So it went, year after year. In the late 1990s Graham's flowing white hair still did not protect him from withering critique, especially from academics and intellectuals. When his 760-page autobiography, Just as I Am, came out in 1997, Columbia University's Andrew Delbanco acknowledged that Graham-the "Elvis of the evangelicals"-seemed sincere, "winsome" and "genuinely enlarged by his travels." But Delbanco found the book "monotonous" and short on insight. Its humor was mostly "unwitting" and its writing never rose above "genial banality." The book was, in short, "little more than just another celebrity autobiography-the fluff one expects from most politicians, newscasters and movie stars."

And then there was 9/11. In Graham's memorial talk at the National Cathedral on 9/14, he sought to comfort the grieving by saying that many of the victims were now in heaven and would not want to come back. "It's so glorious and so wonderful," he urged. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, pounced. "We should not have to choose between being imbeciles and being mourners," said Wieseltier. "But mourners can be imbeciles, too." He offered Graham's remark as Exhibit A. "It is not consoling, it is insulting. We are not a country of children. Nothing that transpired on September 11 was wonderful, nothing."

Such sour reactions to Graham should not surprise us. After all, for many years he came across as a North Carolina farm boy distinguished by little more than hand-painted ties, a southern accent and a degree from the (then) fundamentalist Wheaton College-not propitious credentials in midtown Manhattan.

On the key doctrinal points that divided mainliners from evangelicals-miracles, atonement, resurrection, Second Coming, holy living and biblical infallibility-Graham budged hardly an inch in 50 years. Worst of all was the style. To many he personified the proverbial stump orator, always holding forth in the declaratory mode. In an era when partisans of the National and the World Council(s) of Churches consistently favored dialogue over proclamation, Graham unflinchingly presented his own interpretation of the Good News as the most viable one.

But confrontation between Graham and the mainline forms only half the story-indeed, maybe less than half. If some theologians and leaders in the historic seminaries and churches uttered criticism, many others expressed praise. That pattern too went way back, in this case to Graham's 1949 tent revival in Los Angeles. In an event that has acquired a mythic career of its own, the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst instructed his Los Angeles papers to "Puff Graham." Hearst, who was not notably religious, likely had his own motives, but his directive gave the unsophisticated young preacher a badly needed stamp of legitimization at a time when tent revivalists and Pentecostal faith healers seemed all the same.

By the middle 1950s Graham had established a clear policy: he would work with anyone who would work with him if they attached no strings. That ecumenism cost him dearly. When he invited avowed liberals such as New York's Presbyterian pastor John Sutherland Bonnell to step onto the platform, many of his fundamentalist supporters stepped off-and stayed off. But Graham held firm.

After 1950 he declared he would not accept any invitation unless a majority of a city's Protestant ministers gave at least tacit support. The calls to speak in mainline seminaries and on secular campuses probably did not rain down as abundantly as requests to address the multitudes in urban coliseums, but they came. The record includes talks at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT, Boston College, Chapel Hill, Union Theological Seminary and Colgate Rochester Divinity School, among others.

The record also includes support from impeccably respectable Protestant leaders like Henry Pitney Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary in the 1950s and 1960s when Union stood astride the mainline as no other school did. Regarding Graham, Van Dusen distanced himself from his older colleague Niebuhr. What "the masses need first," he wrote, "is the pure milk of the gospel in more readily digestible form." Van Dusen added that "there are many, of whom I am one, who . . . would probably never have come within the sound of Dr. Niebuhr's voice . . . if they had not been first touched by the message of the earlier Billy." Van Dusen meant of course Billy Sunday.

Graham's autobiography affords additional insight into his legacy in the mainline. If the book reads like People magazine, stuffed with tales of friendships with top politicos, movie stars, business tycoons and sports celebrities, it also contains numerous stories of friendships with respected theologians, critics, pastors and religious leaders.

The list includs Emil Brunner, Karl and Markus Barth, Martin Luther King Jr., Sidney Rittenberg, Norman Vincent Peale, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Bishop K. H. Ting, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum. That window opened only one way, of course; Graham, like everyone else, saw what he wanted to see. But as far as I know, no one asked to be dropped from the next edition.