To hear the cries of alarm from artists and musicians whose work is under siege by the champions of decency, you could easily believe that the United States is in the grips of a New Puritanism, a frenzy to censor, intimidate and drive all forms of unconventional expression underground.

The evidence is not hard to marshal. Politicians and judges are displaying an unseemly relish in bashing cultural figures they don't like. Artists have to sign pledges of propriety to get federal money. Television carries pictures of cops shutting down museums. Parents are increasingly vocal in protesting the salacious entertainment their children are being exposed to.

But all the anxiety about censorship, say close students of the culture wars, obscures what is a more powerful reality: In our nation's cultural life, the modern, the cosmopolitan and, yes, the tolerant have won. What strikes many historians, sociologists, theologians and legal scholars is not that Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs and 2 Live Crew's music provoked such outrage -- they were designed to do just that -- but that they won so many influential defenders.

The lesson of the current struggles, they say, is that a country that was once quite comfortable drawing firm lines against obscenity is no longer at all certain which lines to draw, where to draw them -- or whether to draw them at all.

"Thirty years ago, there was much greater consensus about what was acceptable public expression, what was an acceptable form of artistic expression," says James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who is finishing a book called "Culture Wars." Now, he says, "people are willing to talk about almost anything as art as long as there are experts in the community of high culture who are willing to call it art."

"In the long run," Hunter adds, "I don't see a consensus taking shape beyond a consensus that anything goes."

Harvey Cox, a liberal theologian at Harvard University who has written extensively about the Religious Right, says that if artists are fearful about the triumph of a censorious New Right, the defenders of tradition and propriety feel no less besieged. "They represent a segment of the culture that feels defeated and threatened," Cox says of the traditionalists. "They certainly don't feel triumphant."

And when it comes to the law, civil libertarians such as Walter Dellinger, a professor of law at Duke University, believe that developments in jurisprudence are also on the side of free expression.

"2 Live Crew may be banned from a few record stores in Broward County, but it's available in record stores all over the country," says Dellinger, who intensely dislikes what 2 Live Crew has to say. "No one can conceive of an effective national ban in an open market economy." Even an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, he adds, "doesn't show any signs of yielding on First Amendment issues."

Barton Bernstein, a professor of history at Stanford University, observes that the powerful public support won by the pro-Mapplethorpe forces in the battles at the National Endowment for the Arts demonstrates, among other things, how much ground gay rights advocates have gained in winning at least grudging acceptance from a broad segment of the public.

Three decades ago, he says, "homosexuality would not have been defended and that kind of expression would not have been defended." Now, "there's a new response, not just among intellectuals and gays but in the general population, that this kind of expression should be permitted."

In the view of Bernstein and others, the growth in tolerance for even broadly offensive speech comes from a generation that was deeply influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s and that has maintained an instinctive sympathy for the marginal, the persecuted and the outrageous. Having battled for free expression as teenagers, members of the baby boom now want to show that as adults, they're still more tolerant than their parents were.

The polls suggest that this generational sensibility is beginning to define public opinion on the issues surrounding censorship. A recent survey for Newsweek by the Gallup Organization asked those polled to choose between the following two statements: "Adults like yourself have the right to determine what they may see and hear" and "Society has laws to prohibit material that may be offensive to some segments of the community." Seventy-five percent of respondents wanted adults to make their own decisions; only 21 percent wanted the tough laws.

Although Gallup never asked the question that way before, its earlier polls suggest that the country used to be more sympathetic to censorship of pornography. In 1965, for example, Gallup found that 58 percent of Americans thought that laws in their states "regarding what kind of books can be sold" were not strict enough; only 4 percent thought they were too strict. The rest either had no opinion or said that the laws as they stood -- much stricter laws than we have today -- were just fine.

If you really want to know how much the world has changed, consider a 1955 Gallup poll that found that 55 percent of men and 73 percent of women disapproved of "women wearing Bermuda shorts on the street." Not mini-skirts or short-shorts, mind you, but Bermuda shorts. Gallup wouldn't even think of asking that question today.

If a New Puritanism is gripping the land, it's not anything that Cotton Mather would recognize.

To some degree, the current drives against obscenity are simply successful ventures at political entrepreneurship promoted by a few conservative leaders worried as much about polls and election returns as smut. Even sympathizers with the outrage against provocative music and art see the anti-obscenity mobilization as part of the beleaguered Right's effort to come up with new enemies.

Michael Cromartie, a research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who has written sympathetically about the Religious Right, sees the obscenity issue as "filling a void for a lack of social issues."

Fred Siegel, a historian at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, believes that tactically, the Right chose wisely in going after the endowment. This, he says, cast the issue not as a fight over censorship but as a battle over what the government was doing with the public's money.

At a time when so many Americans were already suspicious about what government subsidizes with tax dollars, Siegel says, the battle over the NEA let conservatives raise questions about whether artists should be in "a privileged position" and "totally unaccountable for what they did with public money." The accountability issue, says Siegel, let the NEA's foes paint artists as elitists, feeding at the public trough but contemptuous of taxpayers' concerns. "Who do they think they are -- a savings and loan?" he remarks.

