This election year is going to be different from the last one, President Carter told a vast crowd of evangelical broadcasters at the Washington Hilton last night. "This year I'm going to let you spend your full time explaining what it means to be born again!" t

The crowd laughed warmly, which is lucky for Carter because they were feeling less than 100 percent cordial to him earlier. The National Religious Broadcasters convention has invited him to speak three times -- and this is the first year he has accepted. That this is an election year escaped no one.

There should be a natural affinity between this president and the over 2,000 people attending the convention. He's had a spiritual rebirth and, like them, is eager to tell about it.

Carter spoke firmly and eloquently about the importance of religion in his own life and in the world. His greatest applause during the 20-minute speech came when he said that he had spoken to Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping about opening "the gates of China again to missionaries to share the Word."

That sat well with his audience. Sharing the Word, after all, is what they do for a living.

The growth of religious broadcasting is one of the phenomena of the electronic age. That this is the 37th NRB convention is evidence that preaching over the airwaves is nothing new -- but the spread, sophistication and money involved is growing every day.

Of roughly 8,000 stations in the United States, 1,400 are religious. Of the 800 or so television stations, 30 are religious, and 66 of the 800 cable stations are religious. Revenues are estimated at about $500 million a year.

NRB officials estimate that their 900 members reach 129 million radio and television listeners and viewers in the United States. Religious programming -- which is dominated by fundamentalist Christians preaching a "Jesus saves" doctrine -- now ranges from the familiar hell-fire and brimstone preacher to a soon-to-be-produced television quiz show on the Bible and a football program from an evangelical college.

"Most of the country is fed up with the sewers that runs through the living rooms from the networks," said Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose "Old Time Gospel Hour" is seen on over 200 independent or cable-TV stations. "God gave television primarily for the propagation of the Gospel. The fact that industry has monopolized the medium is an indictment against us."

Sid Roth is a Jew who has discovered, as he puts it, that Jesus was a "Yiddishe mensch." Eight years ago he was an unhappy investment broker; now he is a full time Messianic Jew, a philosophy he preaches on a radio program he runs on 44 radio stations, including WFAX in Falls Church, Va. p

"I've come to believe that Jesus is the messiah," he says. "Right now my major objective is to teach Christians their Jewish roots.

"I love the fact I'm Jewish," he says. "I love eveything about it -- matzo-ball soup and everything." The fact that he believes Jesus is the messiah does not make him a Christian. "God was the first Zionist," he says.

Sid Roth has written an autobiography. It's called "Something for Nothing."

"Listen," he says, "The price is right. For you, it's free."

The exhibit hall at the convention is a world away from a monastery, or even a Sunday school class. The Word is now augmented with Low Frequency Extenders, coaxial cables, cassette loaders and satellites.

In one corner there is a bored-looking young woman sitting in a living room set with four cameras focused on her. The cameras cost between $3,750 and $32,500.

"We're here to enlighten them on the advances in video," said Panasonic salesman Ron Parker. "If you already have a system, these cameras will interface with them. You might also want editing and recording machines, or a special-effects generator. That gives you your copies, mixes, dissolves . . . There are 14 different light modes and 14 different camera changes."

Sony, RCA and other technology salesmen have also set up their wares, trying to tune in on the growing television market in evangelism. There is less-expensive merchandise, too, from companies like Precious Products, Sacred Sounds, and Whitaker publishers, one of whose best sellers is "I'm Sold on Being Bold."

Anita Bryant Ministries is advertising "TV Specials, Education, Counseling and Seminars" in on corner, and in another hallway there is The Black Silent Majority Committee. The national director of the Black Silent Majority Committee, who had on hand pamphlets about his recent award from the Freedoms Foundation, said he was too busy to be interviewed.

There is also a man in a white silk top hat from the ultra-conservative Liberty Lobby offering free caricatures for NRB members, and a booth for the American Conservative Union.

The Republican National Committee also has a booth, where a man named Ted McOnnell is interviewing people attending the convention, standing in front of a large sign that says "Faith Family Freedom; Values We Share."

"We want to find out how the people feel," McOnnell says to a tall matron from Charlotte, N.C., "We're going to tell [RNC chairman] Bill Brock what you think. Tell me ma'am, what's wrong the country today?"

"Well, uh, I get a little tongue-tied in front of a microphone," says the woman. "I guess I think we need to be firm in what we decide and stick with it."

"What about issues . . . like abortion?" says McOnnell, touching on one of the broadcasters' favorite crusades.

To his evident surprise, the woman says: 'Well, I think sometimes abortion is needed and sometimes it isn't. But I don't want my tax money paying for it."

The next interviewee, Rev. Dennis Van de Venter from Iowa, is more direct: "I think the first thing we need to do is stand up against Communism," he says.

