Boston — To some, he is the most compelling messenger of the Gospel in the world, bringing Christianity to crowds that typically number in the tens of thousands.
To others, he is an opportunist, adapting himself to the latest political movements--and naively allowing himself to be used by them.
Both sides agree, however, that he is the most widely recognized Protestant leader in the world today.
And how does the Rev. Billy Graham, the North Carolina preacher whose recent trip to Moscow stirred controversy when he was quoted as saying there was ''a measure of religious freedom in Russia,'' describe himself?
''I'm not an Old Testament prophet; I'm a New Testament evangelist,'' he said in an interview May 28.
In the privacy of a Holiday Inn suite (he has a one-of-a-kind personalized credit card with the Memphis-based motel chain), he appears anything but a fire-breathing, devil's-goin'-to-get-you evangelist of the type portrayed in Sinclair Lewis's novel, ''Elmer Gantry.'' Easygoing, amiable, with well-tanned, chiseled features, he combines a disarming sincerity with a ready warmth--characteristics that regularly place him high on Gallup's most-admired-man polls. A December 1981 Gallup poll, for example, ranked him fourth behind President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Jimmy Carter in its list of the 10 most admired men.
In keeping with his latest crusade--he is in Boston to address a week of stadium gatherings at Boston University's Nickerson Field May 30 through June 6 --he wore a tie sporting red lobsters. He also mentioned that he had taken advantage of the location to visit Vice- President George Bush at the latter's Kennybunkport, Maine, residence the weekend before his crusade began. Just before leaving for Moscow, he says, he spent the day with the Bushes in Washington, and talked several hours with his old friends, President and Mrs. Reagan.
Why does he call himself a ''New Testament evangelist''?
His self-assessment came as he was defending the friendliness of his dialogue with Soviet leaders during his 51/2-day trip to Moscow last month.
Despite his assertions that he was quoted out of context about religious freedom in Russia, he agrees that the trip still needs some defending. His critics--like columnist William Safire and Middlebury College president Olin Robison, an ordained Baptist minister who has spoken in many churches in the Soviet Union--insist that his visit lent credibility to a particularly repressive government. Many of them had hoped the Rev. Dr. Graham would speak out forcefully for human rights while in Moscow.
But Billy Graham says he models himself less on Jeremiah--the ''weeping prophet'' of the Old Testament, who castigated the backsliding leaders in Jerusalem and warned of impending judgment--than on Jesus and Paul, neither one of whom ''led a demonstration against Rome.''
Jeremiah, he says, ''is not my role. My role is good news.'' And he adds, ''Why should I go over and start a fight in an area in which I may be able to do some good if I don't? I'm a clergyman.'' He says he did speak out privately in his conversations with officials at the very highest levels of the Soviet government--adding cryptically that there are things behind his trip that can't be revealed for ''maybe five years.''
Is this the same Billy Graham who, in 1954, equated communism with Satan and wrote that ''either communism must die, or Christianity must die''?
In some ways, he has changed. In recent years he has become increasingly worried about the threat of a nuclear holocaust. ''I think the technology (of nuclear armaments) has caused me to change and to feel that we must live on the same planet with these people,'' he says.
''I wouldn't want to live under a communist system,'' he adds. But asked why his attitude appears less anticommunist than it once was, he replies, ''Primarily because I'm for peace, and because I don't want us to get into a nuclear war with them.''
He has, in fact, recently aligned himself with the peace movement. He went to the USSR as an observer at a Soviet-backed meeting rather extravagantly billed as ''The World Conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe.'' But he is not in favor of unilateral disarmament. Instead, he strongly favors negotiations leading to arms reductions--a position corresponding closely to President Reagan's.
The fear of nuclear proliferation, he says, is what ''makes me say, 'Let's tone the rhetoric down and let's see if we can come to some understandings.' '' Nowadays, he acknowledges, such negotiation has a higher priority than anticommunism.
In other ways, however, his response to the Soviet leadership is the logical outgrowth of positions he has always held.
Theologically, he is not a radical. What, then, is his central message? ''First of all, that man has a flaw in his nature, which the Bible calls the 'mystery of iniquity,' '' he says, adding that ''the only remedy for it is the cross of Christ.'' We need, he says, to ''repent of our sins and receive him by faith.''
Nor is his a particularly scholarly faith. ''The message I'm trying to get over is very old, it's very simple, there's nothing new about it,'' he says. ''And many times it's quoted in the press, 'He didn't say anything new.' Well, there's nothing new to say about the Gospel.'' He adds, ''I'm not a great intellectual.''
How, then, is one to move beyond this initial repentance? ''Through study,'' he says, adding, ''I think the first thing that a new believer needs to do is to study the Bible.'' He has a ''devotional period'' each day. Following a plan of study that includes the reading of five Psalms and one chapter of Proverbs each day, he completes each of these books of the Bible every month. ''Psalms teaches me how to get along with God; Proverbs teaches me how to get along with my fellow man,'' he says. When he is at home - and during the month each year that he spends at Johnny Cash's house in Jamaica - he says he spends two-thirds of each day studying. He has kept to his studying even during the last six weeks , which he describes as ''the busiest period I've ever had in my whole life.''