But Siegel, Cromartie and other scholars agree with the worried artists that the current battles reflect something more than just a clever organizing campaign by the Right. "The real question," says Siegel, "is not censorship but legitimacy." In other words, which forms of artistic expression should society honor with its open approval, its praise -- and, in the case of NEA grants, its subsidies?

As they have done in past generations, Americans are struggling to preserve free speech without implying social approval of all the uses to which that freedom is put. We are a tolerant country, but we are uneasy with the fruits of our tolerance. What some would see as a New Puritanism is thus something much more subtle -- a New Uneasiness, perhaps.

Uneasiness certainly comes through in the polls. Americans make distinctions between what they will tolerate and what they will subsidize, between what they think adults should be allowed to see and what they think children should not be allowed to see.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week found that 54 percent of Americans favored restrictions on public financing for art. While less than a third favored banning controversial music, 57 percent supported a ratings system for record albums akin to the one used for movies. This result is consistent with the Newsweek/Gallup finding that 78 percent of Americans think parents should do more to protect children from obscenity.

Children are at the heart of the debate. Cox says that many of those "who are expressing anguish or anger about the rising tide of pornography" are mainly concerned with "what values government figures and teachers and parents" are passing on to the next generation.

Even baby boomers who love rock-and-roll begin to think differently about obscenity and pornography once they have children, argues Allan Carlson, president of the conservative Rockford Institute. In that respect, he says, baby boomers may be more like their parents than they would like to admit. "The definition of a social conservative," Carlson quips, "is a liberal with a daughter in high school."

Hunter argues that if there is a central theme in the current obscenity debate, it is not whether adults will be able to exercise their freedoms, but whether children and teenagers should be "protected" from forms of expression that might harm their development.

Liberals, he says, have largely won all the arguments about the freedom of adults to watch, hear and read anything they want. "Progressives have been able to dominate the symbols, notably the First Amendment and free expression," Hunter says. "It's hard to make a credible case for standards in a slogan. Nobody wants to be known as a censor."

Children are another matter. Hunter calls them "a potent symbol for the future" and notes, "We're certainly more willing to impose restrictions on children, no matter how liberal we are." That view was apparently behind the Federal Communications Commission's decision last week to enforce a 24-hour ban on the broadcast of "indecent" programs by the nation's radio and television stations.

Michael Kazin, a historian at the American University who has written widely about the New Left and the counterculture, believes that "the children's issue" may be the way in which highly tolerant baby boomers rationalize their ambivalent feelings about the world their own values helped create. "With a lot of people whose behavior is libertarian, their superego gets in the way," Kazin says, "and so they decide that 'you have to protect the kids.' "

In an unlikely convergence of concern, feminists who have almost nothing in common with the New Right agree that pornography is destructive because it promotes an exploitative view of women. Feminists have been especially critical of those who would link sex and violence -- as 2 Live Crew does in its banned album, "As Nasty as They Wanna Be."

The ties between feminists and evangelical conservatives should not be exaggerated. Most feminists share the classic liberal misgivings about censorship and see the Religious Right's agenda as inimical to most of what they believe.

Looking for a way to oppose pornography without joining in conservative censorship campaigns, some feminists, led by legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan Law School, have proposed model pornography statutes that give women a chance to sue the purveyors of works they see as subordinating women.

This approach, says Jane Mansbridge, a political scientist at Northwestern University, concentrates on the harm that certain forms of expression cause women "and defines pornography as a form of sexual discrimination." The advantage of MacKinnon's approach, for Mansbridge, is that it does not seek to criminalize speech -- those who sue seek civil, not criminal, penalties. But it does emphasize that words and pictures have consequences and can cause real individual and social damage.

This strategy has made little progress in either the courts or the legislatures, partly because so many feminists still worry that even civil penalties, however gentle, are censorship nonetheless. But feminist arguments have given the anti-pornography cause a certain legitimacy in liberal circles.

"The New Right has gotten energy out of feminism -- and not just in opposition to it," Kazin says. "They see themselves as defending women too." The feminist concern about pornography, Cromartie contends, suggests that "it's not just puritans who are responding, it's not just fundamentalists."

Mansbridge and Cox both point to the rise of a new "communitarian" liberalism as another reason why some liberals are giving a more sympathetic hearing to foes of pornography than they used to. The new communitarianism reflects the acceptance by an influential group of liberals of an old conservative insight: that public institutions can never be completely neutral about values and that the messages these institutions send shape society and the way individuals in it behave.

The communitarians hold that society is held together not only by "due process" but also by "embodied values," says Cox. For communitarians, "law is supposed to have an instructive function." What society chooses to make legal and illegal reflects more than just a pragmatic judgment; it also shows what society considers important.

Dellinger says that he finds communitarianism, with its talk of shared values and commitments, appealing in theory. But ultimately, he argues, when society embodies its values in the law, it is making a decision to punish those who violate the communal norms. "We're talking about putting people in prison," he says.

This is where most Americans say no, and break ranks with the anti-obscenity crusade.

Many people are offended by the values of 2 Live Crew and Robert Mapplethorpe. Many want to keep certain books, films and videos out of children's reach and view. Many don't want their tax money used to finance such works. But when it comes to punishing people for what they say -- or rap or sing -- most Americans, reluctantly and uneasily, are prepared to let adults be as nasty as they want to be.