Later, McOnnell says Van de Venter reflected the views of most of the people he'd interviewed for Brock.

Michael Patrick, 27, is a student at the Christian Broadcasting Network's graduate school of communications. He and a squad of other students brought $250,000 worth of equipment to the convention to run WNRB, a special closed-circuit television system available in the hotel rooms. He is also the "political director" of News Sight 80, a recently marketed half-hour weekly religious news show.

"The general public should know more about the faith life of a candidate," he and one of his professors, Robert Schihl, explained. "There's more to it than what church he goes to."

They have interviews scheduled with most of the major candidates and many world leaders such as Anwar Sadat. Patrick said that this type of program makes up for a lack in commercial television news, which he criticizes for ignoring the spiritual dimension of public figures.

His hero is Dan Rather -- but the typical television newsman's way of asking questions wouldn't work in his type of journalism, he said. "If I go in as Dan Rather I'm not going to really learn much about the man other than how he reacts under pressure," Patrick said. "We ask questions in a way that doesn't say, 'You're wrong if you don't give the answer we want.'"

He has an interview scheduled with Carter that he thinks is going to be a scoop. "I won't tell you why," he smiled. "But I think I know some things about what he's been going through that are going to be very significant."

There's a serious rumor going around the convention that Anita Bryant is coming tomorrow, according to a source who didn't wish to be named. Her visit is being kept under wraps, the source said, so that the gay community won't have a chance to organize a protest against her.

Presidential candidates Robert Dole and Philip Crane are supposed to show up tomorrow to be interviewed by WNRB, and there's a rumor that Teddy Kennedy is too. But that rumor doesn't seem to have much currency. This is not likely to be much of a Kennedy crowd -- mention the name and the response is often a grimace.

Eighteen years ago Ron Mighell was "headed for alcoholism and the whole schmear." But then God got hold of his life and changed his direction. He sent Mighell to spread the Word -- not as a preacher, because he was "awful" at that -- but on the radio. He had no experience, so he went to a radio station and "made them an offer they couldn't refuse -- I said, 'I'll be your volunteer janitor.'"

Today he is the manager of WTGN, a 3,000-watt station in Lima, Ohio. The call letters stand for "Witnessing the Good News." And now he wants to get into Christian television.

"It's the medium that gets into not only your eargate but your eyegate," he said, looking intensely at a reporter and, like many of the delegates here, taking pains to use his questioner's first name. "The best communication is one-to-one. Then you can feel my aura, you can really hear my message. Television is the next best thing. I'll get on TV and look right into that lens and tell lots of people about the glory of Jesus Christ."

He makes less than $20,000, and like other Christian broadcasters is disturbed by those who "use the Gospel to make money." He won't mention names, but he said that "if they mention money more than God, you should watch out."

Mighell's complaint is one that is often voiced by casual viewers of some of the more popular shows. Most of the shows in Christian broadcasting depend on donations to get the money to buy air time, and their pleas for funds at times seem to be a dominant theme of the programs.

A few stations are under investigation by the Federal Communications Commission for fraud, and the leaders of the movement are sensitive about the issue and about possible government regulation as a result. Recently they banded together to form the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an organization in which membership binds the members to independent auditing and making the results public.

"The prophets and the disciples were confronted with the same problem -- people who pitched harder for dollars than for God," mused Mighell.

Twenty-three years ago it cost Jerry Falwell $90 to buy half an hour of live television in his home town of Lynchburg, Va. When he stopped broadcasting from Lynchburg and changed to a Roanoke station a few years ago, the same amount of time cost about $600. It cost Billy Graham $25,000 to buy an hour of prime time in New York City for one of his televised crusades.

But the money seems to come in, and Falwell confidently predicted to one panel that "prime time will become more available for those willing to pay for it . . . not because they [station owners] like our message, but because they like our money." Furthermore, he noted, "television is the best dollar spent."

Before the president spoke last night, the evangelists engaged in an un-Christianly display of temper as they were squashed into a small area while the Secret Service checked out the ballroom. But the mood changed dramatically once Carter took the podium.

Speaking of the '70s, the "Me Decade," Carter said that "even in the frantic search for self-gratification there is a longing for meaning and purpose, a hunger for things that do not change." The power of faith is not always benevolent, he noted: "the hungry, the homeless and the hostages are testimony to man's capacity for evil."

"I do not always make the right decision, because I do not always follow God's will," he said, adding that he is strengthened by his prayer and the prayers of others.

After his talk, the president jumped off the stage and shook hands with people in the front row, who looked surprised.

"I was very pleased that he referred to the scripture as a basis for what is right and what is wrong," said Paul Hollinger of Lancaster, Pa., an NRB official. "He confirmed that he has definite evangelical concepts in his theology.

"I think his Sunday school background came through," said Hollinger.