Long before Oscar smiled upon Mel Gibson's "Braveheart," Ted Baehr blessed it as a film with a Christian worldview -- even if it does contain "6 obscenities, 3 exclamations and two obscene acts."

And when Ted Baehr speaks, millions of religious Americans -- and about 300 of Hollywood's top executives -- listen.

Baehr is chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, which rates and reviews Hollywood's output for 1,100 Christian radio stations, dozens of TV shows, and subscribers to its magazine. Every year his group -- one of at least three rating services for the Christian market -- issues a report on the movie industry, breaking down in intricate detail box office numbers that it uses to argue that audiences want less sex, less violence and more "powerful, wholesome movies which will glorify Him."

Baehr, an Episcopal priest, so likes "Braveheart" that he has seen it three times, read the script and presented the screenwriter, Randall Wallace, with a Faith and Freedom Award.

Months before "Braveheart" won five Oscars out of its 10 nominations, religious conservatives had embraced the movie as a rare good deed from an industry many on the Christian right consider depraved. Religious schools have quickly added to their reading lists books on the film's protagonist, William Wallace, the commoner who led a 13th-century revolt of Scots against the English king. At the height of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign last month, religious supporters were greeting him with shouts of "Braveheart!"

On WAVA-FM, the Rosslyn-based Christian station, Janet Parshall -- whose program is heard on 22 outlets across the country -- devoted show after show to the film. "I have talked it up, I've had guests discussing it, I've talked to listeners about it," Parshall says. " Braveheart' appeals to us to be brave in circumstances that seem insurmountable, whether it's being a single mother or standing by a rebellious teenager."

William Wallace is an avenger, ruthlessly turning against the English, but for a just and moral cause. He protects his fellow Scots against the English nobles, and -- more important -- he defends his manhood against English lords who claim the right to deflower every Scottish lass on her wedding night.

"Braveheart" speaks to religious conservatives in part because it is a clear tale of good vs. evil, of the underdog standing up against tyranny. It is a celebration of revolutionary spirit and of religious men like those who formed this country.

But it also fits neatly into the Christian right's pique over the Clinton presidency. Christian critics were especially taken by the film's endorsement of the notion that God's law is above the king.

"The movie is a rallying cry for the supremacy of God's law," Baehr wrote in his review. "A timely political principle indeed, when our country is debating the authority of officials who have flaunted {sic} the law of God."

Michael Medved, the conservative film critic who appears on PBS's "Sneak Previews," hailed the film as a "very traditional picture affirming the values of courage and freedom." The Catholic Communication Campaign's movie review line (800-311-4CCC), which classifies movies on a scale ranging from A1 for family fare to O for morally offensive, praised "Braveheart" as an enterprising story of a minority fighting for its homeland.

And yet "Braveheart," now out on video, never did terribly well at the box office. Religious supporters of the movie blame that on the graphic violence, the only factor that they believe stood between the film and millions of American churchgoers.

"You don't have to portray violence in such a pornographic manner," says Baehr, who would not permit his four children to see the movie.

That might stand as one man's opinion if Baehr's annual report to the industry were not as influential as it has become. Earlier this month, the head of distribution for Warner Bros. canceled a ski trip to join 300 of Hollywood's bigwigs at Baehr's presentation at the Universal Hilton.

Films with Christian content, Baehr told the assembled, were performing 24 times better at the box office than films he rated anti-Christian. "Every year, five times more people go to church than to the movies," Baehr says. "Three of the seven top-grossing films last year were G-rated. We can show, down to the dollar, the cost of foul language at the box office. The audience has moved. The older you get, the more you want Sense and Sensibility' and the less you want Friday the 13th.' "

"Families are looking for things to do as families, and they don't want to have to reach over and cover the kids' eyes," says Parshall, who has seen "Braveheart" seven times.

She fell in love with "Braveheart" without giving "Mel Gibson a second thought. The role could have been played by Bozo the Clown. What grabbed me is the man he played. People want to be pure and heroic; we're searching for heroes in America. William Wallace stands up and says, Help me, I'm scared and I want to die a good death.'

"Well, one of the prayers on my lips daily is, Lord, let me die a good death.' Braveheart' made me think about the big questions: What do we live for? What would you die for?"

"Braveheart" is laced with Christian symbolism, starting with Wallace's first approach to his English adversaries with his arms stretched wide, his open palms limp in apparent acquiescence. At film's end, Wallace is gouged to death, pinned to a scaffold in the shape of a crucifix.

Gibson, the son of a man who wrote essays opposing the reforms of Vatican II, is unusually open about his beliefs in an industry that is clearly uncomfortable with religion. The actor-director calls himself a Catholic fundamentalist and is vehemently antiabortion. Although he has soft-pedaled the religious message of his tale of Scottish liberation in media interviews, Gibson proudly says he set out to create an old-fashioned hero.

Characters such as Wallace "are just people who put it all on the line for principle and are willing to pay the ultimate price," Gibson told the Observer of London. "It has to do with their spirit. They have to have a belief in something far greater or they could not exit life so easily."

Despite the religious conservatives' applause for Gibson's view of history, the brutal hand-to-hand violence of the movie has sparked great debate among Christian reviewers.

"Do we have to see the pickax through the head?" Parshall says of one of the many close-up scenes of gory death. "Did Mel go over the top? Probably, but how else would you portray being so committed to freedom that you'd be willing to walk into a teeming storm of arrows?"

(There has been no such debate among the religious right about "Braveheart's" alleged homophobia. The English king's son, Edward II, is portrayed as a stereotypically foppish and fey homosexual. The scene in which the king tosses his son's lover out a castle window is played for a chuckle, a directing decision that sparked protests against "Braveheart" by gay rights activists.

(Baehr says the scene "raises other questions, but not homophobic questions. It asks, why is the son rebelling against his father?")

The concern over violence in the movie did not, however, stop religious reviewers from recommending "Braveheart," while an "implied lesbian relationship" and profanity caused the Catholic Conference to declare "Diabolique" "morally offensive."

Do Christian critics accept brutal violence while rejecting even implicit sexual material? "The portrayal of sex in Hollywood is different because it's always without consequences," Parshall says. "Show me AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, the breakdown of marriage and the destruction of teenagers after an adulterous relationship and then I'll accept sex in movies. The bloody battles in Braveheart' are true, and you see the consequences immediately." CAPTION: Mel Gibson as the Scottish warrior. CAPTION: Onward, Christian soldier: Gibson in "Braveheart."