Over the last decade, the American political landscape has become dotted with conservative think tanks, legal institutes, academic centers and media ventures, constructed with tens of millions of dollars from corporations and foundations.

The goal of this corporate campaign has been to build a more-pro-business climate in the country and to influence public policy making in Washington. Its oft-repeated message is that the government should play a vastly reduced role in the nation's economy and that the private sector should be the arbiter of the economy's direction.

Now business is upping the ante and widening its horizons in the public-policy arena. More attention is going to promoting traditional institutions such as the family, religion and neighborhood, which are viewed by many conservatives as vital components of a healthy market economy. And many corporate leaders now consider as pressing items foreign policy questions -- both economic and political ones.

The John M. Olin Foundation occupies a special place in the forefront of this movement. Olin has funded chairs in economics, law and other social sciences at more than a dozen universities and think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institute, Georgetown University and Carnegie-Mellon University and others.

In 1978, Olin, with the help of three other donors -- the Sarah Scaife, Smith Richardson and J. M. foundations -- launched a unique clearinghouse for corporate philanthrophy called the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA).

Conceived by the head of the Olin board of trustees, William Simon, and the neoconservative writer, Irving Kristol, author of "Two Cheers for Capitalism," IEA has linked conservative thinkers in need of funds with like-minded business executives.

Olin also has helped to fund a number of influential books, including Charles Murray's recent "Losing Ground" about the failures of federal efforts to end poverty.

In 1984, Olin's grants totaled $7.5 million, which its current director, Michael Joyce, says are roughly double what they were in 1979 when he came aboard. Along with the increase in funding, there has been a steady evolution in the scope of Olin grants, which now support ventures in religion, international trade and foreign policy, as well as the latest economic research on tax reform and other current Washington issues.

Among its big-ticket items in 1984 were Olin favorites such as the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis, which got $1 million, and some first-time recipients, including a new journal called the National Interest, which received $200,000. The journal, dealing with foreign policy issues, will debut this fall with Irving Kristol as its publisher and Owen Harries, last year's John M. Olin fellow at Heritage Foundation, as one of its two editors.

Olin's growth and diversification have been dramatic, mirroring changes under way with other leading conservative foundations such as Scaife and Smith Richardson.

Smith Richardson has increased its support for foreign policy research and now donates roughly one-half its grants annually for that purpose. It prides itself in having supported some of Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick's writings on Latin America before she became U.N. ambassador in the Reagan administration, and it has invited Kirkpatrick to join its board this year.

On the corporate side, Smith-Kline Beckman is donating $500,000 a year to public policy research through its "Impact" program.

Smith-Kline also is underwriting a three-volume series of books on capitalism due later this year from the Institute for Educational Affairs. IEA says that the books are needed because today there is "no adequate theoretical explication of democratic capitalism acceptable to the intellectual world. The public lacks an adequate defense of the good life in enjoys from our system." The books are intended to remedy that situation, IEA says.

Smith-Kline's vice president for public affairs, William Grala, who serves on the board of IEA, says that Smith-Kline's involvement was spurred by "the preservation of the system" and is intended to "strengthen democratic capitalism." Smith-Kline Chairman Robert Dee is also a trustee of the Heritage Foundation and has played a key role in the company's activist stance.

Another new convert to the cause, Robert Krieble, president of Loctite Corp., estimates that he now spends about 25 percent of his time engaged in public-policy issues and sits on the boards of Heritage and IEA. Krieble said that "business is slowly coming to realize that the long-term success of their companies depends just as much on social policy as on management. Think tanks are useful tools."

Kristol, who also holds the title of John M. Olin Distinguished Professor at the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration, sees changes under way in the conservative universe. Although he argues that the "ideological temperature is lower today than a few years ago" when he first urged business to go on the offensive to defend itself against critics such as Ralph Nader, Kristol sees a "displacement from economics to religion and foreign policy" on the conservative horizon. "All the alliances are being rethought," he said. Kristol added that "the use of force is being rethought, too."

"The efficacy of force and power was considered to be declining over the last decade. . . . We believe power is still the arbiter in international politics and the Soviet threat is real," said Harries, Kristol's associate. Last week, three of the prime movers in the conservative public-policy campaign, Simon, Kirkpatrick and author Michael Novak, moved beyond scholarship to lead a private-sector drive to raise money for the contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.

An indication of where the "war of ideas" is headed comes from a look at some of the main programs receiving support from Olin and others.

The Institute for Educational Affairs was established to promote more conservative journalism and scholarship and to provide corporations and foundations with advice on where to invest. Its mission is quite broad, judging from statements that Simon and Kristol penned a few years ago.

IEA exists "because our culture -- the way we think about our economy, our society, our politics, our lives -- has become disjointed and infused with adversary sentiments and with utopian expectations," they wrote. IEA's thinkers and business leaders "share a determination to prevent our system's collapse into utter confusion."

Since its inception, IEA has grown from a very small operation to one with a budget of just over a million dollars a year. IEA has helped to finance more than 50 new student newspapers and journals around the country, which have been launched to offer more traditional and conservative viewpoints on the campus. IEA created its media program, which also includes grants to established journalists and editorial internships at magazines such as the National Review, as a "real and developing alternative to adversarial and mindless media."

