Some time ago Norman Lear, the television producer and creator of the Archie Bunker show, formed an organization to fight what he called the religious radical right. The group, called People for the American Way, premiered in the required fashion--with a press conference, some television spots and a cocktail party. I liked the party, like Lear and like the organization itself. I just don't like something it has done.

I refer to the latest edition of the organization's "Bulletin" which reported that a Ku Klux Klan leader said the KKK shares "values and goals" with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. It then went on to quote the forgettable remarks of the forgettable Bill Wilkinson who recited some goals (school prayer, etc.) that he and Falwell have in common. Nowhere, though, did the "Bulletin" say that Falwell had solicited this endorsement or was pleased with it.

This is what used to be called guilt by association and is precisely the sort of thing civil libertarians yelled about back in the 1950s when self-appointed Red hunters roamed the land, refusing to distinguish between liberals, radicals, socialists, civil libertarians, Communists and real Soviet spies. It was all the same to them. For the political left to now do the same thing, to imply no distinction between the Klan and the Moral Majority, is equally repugnant. I hate to single out People for the American Way, because the recent "Bulletin" may not be typical--and a spokeswoman said it is not. Nevertheless, it is representative of the sort of thing critics of both the secular and religious New Right have been doing. There is a tendency to exaggerate, to hype the danger, to muddle, to talk about anything right of center as if it were the Nazi party.

Some of this is done to scare up money, but some of it seems to represent a longing for the old days. You have only to peruse the left-wing press to get the notion that some people wish this were the 1950s all over again--that Joe McCarthy were on the loose, HUAC holding hearings, and that the present recession were the Depression of old. For most people, those were the worst of times. But for some people, especially ideologues, they were the best of times. Having a political enemy worthy of hating is, you will have to admit, bracing--a terrific reason to get up in the morning. At the recent Writers Congress in New York, for instance, people were running around as if the Cossacks were coming. They lumped together conglomeration in publishing, the New Right, the Reagan administration and the antiabortion movement as if all were one and the same. Similarly, a fundamentalist preacher like Bailey Smith, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the one who said that "God does not hear the prayers of Jews," gets pictured as an anti-Semite when he may be nothing more than what he says he is: admittedly ignorant of either Jews or Judaism, but willing to learn.

The danger, though, is that critics of the New Right will discredit themselves the way the Old Right once did. It expended so much energy defending McCarthy, railing about Reds behind every tree, denouncing as un-American what was merely unconventional, that it lost all credibility. It got so that some people refused to believe there were such things as real Soviet spies, and the term Right Wing became another way of saying dopey beyond belief.

The same thing could happen to the critics of the New Right. It did not help the antiwar movement any when the bombing of Vietnam was called genocide when it really was something else--monstrous, but not genocide. In the same way, the Moral Majority and its allies are menacing enough without lumping them in with the Klan, and the threat to civil liberties is real enough without always resurrecting the ghost of McCarthy.

While history repeats itself, it never does so exactly. In the end, the constant hype and telescoping of the present into the past is self-defeating. The danger is not only from the New Right, but also from the chance that no one will pay much attention when the wolf, looking somewhat different than he used to, is really at the door. Give the New Right credit. It is too threatening to be fought with the old baloney.