THREE OUT OF 10 Americans are said to watch religious programming on television, and half of these to make charitable donations to such ministries. According to a Media General-Associated Press poll, most of these people are worried about the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal and believe that revelations about the PTL organization will hurt all television evangelists. It is not hard to understand how this could happen, given the Bakkers' way of doing things.

But while the eyelashes, the air-conditioned dog house and the charges of sexual adventures of some variety are distracting, they are personal and particular matters of style and character, not of law. The money is something else. The Bakkers raised hundreds of millions of dollars primarily from their television audience. It was given in good faith for what were purported to be charitable purposes, and the public has a right to know where it has gone.

The PTL organization has filed for reorganization under the bankruptcy laws, and a U.S. bankruptcy court is examining all the records, contracts and financial agreements entered into by the Bakkers. Here it has been learned, for example, that a number of the Bakkers' relatives have been on the payroll -- and have had the use of cars, housing and other benefits -- without apparently doing any work. The Bakkers' own salaries and bonuses -- $2.2 million in the 16 months before they left PTL -- have been disclosed.

Litigation has also begun in civil court. A handicapped youngster named Kevin Whittum has sued PTL and Mr. Bakker in a county court in York, S.C., over the rights to a home for handicapped children built with PTL contributions. Millions of dollars were raised and a large home was constructed, but only Kevin Whittum, his sister and his adoptive parents, who happen to be cousins of Mr. Bakker, have ever lived in it. An accounting has been demanded.

And to no one's surprise, federal prosecutors have begun to look into possible criminal activity. On Aug. 17, a federal grand jury was sworn in Charlotte, N.C., and it has been reported that the panel will investigate the Bakkers and PTL. It is expected that the grand jury's work will take a year and will focus on whether there was mail and wire fraud. Was money raised for charitable purposes spent on other things -- on payments, for example, to Jessica Hahn, who reached a $265,000 settlement with PTL after an alleged sexual encounter with Jim Bakker?

All the facts about the financial affairs of the Bakkers are matters of public concern. The painstaking work going on in courtrooms has to do with protecting the money-giving TV congregation against the maneuvers of scam artists.