Among recent studies IEA has partly funded are several works aimed at reviving traditional values, such as "Back to Basics" by Burton Pines of the Heritage Foundation, and foreign policy studies, including articles by David Gress of the Hoover Institute critiquing the welfare state in Europe today.

IEA also has given birth to a new journal called This World, which is published quarterly by IEA and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and is devoted to issues of religion and economics. According to an IEA description, This World was conceived "to see that illusory and fantastic ideas about the practical world are resisted and to declare that heartless or voluptuous schemes for transforming this world must be rejected." In its three years of publication, IEA has featured articles on "The Moral Dimensions of Star Wars," the "National Council of Churches' Questionable Service as Legitimizer of Soviet Religious Repression and Spurious International Peace Initiatives" and "The Inclusion Within Contemporary Theological Debate of Economic Issues."

This World owes a substantial debt to Novak, one of its editors, who began a program at AEI called the Center for Religious Philosophy and Public Policy back in the early 1980s. Novak has been especially concerned with building what he calls "a theology of the corporation" in an effort to create a more moral basis for capitalism that would enhance its appeal to the church and especially to those church activists who find socialism attractive, who support Third World liberation movements and who have criticized Reagan administration policies on nuclear weapons and the economy.

In a recent essay in This World, Novak discussed some of his thinking about the "spirit of democratic capitalism" today. "A new ethos taught that the production of wealth is a noble task, even a moral obligation . . . a capitalistic economy brings with it -- has as perhaps a pre-condition -- a novel ethos, a new morality," he said.

Some economists, however, argue that Novak's work is flawed because it disregards economic realities and is selective in its reading of history. "Novak argues that capitalism is not only efficient, but also spiritual," commented Robert Lekachman, an economics professor at City University of New York. "The credit is dramatically misplaced when Novak says that everything good is owing to pure capitalism and that everything bad is due to government intervention in the economy," Lekachman said.

Olin also is funding more foreign policy research than in the past. Joyce explained that Olin believes that foreign policy is now "a hot topic with the troubled Western alliance." He added that "we went through a period of isolationism and we relaxed our weapons buildup," necessitating the Reagan administration's push for defense spending, in conservatives' eyes. International trade issues are another of Olin's growing concerns, Joyce said.

In keeping with its more traditional economic and legal concerns, Olin has continued to fund several centers promoting law and economics research. "A lot of litigation now has economic consequences, with increasingly large jury awards and regulatory penalties," Joyce explained. Two major programs now backed by Olin are the law and economics centers at Emory University in Georgia and at the University of Miami. And Olin continues to be a heavy backer of many pro-business legal centers around the country such as the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Capital Legal Foundation where it supports "litigation, publications and agency-monitoring activities."

Olin has just given the first million of a $3 million endowment to the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University, which gained prominence from its studies on the costs of government regulation by its director, Murray Weidenbaum.The center is working on a number of other regulatory questions, according to its associate director, Kenneth Chilton. One recent study has examined how proposed United Nation codes of conduct for multinationals may be hurting investment trade. "Policing the Global Economy: A Threat to Private Enterprise," by Weidenbaum, attacks a "burst of regulation aimed at multinational" companies. Further, Chilton argues that "multinationals are now under attack at the United Nations because they represent a threat to the central planning systems of the Third World."

Another new center study deals with hazardous waste and the cleanup fund, according to Chilton. This study concluded that "tighter regulations might create more dumping and more problems," and that what's needed are "incentives to create safe sites for dumping," he said.

Conservatives see the growing activity of think tanks as evidence of momentum on their side. "One of the most important phenomena in the last 20 years has been the emergence of public policy institutions as major players in Washington," said Frank Shakespeare, chairman of the Heritage Foundation.

But the directions of conservative research trouble some other academics, such as Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, for one. In a recent issue of the Partisan Review, Bell criticized the tone of neoconservative rhetoric and warned of possible intellectual repercussions. In his view, much of the work now being promoted is increasingly ideological. "One reads increasingly of The Media, The Liberals, The Universities and then such assertions as 'The Media are favorable to the Soviet Union' or 'The Liberals are unpatriotic,' " he wrote.

In a recent interview, he added, "It's puzzling that conservatives still feel they're under attack. . . . I object to how ideological it's become. I find the tone and populism dismaying . . . there's often a demonology to populism."

Liberal academics such as Robert Reich of Harvard worry about the long-term effects on public policy because so much scholarship is being financed by corporations and foundations. "The research agenda is now being shaped by particular groups with a particular stake in a particular outcome," Reich charged, pointing to companies such as Smith-Kline that have a large stake in the outcome of the federal regulatory process. "Control over the research agenda is the most important kind of control."

Reich argues that many academics pursuing "distributive and structural problems are not given the same attention" and have trouble finding funds; on the other hand, he says, there is plenty of money available for "studies on the cost of government regulation and government intervention."

Such criticism does not dissuade the right, however. Michael Joyce strikes a bullish note about the spread of Olin's programs and dollars. "Free market economics are now in the mainstream . . . we want to have impact, and it behooves us to fund as wide a range of programs as possible," he said.