Some public concern was voiced in the West when the Rev. Billy Graham set off for Moscow to attend an international conference on disarmament. US administration officials, too, felt the evangelist would simply be exploited by the Soviet Union for its own foreign policy purposes. The warnings seem to have made an impression. While cautious not to offend his Soviet hosts, Mr. Graham did make a visit to the handful of dissident Pentecost-alists living in the US Embassy since 1978. And, in a carefully worded speech, he called for ''all governments'' to respect the right of religious freedom. He is to be commended on both scores.
Exchanges with the Soviet Union are useful. The more human traffic between East and West -- the more contacts between scholars, scientists, writers, religious leaders -- the better. Not because anyone thinks such exchanges will suddenly liberalize Kremlin policies; they obviously will not. But because they contribute to better understanding at all levels, keep dialogue going, and help reduce tensions. In Mr. Graham's case, his visit makes possible continued supportive ties with the Baptist church in the USSR which, despite the tight limits on its activities and the persecutions of many so-called illegal Baptists , has courageously carried on.
This does not mean that visitors to the Soviet Union should pull their punches and fail to speak their minds out of deference to the Soviet authorities. Exchanges in such circumstance become meaningless. The Russians should know that Westerners go to their country not, certainly, to promote the overthrow of the Soviet system or cause internal political problems but to engage in forthright, honest debate and meet with people of all walks of life.
The Russians clearly are using the religious conference on nuclear weapons to push the peace issue. They know that Western clerics as well as scientists now are joining the antinuclear movement. Westerners therefore need to be especially alert to not letting themselves be used. Fortunately, such sensitivity was exhibited by two other American clerics at the Moscow meeting who appealed to Soviet and third-world delegates not to turn the conference into a propaganda attack on the West but to be evenhanded in their discussions. Good for them.
Surely church leaders have much to contribute to the growing debate of nuclear issues but this contribution has a unique dimension of its own - a religious one. If religionists become embroiled in politics they may risk losing the very strength they can bring to the problem. As Mr. Graham told the gathering: ''. . .the possibility of a nuclear war is primarily a moral and spiritual issue that concerns us all. I furthermore am convinced that political answers alone will not suffice. But it is now time for us to urge the world to turn to a spiritual solution to this great problem.''
That is a message which can be delivered in any capital.