this century. One of these men, Martin Luther King Jr., shamed an entire nation for the evil of racism and was martyred for his cause. The other, Billy Graham, spent a generation bringing souls to a profession of faith and never lost his place among the "most admired men" in public opinion polls.

It took a fair but piercing biography--Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters"--to deflate the myth of Martin Luther King Jr. and establish him as a fully human figure who achieved greatness. In "Prophet With Honor," William Martin has given us another thoughtful and probing book about a great spiritual leader, one that preserves Billy Graham's glory while revealing a complex and flawed man.

Ironically, it is Graham's greatest achievement, his astounding popularity, that also illustrates his main weakness. As Martin shows, Billy Graham's success has been powered, in large part, by an obsessive need for approval. This compulsion drove him to become the most widely heard orator in history, a preacher with a riveting style who spoke to live audiences totaling more than 100 million people. But it also prevented Graham from playing a more substantial role as a shepherd and a prophet. Afraid to offend anyone, he failed to confront segregation head-on in the 1950s and '60s. For the same reasons, Graham ignored the national agony over Vietnam and Watergate until long after his voice would have been relevant.

Throughout his career, Billy Graham has explained that his main concern is the condition of the individual's soul, not the course of national affairs. But this argument withers in the light of Martin's eye-opening account of Graham's quiet efforts to influence a handful of presidential elections even as he insisted he was neutral on matters of government. Here we see Graham advising Eisenhower and Nixon on matters of partisan politics and coyly signaling the faithful to support Gerald Ford despite Jimmy Carter's well-known religious commitment.

The conflict of Graham's public position of neutrality and his private politicking reflect the larger conflict between the preacher's call to battle sin and his deep need to be accepted and admired by the rich and powerful. Martin describes in detail Graham's enduring friendship with Richard Nixon, suggesting that Graham's affection blinded him to Nixon's true character. (Martin quotes Garry Wills' description of the relationship as "an alliance of moral dwarfs.") In the end, it's clear that Nixon used Graham for political purposes even as Graham offered sincere and heartfelt friendship. "For the life of me," Martin quotes one longtime Graham associate, "I honestly believe that after all these years, Billy still has no idea of how badly Nixon snookered him."

Indeed, this book shows that while Graham understands the nature of sin, he possesses an unwavering desire to see the good and noble in all, especially his friends. Graham sought continually to uplift Richard Nixon, just as he sought to uplift the millions who came to see him on his worldwide evangelistic crusades. A former preacher and professor of the sociology of religion at Rice University, Martin captures the flavor of big-time, crusading evangelism with the enthusiasm of someone who has trod the sawdust of more than a few crusades.

Martin is at his best when he describes moments such as the 1949 crusade in Los Angeles that catapulted Graham to national prominence. His audiences totaled 350,000, and Graham won six weeks worth of favorable coverage from the local media. (William Randolph Hearst ordered his editors to "puff Graham.") The young preacher paid a grandstanding visit to the mobster Mickey Cohen and welcomed a host of Hollywood stars to his "Canvas Cathedral." Martin has faithfully recounted the details of Graham's startling success before ever-growing crowds in Boston, New York and elsewhere. But what stands out is Martin's analysis of what the numbers mean. "In America, at least, most people who attend crusades either belong to or grew up in churches," writes Martin. "For them, a Billy Graham Crusade is like a gigantic homecoming reunion, an upbeat, friendly, non-threatening festival."

Less well known are the stories that Martin tells of Graham's work on behalf of the hungry and poor, his large donations to international aid projects and his contacts with genuine suffering in the less developed world. Most moving is an account of Graham's visit to an African leper colony where the oft-squeamish and somewhat hypochondriacal preacher clasped the stumps that one woman had for hands and joined her in prayer.

Unfortunately, such scenes are few and far between in this story of Graham's life. The Graham shown here seems to be most comfortable with the famous and powerful, and most effective as a tireless cheerleader for conservative Christianity. Indeed, he has lived as a man possessed by the desire to preach before ever-bigger audiences. He at times pursued this work so doggedly that his wife and family were shunted aside. In one telling anecdote, Martin recalls how Graham's wife Ruth brought one of his children to visit him in the middle of a crusade. When she ran to greet him, Graham didn't even recognize the child as his own daughter.

If this obsession with preaching exacted a price from Graham's family, it did help keep the conservative Christian movement alive during the battles with modernism that have raged since the 1950s. Graham kept the fires of revival burning until a new generation of evangelists--Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and the Bakkers--breathed new life into the movement.

It is in contrast with these modern counterparts that Graham stands out as a man of honor. True to his own sermons, he has been untouched by scandal. He has at least paid lip-service to the separation of church and state. And unlike other evangelists, Graham has made his life, and his finances, an open book for journalists and now biographer Martin to examine. Judged by the standards of modern evangelists, Billy Graham does stand out as a man of integrity and honesty. And he may be, as Martin asserts, "the most successful evangelist in Christian history."

But considered against another standard, one suggested by the life of the century's other great Southern preacher, Graham appears a less significant figure. For the better part of 40 years, Billy Graham was one of the most listened-to people on Earth. He did, indeed, convert many souls to Christianity, which remains his stated purpose in life. But he also squandered countless opportunities to address serious problems beyond such sins as drinking, lying, swearing and adultery. This choice will ensure the honorable Graham a prominent place in the history of the evangelical movement, where soul-saving is God's greatest calling. But it may well relegate him to secondary status as a man of history who lacked the courage to challenge the status quo.

Near the end of his book, author Martin presents an interview in which Graham is asked to assess his own character. "I am not a self- analyzer," he responds. "I know some people who just sit and analyze themselves all the time. I just don't do that. . . . I rarely think introspectively like that." Considering what Billy Graham might have achieved if he had reflected more on his life and the opportunity before him, it is easy to wish he had.

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