Michael Farris leans forward, and for the first time in more than an hour of conversation, he lets fly with a salvo of anger, his boyish face seeming to age about 10 years as it flushes scarlet. "I hope I get to talk about the positives," he says, with a palpable edge of sarcasm. "So far I've answered all the negatives that anybody's ever raised about me."

He pauses, trying to keep himself in check. "That stuff is just one side of Mike Farris."

Farris, 41, a former Moral Majority activist and ordained Baptist minister, is the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia. It's not that he minds the press scrutiny, he says. He's just at a loss, a genuine loss, to understand why everybody seems to be fixated on his religious views -- honestly, he says, he's no zealot.

He wants to talk about "the issues," and chafes at what he calls the "paint-by-numbers analysis" of him. He certainly doesn't come across as ominous or threatening. Yet given the way Farris has spent most of his public life, it's not hard to understand why some view him as an extremist.

This is, after all, a guy who first entered civic life urging advertisers to boycott a TV station that aired "The Deer Hunter" because it contained obscene words. A guy who tried to get "The Learning Tree," a book honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, removed from a high school curriculum as blasphemous. A guy who chooses to teach his eight children at home, rather than surrender them to a "godless" public education system -- a system that he says promotes "evolution, hedonism and one-world government."

Farris is the kind of candidate whose good-natured smiles pique voters' optimism. But there is rhetoric from his past that might send shivers up some voters' spines. He's a candidate who looks a little like Bobby Kennedy but sounds more like Bob Roberts.

In the view of Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee, there couldn't be a better choice than Farris for Virginia's number two job. "I think most Virginians would agree with what he's sayin'," drawls Barbour, a quintessential pol from Mississippi. "I think he'll turn out to be a much stronger candidate than people give him credit for."

Make a few calls to certain GOP activists, though, and you get the impression that not everyone's happy with the party-endorsed candidate. But like good Republicans, they won't carp on the record. "I can't believe he said -- no, I can, Haley's paid to say that crap," says one angry Republican leader from central Virginia. "He knows damn good and well hardly anybody's pleased with this. The only people excited are the people farthest to the right in the party." There are fears that the Farris nomination will sabotage the candidacy of Republican gubernatorial hopeful George Allen, but as one Northern Virginia GOP insider laments: "All we can do is put the best face on it we can. Unfortunately, Farris is the candidate, so what else can be done?"

Why, one might ask, all this concern about a first-time candidaterunning for lieutenant governor? It's not like the job has any real power -- especially if Mary Sue Terry, a Democrat, is elected governor. Sure, the lieutenant governor can break tie votes in the state Senate -- but beyond that it's a largely ceremonial post. It's what Farris could be positioning himself for that has raised some concerns.

"If elected, my guess is that he'll use the position to go around the state, network, raise money and make a run for governor in '97," says Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "Farris is learning quickly, but he represents the new wave of Christian political activism. Many of these people being brought into the system are at odds with the older generation of Christian activists, who have become more pragmatic -- they understand rhetoric can't be white hot, that compromises are sometimes in order. The new generation, being uninitiated to the ways of politics, are determined to have it their way. That's his core of supporters."

But other GOP leaders note that Farris is bringing new blood into the party -- at the May nominating convention, he had 4,500 supporters -- an overpowering voting bloc -- many of them evangelical and fundamentalist Christians fighting abortion and supporting home schooling. They surprised the GOP Establishment by getting Farris on the ticket instead of moderate Bobbie Kilberg, a former Bush White House staffer.

Farris is an accomplished constitutional lawyer who has passionately supported religious freedom in the courts, sometimes allied with the American Civil Liberties Union. He's lived in Virginia since 1983, first working as a staff attorney for the conservative Concerned Women of America, now heading the Home School Legal Defense Association, which has been an invaluable resource for parents who want to take their kids out of schools and teach them at home.

"One of the things that drives Mike is his absolute belief in the effectiveness of home education," says Ken Johnson, a Marion County, Ind., superior court judge who sits on the home-schooling association's board of directors. "Honestly, I've never known a man with more compassion."

