WHEN REFLECTING upon the case of Warren Richardson, the former Liberty Lobby official who almost became a member of the Reagan sub-cabinet, some very bad movies come to mind. They are the ones in which a mobster tells another mobster just before dispatching him to mobster heaven that he should not take his imminent death "personal." Business, after all, is business.

Richardson was never a mobster. Instead, for four years he was general counsel of the Liberty Lobby, a right-wing group known throughout the land for its reactionary views and considered by some to be both anti-Semitic and racist. Among those who share this view is none other than Richardson himself. He has called the group "anti-Jewish and racist" and said he worked for it because he needed a job. Once again, business is business.

For this admission of no conscience, Richardson has been lavishly praised. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Richard Schweiker, accepted Richardson's decision to take his name out of consideration as assistant secretary "with regret." He said there was "no convincing evidence" that Richardson himself ever shared the views of the organization for which he once worked.Similiarly, Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator from Utah, said of Richardson that he didn't think he was "biased against Jewish people."

This is pretty much what Richardson himself has said, and all these slaps on the back for not being a bigot in his heart of hearts has led him to conclude that even though he did not get the job he wanted in the Reagan administration, he "won he moral battle." He said that he discovered soon after reporting to work at the Liberty Lobby that it was "anti-Jewish and racist" but that he himself was not. He was, he says, a mere employe -- an assertion disputed by one former Liberty Lobby official who said that as general counsel Richardson did not follow orders. He gave them. s

But who cares if he is really a bigot or if he merely hired out to them? What matters here is how the second possibility, that Richardson was a closet non-bigot, gets him off the hook with a whole lot of people, including a member of the president's cabinet -- the honorable Mr. Schweiker. It was Schweiker who accepted Richardson's decision "with regret" when it should have been accepted with alacrity and it was Schweiker who spent more than a week trying to figure out what to do with a man who had worked, by his own admission, for anti-Semites and racists.

Schweiker and the others are asking us to separate the person from the work he does. In many cases, this is a perfectly reasonable request since we all understand the necessity of making a living. Sometimes for the sake of business you have to do things you would prefer not to do. And sometimes perfectly fine human beings can do some awful things when it comes to business. You don't always have to believe in what you do.

But the business of Richardson's organization, the Liberty Lobby, is belief.It is not a plumbing supply house or a laundry. It is a cause and part of that cause was an anti-Zionism expressed in such a way that it seemed to have less to do with Zionists than it did with Jews -- references to Zionist bankers, to Rothschilds, and Zionist control of the press. That sort of language had been heard before -- and almost always from anti-Semites.

The same holds with blacks. The founder of the Liberty Lobby, Willis Carto, once wrote, "Negro equality is easier to believe if there are no Negroes around to destroy the concept." And a Liberty Lobby pamphlet called "Save Our Schools" warned about "mongrelization." Enough said.

If someone could work for a group like that and not agree with it, he or she must have either no conscience or a pretty strong stomach. Either way, they disqualify themselves for federal office. And so does a cabinet secretary such as Schweiker who makes a big production about the difference between being a bigot and simply advancing the cause of bigotry when the distinction is meaningless.

History has taught us time and time again that what a person believes can be less important than what he does. Even Richard Schweiker ought to know that.