The founders of the American republic hoped to immunize it against clericalism, but soon learned that they had failed. Madison himself greeted the appointment of the first congressional chaplains as "a palpable violation . . . of constitutional principles" and suggested -- to no avail, then or since -- that public officials, not taxpayers, finance official religious observances. Madison's edifice is still periodically rattled by the clamor of meddlesome parsons.

Perry Deane Young's lively examination of the current fundamentalist incursion into politics fills a need. There has been little careful investigation of this phenomenon; and even rank-and-file adherents know less than they ought about the stars of the radical right. Who are they and where do they come from? What do they think -- when they think -- and where and how do they raise their money? Who are their followers?

Young, as his title suggests, is not a sympathizer. But he is a compassionate observer with a sense of curiosity.

"God's Bullies" is actually several books in one. It is a personal reminiscence -- Young grew up in a North Carolina mountain village where the fundamentalist culture flourished. He knows its aggressive style firsthand. It is at times a tract -- Young is a homosexual who particularly deplores the rabidity aroused in some groups on the radical right by the alleged menace of homosexual "recruitment." It is in part a historical excursion on church/state relations. Finally, it is a personal report on such outfits as the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), the Conservative Caucus and Moral Majority Inc., with informative sketches of such luminaries as Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, Terry Dolan and others.

Often, if by no means always, Young found that he liked these people personally. He interviewed them, he read their sermons and tracts, he looked into their fund-raising techniques (which he found often grossly inefficient in getting the dollars they raise to the causes advertised), and he considered their claims carefully, if skeptically.

Several general impressions emerge. One is that these keepers of the old-time religion take a sour view indeed of the state of American society. Jerry Falwell, for instance, speaks of America as "depraved, decadent and demoralized," blaming this alarming condition on a "godless minority of treacherous individuals." There is little of St. Paul's hope in radical-right theology.

Another impression is that the new right's spokesmen often are deeply ignorant of the weighty matters on which they claim a sometimes breathtaking authority. Falwell, who claims a large share of Young's attention (and contempt) seems to think that Jefferson's "unalienable rights" are to be found in the Constitution, and he once mislocated the Puritans at Jamestown.

In an early chapter, Young shows that Anita Bryant waged her crusade against civil rights for Miami homosexuals in deep ignorance of the subtleties of human sexuality. (Later, to her credit, Bryant came to question her earlier certainties, as well as her concealment of marital problems of her own.)

A reporter of Young's diligence has no trouble showing that the new right often propagates a weirdly unscriptural Christianity, to go with its dubious constitutionalism. It is less easy to measure its influence.

NCPAC, for instance, gained a giant-killer's reputation in the 1980 campaigns, when it boasted the scalps of several eminent Democratic senators (Church, McGovern, McIntyre, Culver). Yet its early jump into the New York and Maryland Senate campaigns in 1982 seems, at this writing, less productive.

Given our casual approach to the complexities of history and history and theology, no wonder the radical right plays so successfully upon public confusions. Most of us find it hard to live with uncertainty and ambiguity; we thirst for straight answers. To quote the president of Yale, "The 'Moral Majority' is a cry of exhaustion, a longing for surcease from the strain of managing complexity."

Young's book, informative and sensible and at times eloquent, seems to me to have two serious blemishes.

Young is much too hard on Jimmy Carter, whom he indicts as a precursor of the resurgence of Christian moralism in recent politics. "The whole emphasis on the family as a political issue," he says, "did not begin with Moral Majority Inc.; it started with Jimmy Carter in 1976." Young cites, for instance, a silly speech in which Carter admonished a group of HUD employes, "Those of you who are living in sin, I hope you'll get married." Rosalynn Carter, Young writes, "was a prude," while the president himself was "weak, indecisive and inept." As a Southerner, Young was embarrassed by the Carters, "as if it were a relative of mine who had gotten on stage at an opera and didn't know how to sing . . . "

Still it should be noted, in fairness, that the Carters, whatever their gaucheries, gave no aid or comfort to the inappropriate commingling of church and state, to the fundamentalist attack on modern biology or family planning, or to any assault in the name of religion on the rights of minorities or homosexuals. That cannot be said of the radical right. Styles alone do not tell the whole story.

It also seems to me that Young places a disproportionate emphasis on the sex lives, known and unknown, of the radical rightists. He is contemptuous, and properly so, of the hypocrisy of those among them who, while secretly sharing the preferences of homosexuals, join forces with their would-be persecutors. There have been some notorious cases of that.

Yet it could be argued that people have a right to self-contradictory opinions about public morals, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. A homosexual might be hostile to certain goals of the "gay rights" movement, even as a heterosexual might oppose certain relaxation in the divorce laws. What seems to Young a dishonorable duplicity could, at least arguably, be more complicated. In any case, Young gives currency in this book to a good bit of hearsay and rumor. The indignation that leads him to do it is understandable; but it remains that people of whatever sexual inclinations, so long as they do not "do it in the street and frighten the horses," are entitled to their privacy.