Farris sounds moderate on the campaign trail, espousing mainstream conservative views on debt elimination, legal reform and improvement in educational quality. But his critics, inside and outside the party, continue to raise questions about the ideas he's advocated over the past decade. He's called the National Education Association a group whose "policies represent a world view that cannot possibly be reconciled with biblical Christianity." He's criticized the religious right for accepting "political trinkets" from the past two Republican administrations when it should have been "advancing our public policy goals and getting our kind of people appointed to positions of real influence." He's warned Christians to beware of alliances with economic conservatives, who, he writes, don't necessarily have the same moral values.

Early fund-raising letters for Farris were sent out by fetus-wielding abortion protester ChristyAnne Collins and moral crusader Rev. Donald Wildmon. This helped unsettle Establishment GOP leaders, who ended up supporting Farris's opponent, to no avail.

"I'm not interested in imposing any sort of agenda, Christian or otherwise, on anyone," Farris says today. He just wants to make sure that the rights of Christians and other religious adherents are protected in a world he says has grown "increasingly hostile towards religion, especially Christianity."

He says he's "willing to work with anybody." It sounds almost like a plea.

Achieving Moral Majority

Flash back to March 15, 1981, Olympia, Wash.: At the Olympian newspaper, staff writer Mike Oakland is sitting at his desk when the phone rings. It's Mike Farris, executive director of the state Moral Majority chapter. " 'There's a public hearing tonight on pornography legislation, and I need ammunition,' " Oakland recalls Farris saying. "Then he said something like, 'Someone might recognize me in these smut shops, and I don't want them to get the wrong idea, so I thought I'd ask if you'd like to come along.' "

Oakland complied with the publicity stunt, writing a piece on Farris's proclaimed "disgust" over porn mags. "I don't think he was happy with it when it came out," says Oakland, now the Olympian's editorial page editor. "Regardless, he struck me as a likable, charismatic guy -- the type who could draw people to him."

Farris, one of four children of an elementary school principal, grew up in a fervently Baptist household in Washington state. He remembers the date he accepted Christ as his personal savior -- Nov. 9, 1957. "I was 6 years old," he says. The family had just returned from church.

He never wavered in his faith, except for a brief period in his late teens when he says he "tested other ideas." He married at age 20, took a law degree from Gonzaga University, and after practicing at a small firm, entered the public arena. In 1980, having signed on with Moral Majority, Farris came out of the right corner swinging; he encouraged businesses not to support newspapers that ran ads for adult movie theaters, and pushed for the boycott of a Tacoma TV station that aired the uncensored version of "The Deer Hunter." (The film "had all seven of the dirty words banned by the FCC" in it, Farris said at the time.)

As part of his anti-porn crusade, Farris also attempted to obtain the circulation records from the Washington State Library for the sex-education film "Achieving Sexual Maturity." At the time, Moral Majority was backing a bill mandating parental approval of children's participation in sex-ed classes, and it wanted a list of school districts and individuals who had checked out the film. When the library refused to furnish the information, citing user confidentiality, Farris's group sued to get the list. It dropped the case after library authorities revealed no school districts had checked out the film.

While debating a teacher who was an ACLU chapter president in Yakima, Farris told the audience that "as a Unitarian, my opponent practices transcendental meditation, which is also practiced in schools. He should resign from teaching... . Why do we only teach evolution -- his religion -- in schools?" In a 1981 debate with another ACLU official, Farris exploded when his opponent postulated that the theory of a husband being ordained by God as the head of the family was misogynistic.

According to a newspaper report, Farris "suddenly turned to fulmination and shouted, 'I take serious offense. ... This is one of the most unbelievable things I've ever heard. I don't appreciate your slander against the word of God.' "

Farris eventually prompted a local backlash, in the form of a group of Olympia residents who incorporated themselves as the "Immoral Minority." They essentially dedicated themselves to taunting Farris and his organization. "I'm not sure he qualified as the leader of a mass movement, but that sure didn't stop him from promoting himself," says Bob Shirley, one of the group's founders. "His ego could fill a good-sized gymnasium. I think he skipped the part in the Bible about humility."

But it was the "Learning Tree" incident that really put Farris on the map ("like, somewhere beyond Pluto," Shirley says).

The case arose when a mother named Carolyn Grove objected to the book her daughter Cassie's 10th-grade classmates had been assigned to read. Because of her mother's religious convictions, Cassie herself had been given an alternative book to read -- but that didn't appease Grove. She asked that "The Learning Tree" -- black filmmaker Gordon Parks's novelistic memoir -- be removed from the Mead (Wash.) High School curriculum.

