PAT ROBERTSON'S "surprising" second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses again demonstrates that our press does a bad job of writing about religion and politics.

Robertson has shocked Republican Party regulars repeatedly since last fall, in caucuses, precinct meetings and primaries in Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii and North Carolina. But the national media have given Robertson significantly less attention than they gave to the three "serious" candidates, Vice President George Bush, Sen. Robert Dole and Rep. Jack Kemp.

The general attitude of the political insiders was summed up by Richard Reeves, who wrote last month that Robertson's campaign was "a joke" and that "the press is inaccurate in treating Robertson as a serious candidate." On caucus night, network anchors badgered Robertson to explain why he talks to God. And reporters sought to portray his victory as a sinister miracle they couldn't have foreseen. Dan Rather christened the Robertson forces "the armies of the night." The Boston Globe wrote that "the 'invisible army' not only exists in Iowa, but it knows how to follow its leader's marching orders."

There's no excuse for this. Robertson's record, and his flair for political organizing, have been on the public record for at least 10 years. And the people who fuel his crusade, far from being secretive, have been waiting in parish halls for years, hoping someone would come and talk to them.

Some of the hostility and ridicule directed at Robertson reveals a certain amount of ignorance. Robertson believes that God speaks to him, that God answers prayers, that God can heal the sick and that God works miracles in the affairs of nations. As a charismatic, he expresses these beliefs in flamboyant and sometimes disturbingly literal fashion, but the beliefs themselves are part of mainstream Christianity. In my own Episcopal parish, which serves a sophisticated academic congregation, they are taken for granted.

That's not to say that there's nothing to question about Robertson. He has an unpleasant habit of denying past statements. He can be arrogant and high-handed. His alleged use of his media empire to fund his campaign raises serious ethical questions. Most important, he is a far-right conservative whose views of domestic and foreign policy make Jesse Helms look statesmanlike. These are political flaws. So perhaps we might all be a lot better off if the press stopped thinking of Pat Robertson as a preacher and looked at him as a pol. Iknow Robertson's roots. When I was growing up in Richmond, his father, A. Willis Robertson, was my senator. In 1978, I saw Pat Robertson mount a sophisticated, powerful drive to seize control of the Virginia Democratic Party. And in 1980, when I was a writer for The Washington Post Magazine, the Post sent me to Virginia Beach to interview evangelical and pentecostal voters -- the forerunners of Robertson's so-called "invisible army" -- about their attitudes toward religion and politics. These three elements -- his political roots, his political record and the population he appeals to -- are all important parts of understanding the Robertson phenomenon: The last southern conservative. Many reporters are puzzled by Robertson's seemingly bizarre stands on constitutional issues like the separation of church and state and the status of the Supreme Court. Did he get these ideas from God? No. By and large, he got them from his father. Most of Robertson's ideas -- his visceral anti-communism, his fear of government debt, his horror of "secularism," his distrust of the federal government -- are taken directly from his father's speeches. Look at Pat Robertson as the last Old South conservative.

Willis Robertson, who served in the Senate from 1947 to 1967, was a powerful and well-regarded member of the southern caucus that dominated the Senate. And Pat was his heir apparent.

As a southern conservative in the 1950s, Willis Robertson was strongly pro-military, staunchly anti-communist and radically opposed to government welfare programs. And he was a determined foe of civil-rights legislation and of Supreme Court integration decisions. It is the rhetoric of that fight that lingers in Pat Robertson's speeches.

For example, Pat Robertson has repeatedly argued that "a decision of the Supreme Court is not the law of the land." That idea -- and indeed, the exact words -- come from his father, who, like his southern colleagues, was attempting to justify southern acts of "interposition" aimed at "nullifying" the "erroneous" school integration cases. In 1958, the court reasserted its supremacy in the Little Rock school case, and President Eisenhower backed it up with federal troops; but conservatives like Willis Robertson kept up a guerrilla attack on court authority well into the 1960s.