At the Baptist Church in Moscow, he says, he preached on the fifth chapter of John - the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. ''I don't have healing services ,'' he explains, ''but I believe that there's all kinds of healing.''
''Of course I believe that there is a healing of the body in the message of Christ,'' he says, adding that ''when a person gets straightened out spiritually , this is a great healing for his whole being.'' He sees the ''gift of healing'' as reserved for certain people, and adds that ''I don't believe I have been given that gift.''
One of the points of controversy that arose over his preaching in Moscow, in fact, concerned this sermon. He included an exhortation (from the 13th chapter of Romans) urging a submission to the authority of governments: As the New English Bible puts it, ''Anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution.'' Even as he spoke, however, a young woman was removed from the church by security guards. She had quietly unfurled a banner that read, ''We have more than 150 prisoners for the work of the Gospel.''
The Rev. Dr. Graham noticed the banner. Asked at a press conference in Moscow for his response to the incident, he noted that ''we detain people in the United States if we catch them doing things wrong.'' And at a press conference in Boston after his return he summarized his trip by saying, ''I have no regrets. . . . I certainly have no doubts now. I have no apologies to make.''
Would he, then, adapt his message to please his hosts? Earlier in the Monitor interview, when asked if (in his own words) he would preach the same message ''from the Black Sea to Siberia'' if he were invited back to do so, he replied, ''Exactly. I would never change my message.''
When questioned about the use of the verse from Romans, however, he says that he ''preached an old sermon'' and ''that (passage) was in there, and I didn't stop to think how it might be interpreted.'' He admits he was already ''tired from his exertions'' and ''distracted'' by the presence of multitudes of television cameras and by the necessity of speaking through an interpreter. Now, looking back, he admits that ''that's not the type of sermon or message for me to preach in that situation.''
Is he, then, an opportunist, shifting with the winds of power? He has been a close friend of such diverse American leaders as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. And though he has won the highest awards of the Jewish community for his work against anti-Semitism, he has been accused of cozying up to the Soviet leadership, which has frequently been characterized as anti-Semitic.
To that accusation he takes some umbrage. ''Do you think that Mr. Haig is going to 'cozy up' to Mr. Gromyko when they talk? Or that Mr. Reagan should not meet with Mr. Brezhnev in October if they have that opportunity?'' he replies. His point: Like the Pope visiting both Great Britain and Argentina, he feels he can accomplish more if he does not ''rebuke his hosts.''
Yet his ministry does depend on the immediacy of conversions - of individuals , sometimes numbering in the thousands, streaming to the front of the congregations to acknowlege their repentence. The Rev. Dr. Graham admits that his organization does not keep track of what later becomes of these individuals - although, he says, he is asked that question many times.So is his ministry one that, rather than working for a long-term result, simply seizes upon the opportunity of the moment?
''Right,'' he replies, ''I would agree with that.'' Seeing every interchange as ''an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel,'' he sees his goal more as sparking an immediate response than as building long-term relationships. The latter, in his view, is the job of the individuals who have already received the ''Holy Spirit into (their) hearts.''In that regard, then, many would say, Billy Graham has not changed - nor was his deportment in Moscow anything but a natural outgrowth of his evangelistic background.
Yet because of his eminence, Dr. Graham finds himself sometimes caught in the middle. On the one hand, he insists that he is not a diplomat. ''I've been offered everything from ambassadorships up and down,'' he says, adding that he has turned them down because ''everything I look at is (from the perspective of the question), Can I proclaim the Gospel?'' Yet he meets the press more frequently and freely than other religious leaders - and is regularly asked to comment on various subjects. Some of those subjects include:
* The Moral Majority. ''I'm not a part of the Moral Majority,'' he says, which he describes as ''a political movement.'' And though he has only met him once over a quick hand-shake, Graham says he has ''a great deal of admiration for Jerry Falwell as a person. . . . I'm watching him move more to the center, I think,'' he says - not politically so much as ecumenically. ''He's been a separatist,'' says the Rev. Dr. Graham, adding that ''he would never have me preach from his pulpit because I'm too ecumenical and too involved in social issues.'' Now, however, ''he's beginning to see that there's another world outside of this relatively minority group that he was with.''
* President Reagan. Here, too, Billy Graham sees a change of thinking, away from harsh anticommunist rhetoric and toward an ''encouraging'' willingness to ''sit down at a table and talk to the Soviet leaders about arms reduction.'' He has known the Reagans, he says, ''since the first years after they were married.'' Reflecting back on the visit with the Reagans just before he left for Moscow, he says that the Reagans ''came over (to the Bushes' Washington residence) and spent about 21/2 hours. We never talked about Russia. We talked mostly about his old movie life, really. He was just relaxed, just like he didn't have a problem in the world. He is really a tremendous person, in the sense that he has the ability to turn things off in his mind, I think, and relax.''Then, speaking in the context of his earlier friendships of presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, he adds that ''he is a very sincere person, and probably one of the most religious presidents that we have had in years.''