Farris supported Grove in his "Legal Analysis of 'The Learning Tree,' " holding that the school district had violated the First Amendment "by establishing the religion of humanism as the officially sanctioned religion of the school" and "denied the free exercise of religion to those students and parents who believe in Judeo-Christian morality by exposing their children to the anti-God relativistic morality of humanism."

According to Farris, Parks's depictions of growing up black in a small Kansas town sent the message that "lying, stealing, pre-marital sex, cheating, and killing {are} OK under certain circumstances." Farris took particular issue with a scene in which a drunk calls Jesus Christ "a long-legged white son-of-a-bitch," referring to the passage as an "accomplishment of the humanist objective of denigrating messianic religions."

Parks, who also wrote about the lessons he learned in prayer meetings and church services, couldn't understand how Farris missed the point: "In a confrontation between good and evil," he said in an affidavit, "a good writer must allow the characters of those two forces to express themselves convincingly."

When Farris failed to convince school district authorities to remove the book, he sued; a federal judge dismissed the case before it went to trial.

The Right to Change

Farris still stands by his position on "The Learning Tree." "If you can't call Jesus Christ the son of God in school, you shouldn't be able to call him a son-of-a-bitch," he says. "The schools have become one-sided. The rights of atheists are protected, the rights of Christians are not. I'm calling for equal treatment -- protect both."

To prove his point, he rattles off examples of cases he's handled. There was the one where a little girl's "Smile, God Loves You" stickers were confiscated by her public school teacher. The time a business student was prohibited from giving a presentation on how Christian principles applied to business ethics. The case in which a teacher ripped up the picture of a nativity scene drawn by one of her students.

But Farris -- who, on the basis of a lengthy dissertation, was ordained in 1983 by the Baptist General Conference -- is ecumenical in his support for religious freedom, defending Buddhists and people of other faiths. Indeed, he's even said he'd help atheists who felt their views were slighted. However, his writings on public education -- of which he is a product -- have prompted criticism. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, has said he is "very troubled by the prospect that an extreme religious view ... might dictate public policy."

In his 1990 book "Home Schooling and the Law," Farris contends that basic values cannot be learned in an atmosphere that forbids religious instruction, and that because "Christian beliefs have been thoroughly eradicated" from public schools, schools have become a "multi-billion-dollar inculcation machine" promoting "secular humanism and new age religions."

He assails laws that encroach on home schooling, and sums it all up by saying, "I would respectfully suggest that those who argue that public education is necessary for the preservation of our democracy are wrong."

This hasn't exactly endeared him to teachers. "I haven't ever experienced such radical beliefs as I have from Farris," says Kelly Horner, an elementary school teacher and president of the Fairfax Education Association. "As a Christian, and a teacher, I don't believe I've slighted my own faith or anyone else's. Yes, I teach values every day. For instance, when I tell my students that striking another student is unacceptable, I'm teaching respect for others. But that's not far enough for him. What he does, as many of his fellow believers do, is intertwine values, morality and religious beliefs, and hold the belief that unless education conforms to that matrix, it's wrong."

Now Farris says he didn't really mean it. Though he and his wife use a self-devised Christian curriculum to teach their own children, Farris says he doesn't believe all public schools are bad. He says his own experience in public schools wasn't particularly damaging. It's just that times have changed.

On the stump, he's been talking almost exclusively about promoting school choice and reducing the size of the educational bureaucracy. However, discussion of the lack of religious values in schools has been played down considerably. (In a recent press release from his campaign, Farris is now the candidate "known for his strong position against debt and government waste.") He's tried to distance himself from the 1990 book, saying that his previous writings "do not accurately represent my views."

"I do not want Virginia's public schools to become Sunday schools," he recently declared in a public appearance. "I want them to offer the best academic preparation for every child whose parents choose to send them to their local public schools. Principles of right and wrong and honesty and good discipline, yes. Beyond that, no."