Pat Robertson sometimes seems like a kind of political Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep 30 years ago and has recently awakened. In a sense, of course, that did happen. In 1956, Robertson accepted Christ as his savior and began to build his broadcast empire; not until 1978 did he turn his attention to public affairs again. The first campaign he ran is a revealing foretaste of his 1988 presidential bid. The Conoly Phillips campaign. Barely two weeks before the caucuses that were to select the Virginia Democratic Party's 1978 Senate nominee, Pat Robertson made a startling announcement: God had anointed an obscure Norfolk City Council member, G. Conoly Phillips, as the next Democratic senator from Virginia.

What followed should have tipped off reporters to what would happen 10 years later in Iowa. Robertson's forces ambushed party regulars throughout Tidewater, Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. Conoly Phillips arrived in Williamsburg with 412 delegates, third among the nine contenders.

After the second ballot showed a stalemate between the front-runner and the remaining challengers, Robertson and Phillips attended a hastily called caucus in the arena's back room. Robertson begged the other candidates to unite behind Phillips, arguing that his campaign had brought new voters into the Democratic fold.

Other pols argued that Robertson should swing his weight behind a conservative mainstream Democrat. "At this point," recalls an eyewitness, "Pat basically said that he could not deliver his people no matter how conservative the candidate was." The meeting broke up without agreement, and the front-runner, Andrew Miller, was nominated.

No one who saw Robertson's slick drive for Conoly Phillips ever again doubted that Robertson could perform in a caucus competition. The "invisible army." The other revealing detail is Robertson's frank admission that he could not control the voters who came out for his candidate. Ten years later, I think we should be very skeptical about claims -- for Robertson or from reporters -- that his "invisible army" will march to his command.

In fact, reporters could easily find the "invisible army." But they'd have to start looking. Evangelical and charismatic Christians don't give press briefings or do lunch. They hang out at church suppers and prayer-group meetings and a lot of other places where you can't get a good martini. But every time I have ventured onto their turf, I have found the footsoldiers of the religious right willing, even eager, to tell their story. And I've also found them a more diverse, independent-minded -- divided into charismatic, pentecostal, fundamentalist, main-line evangelical and non-denominational factions -- group than the press tends to portray.

This strain of Protestantism, with its insistence on the authority of the Bible, its distrust of central authority and its belief in the sacredness of each individual conscience, has been an important part of America's political and religious mix since before the Revolution. Contemporary religious-right thinking sometimes suggests a yen for theocracy, but Pat Robertson's religious forebears were key players in the struggle to establish freedom of religion and church-state separation. In his book "The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic," scholar William Lee Miller dubs the evangelical tradition "the Church of America," and documents its dominance over American cultural institutions -- most importantly, over public education -- for most of American history.

But in the years since World War II, the "Church of America" has been decisively disestablished and replaced by a more secular and pluralistic public ethic. Many on the religious right blame a sinister conspiracy of "secular humanists," but the real villain is simple demographics. Evangelicals are no longer dominant in numbers and can no longer expect others -- Catholics, Jews, non-evangelical Protestants, Moslems and non-believers -- to defer to their sensibilities.

The change has been wrenching for many evangelicals: TV shows and films freely mock their beliefs, and the public schools, once their special preserve, are now firmly secular. The political and religious stirrings of the past two decades have been their response. It's neither surprising nor unhealthy. After years of retreat from the public arena, the evangelicals are now seeking a seat at the big table of American politics and culture. As they gain it, I predict, they will learn to play the game of pluralism and compromise just as other groups have.

It's no coincidence that both parties this year must grapple with protest movements led by ministers. The church has been a traditional route to leadership for minorities who were closed out of the conventional paths to power. Now Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson are opening the doors for their supporters.

Reporters, don't call these people "Pat's army." They are too individualistic, and too sectarian, to be welded into a disciplined political force for long. Instead, like angry minorities throughout our history, they are using Robertson as the vehicle for their protest. And don't laugh at them: instead, report on them, understand them and help them find their way back into the American consensus, where they belong.

Garrett Epps is the author of "The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington" and a columnist for The North Carolina Independent.