When Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown was forced the other day to explain why an official state trade delegation had gone to the Republic of South Africa, he essentially said he had taken an oath to be morally obtuse. When it comes to promoting the prosperity of Kentucky, he said, "I am under an obligation to look at all parts of the world."

It was the same sense of obligation that compelled Virginia's Sen. John Warner to speak to a racially segregated private school located in, of all places, Prince Edward County. It was here that the schools were closed rather than be integrated--a mere historical trifle, according to Warner. He defended his appearance by saying it would be wrong to deny the people of the area a chance to hear him just because "of the actions of the school hierarchy."

What these two gentlemen have in common (aside from a proclivity to marry their best campaign assets) is a view of racism as essentially benign, just another way of thinking--another point of view. In the case of Brown, he sought the business of one of the world's most despicable regimes at about the same time black miners there were being gunned down for having the effrontery to demand (brace yourself) the same wages as whites.

And in the case of Warner, he is willing to lend his stature to an institution that is sort of the Alamo of racial segregation, dismissing criticism by saying he, like Brown, also has an constitutional obligation. His is to speak to his constituents. He makes segregationists sound like an exotic ethnic group.

If the two have anything else in common it is an unnerving ability to sense the mood of the nation. Indeed, the chances are that you neither know of the Warner speech nor of the Kentucky trade mission. These two were not page one news almost anywhere and neither man, it seems, has been forced to answer for his actions by a hostile and morally indignant public. It is one big yawn.

The two are not alone. When J. Peter Grace, the president's man on a fiscal watchdog committee, described the food stamp program as "basically a Puerto Rican program" he simply excused himself for what he called an "oratorical mistake" and went on with his job. The administration did not see fit to reprimand him. This was no surprise, actually, from a president whose initial appointments to civil rights commissions had to be withdrawn when the nominees were found to have the social consciences of pet rocks.

There is a new mood in the nation, a new way of defining racism. It is not what you say or what you do (or, in the case of the Reagan administration, fail to do) but what you say you believe in your heart of hearts. Thus, the president can make his dismal appointments; look at the voting rights act as if it were a snake that crawled out from under a rock; change course on tax exemptions for segregated schools; be against busing, affirmative action and vigorous prosecution of civil rights cases by his Justice Department, and still proclaim himself on the side of the angels when it comes to civil rights. He is what he says he is.

The same, of course, is true for Brown and Warner. Down deep in their hearts, they are little Martin Luther Kings. So pure are they that they do not need to lead by example. Brown does not need to assert that doing business with South Africa is morally wrong, not to mention an insult to Kentucky's blacks. Warner does not need to either rebuff the school's invitation or say something about racial justice when he does speak. Their pure hearts will speak for them.

But some people do not get the message when only good intentions speak. In New York, a man was beaten to death by a pick-up gang of youths simply because he was black. In the business world, companies have to remind their executives that it is not once again okay to discriminate in employment or promotions. Throughout this country there has been an upsurge in hate activities of all types.

It's hard to attribute these to any one thing but it's not hard to say that the country has taken to heart the advice of former attorney general John Mitchell, who said: "Watch what we do and not what we say." When it comes to civil rights, all too often lately politicians are saying one thing and doing the other. And the country, of course, is watching.