Still, he seems a little unsettled when questions on the topic come up. "I've already told you quite clearly I don't like the imbalance in the schools, and I -- " He catches himself, the rising anger quickly deflating. "I have a tendency, especially as I was younger, to say things with, uh, a certain flamboyance, that, uh, can be taken as -- that can be made to appear as something it's not," he explains. "I'm learning. I've matured some since then. I still believe what I wrote, in terms of what I was trying to say."

'Scopes II'

Timothy Dyk takes a sip of espresso. "Mike's a complicated guy. He's a very good lawyer. He's not malicious. But he's got an agenda I don't agree with. And he's not always upfront about his personal feelings." Dyk sets the cup down gently. "I don't think he's changed."

As one of the nation's most prominent First Amendment lawyers, Dyk went head to head with Farris in the 1986 Mozert v. Hawkins County School District case in Tennessee, popularly referred to as "Scopes II." The case centered on a group of parents who said the school district was forcing children into anti-Christian activities by making them participate in an elementary school reading program. The Holt, Rinehart, Winston textbooks, they said, were laced with "secular humanism."

On their parents' instructions, the kids refused to attend reading classes, which got them expelled. Farris, then a staff attorney with the Concerned Women of America, filed suit on behalf of the aggrieved parents, who said they wanted their children taught from an alternative curriculum. Lawyers retained by the liberal People for the American Way -- including Dyk -- joined the defense. They argued that while no books were in immediate jeopardy of being banned, the plaintiffs were pursuing an agenda that ran counter to education itself.

Like the original Scopes trial of 1925, the Mozert case was a circus, and depending on one's point of view, Farris came across as either the ringmaster or the star of the freak show. Saying that a ruling against the parents would cause "the most stringent, strident political upheaval that this country has known since the Civil War," Farris painted scenarios of Christians being shipped off to concentration camps, adding that "blacks in South Africa will have more rights" than Christians in America.

The trial concluded with a ruling that the children could be excused from class when objectionable materials were being taught, but Dyk appealed. The ruling was unanimously struck down by a federal appeals court. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Farris declared, "It is time for every born-again Christian to get their children out of public schools."

The case, emphasizes Farris, was not about book banning, but about freedom of religious practice. "The issue here was balance," he says, once again. But in a letter dated Jan. 13, 1986, Farris was more emphatic. He told a potential expert witness that while a favorable decision "will not directly require the judge to throw the textbooks out of the public schools, it will be a major building block in the effort to force the public schools to remove such books and practices."

Home Sweet Home

It's bright and muggy out on the street in the Loudoun County town of Purcellville but Farris doesn't break a sweat as he walks toward Nichols' Hardware Store. He pauses before opening the door. "Now this is the real America." Not far from where Farris lives, as a matter of fact.

It's quaint. It's not like a Hechinger's, but more along the lines of something you'd expect to see in "Little House on the Prairie": high ceiling, a clerk behind the counter, a few customers wandering the aisles.

Farris grins. Hands to shake, votes to court.

He approaches an older woman and introduces himself -- he's Mike Farris, and he's the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, and would she mind being in a picture with him?

"Absolutely not!" she almost yelps, obviously thrilled.

She asks what he's all about. "Well, I'm the Republican conservative candidate," he says. "I believe in all the things Ronald Reagan believed in ..."

Once she's sufficiently charmed, Farris looks around, sees no more available voters and heads for the door.

Back behind the wheel of his white Ford Explorer (vanity plates: HOME SCL), an endearing smile spreads across his face when he spots a young girl walking down the street. He honks at her as he drives by. "She's a really good shortstop -- she was on the softball team I coached," he says. "I had to give up coaching to run for office." A sigh. "One of my greatest sacrifices."

The route to the Farris homestead is a narrow causeway lined with thick trees and cracks in the pavement. A long gravel driveway ends at a spacious house. A few other homes are in sight, but there's a sense of remoteness, isolation and distance between here and the rest of the world.

His pregnant wife, Vickie, and six of the eight kids are home. They flock to greet him; they're not in studies today -- it's summer break. With the exception of a few areas of minor child clutter, the place is immaculate. Out back, there's a pool and patio, complete with white lawn furniture. A suburban tableau of prosperity.

It's here that Farris seems most comfortable. And in some respects, it's a refuge in a hostile America where, in his view, Christianity is under siege. This is a school where Farris and his wife design the curriculum. This is where children learn everything their parents want them to.