WHAT DOES A CONSERVATIVE, deeply-religious congressman from the Eastern Shore say he winds up before a judge on a charge of buying sex from a teen-age boy? He says the devil, in the form of drink, made him do it. Thus has the doctrine of free will apparently fallen on very hard times.

Rep. Robert Bauman is only the last of a rash of public figures to explain their behavior by admitting addiction to the bottle. Wilbur Mills, you will remember, went down to the Tidal Basin because he was a boozer. He blamed everything on the bottle, swore the stuff off and now leads a relatively normal life -- albeit out of Congress. Next came Rep. Michael Myers, convicted in the Abscam case but not caught without an explanation: booze did him in.

We heard pretty much the same story from Rep. John Jenrette Jr., another Abscam victim, who can deal with liquor or with money but not, it appears, both Sen. Herman Talmadge drank hard and said he didn't know what was going into his pockets. Another example is Billy Carter who, while drunk, made some anti-Senate statements, sobered up -- and went to work for Libya.

The intention here is not to mock alcoholism, to say it does not exist or that when it does exist it is not a horrible disease. It ruins lives and make things hell for everyone involved and it drives people to do things they normally would not do. But it has become a very acceptable disease, morally neutral, having lost all of its old moral stain -- the notion that a drunk was a drunk because, simply put, he drank too much. It has become almost an act of God, an excuse, and it seems to be used now the same way my son uses loss of memory. He never fails to do something because he did not want to do it. It is always that he forgot.

With Bauman, there is even some reason to doubt his alcoholism, and plenty of reason to doubt the inplications of his statement -- that boozing led him to homosexuality. If anything, it was probably the other way around and while I have no experience with homosexuality, I do have some when it comes to booze and things I later regretted doing. Even at the time, the little man in my head kept cutting through the fuzz, telling what was going on.

Bauman, I think, knows this. And he knows, too, that he is trying to have things both ways. He refers to his alcoholism as if it fell from the sky, but credits his return to the world of the sober and the straight to will power -- that and the trinity of priest, psychologist and AA. In doing this he is adhering to the conservative doctrine that man is responsible for who he is -- for this own fate. He is disregarding all he obviously knows about sexual compulsion, about urges so strong that even the destruction of a political career and family life does not stop a person from going out into the night, seeking what he obviously craves.

He says nothing about what he has learned. He says nothing about what he discovered about life, about how people are sometimes what they are through no fault of their own. He says nothing about battling the canards of homosexuality -- that business, for instance, that it can be learned from a teacher. What teacher taught Bauman to seek out teen-age boys?

There is something very American about this. Bauman's fall from grace was not his fault, but his successful battle back was all his own doing. It is as if the things he did were not done by him and his homosexual tendencies, whatever they might be, are not his but someone else's. Now he can sneer once again. Now he can put down homosexuals, feel no sympathy for them, be their enemy and think them morally corrupt. That, after all, is what he thought he was.

What is missing here is an understanding that this is a state of mankind -- that if people can be alcoholics through no fault of their own, then some people can be homosexuals also through no fault of their own. What is missing here is an understanding of life, of the limited control we all have over it. What is unfortunately not missing here is the implication that others could do the same thing as Bauman -- that if another person merely saw a shrink and stopped drinking then he, too could stop being a homosexual. It is that same will-power business all over again. Some people have it and some people don't.

The trouble with it is that it is all a lie. The trouble with it is that it makes it sound as if will power alone is the answer -- not understanding, not coming to grips with who you are. It puts things back into the old black and white, good and bad, holds the individual strictly accountable for what he or she is -- homosexuals for being homosexual, the poor for being poor.

The poor are poor sometimes through no fault of their own. Homosexuals are homosexual even though many of them would prefer not to be. People are, in many cases, what they are and the trick is to accept them for it, not denounce and hate. This is not to say that there is no such thing as free will or even will power. This is merely to say that in some cases it doesn't work or it isn't enough. Bob Bauman says he's in a state of grace. He has it confused with ignorance.