Jay Van Andel and Richard M. DeVos are the first to say that the free-enterprise system has been good to them.

In the 21 years since they started a company called Amway and began selling liquid detergent out of a makeshift headquarters in a converted service station, their company has grown into an international enterprise that last year sold $1.1 billion worth of soap, vitamin pills, panty hose, shoe polish and other household products.

Now Van Andel and DeVos are trying to give something back to the free-enterprise system that has done so much for them -- and in doing so have put themselves into the thick of the business offensive against the liberal ideology that dominated the nation's politics in the 1960s and 1970s.

From Anway's saucer-shaped headquarters here, the two men spearhead a crusade that uses articles, advertisements, direct mail, films, interviews, speeches, grass-roots organizations and corporate gifts to sell Americans on the virtues of individual initiative, free enterprise and "the system."

Along with such entrepreneurs as hotel magnate J. William Marriott and brewer Joseph Coors, Amway's founders have emerged as aggressive cheerleaders for what they see as the new majority ideology: the conservatism represented by the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Last week this role received official recognition with the appointment of DeVos as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.

That Amway is a company with interests that go beyond selling soap is evident from the moment a visitor arrives at the company's sprawling headquarters here. Past a sign announcing "Center for Free Enterprise," guests enter a lobby dominated by large bronze busts of the founders. The center itself features an exhibit that mixes patriotic memorabilia (Japanese surrender documents) with scenes showing Amway's growth from humble beginnings. But the center is only a small part of Amway's interlocking public affairs activities, which now include:

The Institute for Free Enterprise, also located in the headquarters here. The insitute has sponsored workshops around the country, instructing 2,000 teachers on ways to prepare lesson plans to help schoolchildren understand basic economic concepts.

A nationwide newspaper advertising campaign, now in its second year, aimed at reaching "thought leaders . . . with hard-hitting, to-the-point issue ads [that] can be reprinted for direct mail merchandising to editors, writers and other opinion leaders around the country, thus multiplying value." Themes have included inflation, budget deficits, government reguylation, government growth and overtaxation .

van Andel's and DeVos' bylined monthly column, "Business Viewpoint," which is distributed free to 1,500 small daily and weekly newspapers, and also appears in the company magazine Amagram, which is circulated to Amway's 750,000 distributors.

Acquisition in 1977 of the Mutual Broadcasting System, with its 950 affiliated radio stations.Under Amway, Mutual has purchased two large radio stations of its own, WHN in New York City and WCFL in Chicago, and has installed hundreds of ground stations to receive Mutual programming via satellite. Amway has denied it intends to use the network to propagandize, but Van Andel acknowledges that he wants Mutual to project a "balanced" political viewpoint.

Establishment of grass-roots organizations. While serving as chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1979 and 1980, Van Andel was instrumental in setting up Citizens Choice, a conservative counterpart of Common Cuase, Citizens Choice, whose members include some Amway distributors, last year held meetings around the country to hear complaints about the Internal Revenue Service. It also monitors legislation (such as changes in minimum wage laws) and supplies voting records of members of Congress to dues-paying members.

Support for such interest groups as the newly established Education Voucher Institute, which seeks major changes in public education. Van Andel is a board member.

Gifts and donations. Anway or its owners have contributed money to such conservative groups as the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College Freedom Foundation. In 1979, foundations set up by the two partners contributed about $600,000 to various groups, including a substantial amount to religious broadcasting: "Radio Bible Hour," "Gospel Films," the "Hour of Power" and the "Back to God Hour."

Amway's out-front approach, company officials acknowledge, has a double edge to it.

"As Amway grows," says a company memorandum, "the opinions of Jay Van Andel and Rich DeVos are sought, more widely quoted and have more impact; these opinions have more influence on the direction of public policy and, in turn, help provide a better climate for Amway's distributor organization and thus more sales and more growth."

The roots of Amway's philosophy reach down to Van Andel's and DeVos' own roots. They grew up in nearby Grand Rapids, a bastion of staunch Republicanism that also gave the nation their longtime friend, former president Gerald Ford. Reagan's budget cutter, David A. Stockman, hails from St. Joseph, about 100 miles to the south. And the conservative movements intellectual emeritus, Russell Kirk, has a place not far distant.

Onto the Republicanism of these communities was grafted the partners' upbringing in the Lutheran congregations of western Michigan's Dutch Reformed Church, with their work-ethic values and emphasis on hardy individualism. Out of this came DeVos' belief that "the free-enterprise system is a gift of God to us, and we should understand it, embrace it and believe in it."

This convition led naturally to an early role in mobilizing religious organizations for political causes. In 1975, for example, DeVos gave $25,000 of his own money to the now-dissolved Christian Freedom Foundation. The late art De Moss, a businessman active in CFF, said at the time that its purpose was to elect Christian conservatives in 1976. Amway's DeVos also is reported to have held stock in Third Century Publishers, which published "In the Spirit of '76," a handbook for religious activists involved in conservative politics.

DeVos insists that his leanings are to traditional Republican groups and "not to ultraconservative groups that are out there, whether it's Paul Weyrich's group [Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress] or [richard] Viguerie [the New Right's wizard of direct-mail fund-raising]."

In 1979 DeVos and his wife gave $68,000 to Billy Veoli's Gospel Films and another $58,000 to The Rev. Robert Schuler's "Hour of Power," boradcast from the drive-in Garden Grove Community Church in California. Veoli and Schuler steer away from controversial political topics, concentrating instead on inspirational evangelicism that promotes positive thinking, self-motivation and fund-raising.

Van Andel describes himself as a moderate libertarian who accepts the need for some government regulation.

More than any other factor, it has been the phenomenal business success of Amway -- a patented trademark that does no stand for anything -- that has enabled the two partners to play an increasingly active political role.

In the last two years, while automobile companies in other parts of Michigan were suffering billion-dollar losses, Amway's annual sales spurted from $800 million to more than $1 billion. Over the years, the company has sold fire extinguishers, metal cleaners, touch-up wax for shoes, cosmetics, jewelry and aftershave ("Whisker Whiz"). Among its more than 300 products is a bug spray that, a company official says, "actually kills a wasp so you can watch it die." Amway researchers are now working on a better air freshner.

On the surface, Amway is just another business, like Avon or Tupperware, selling products directly to consumers through local sales personnel instead of through stores. Under the Amway system, distributors earn money not only by selling products to neighbors, friends, relatives or business associates, but also by sponsoring new distributors to sell still more of the products.

Nearly everything that Amway sells, however, duplicates products from other manufacturers and is available in stores, at competitive prices -- somewhat surprising for a company whose owners hammer away on the need for a more productive, innovative American economy. In 1978 the Federal Trade Commission dismissed a number of complaints against Amway but let stand a ruling that Amway improperly fixed prices, a ruling that forced the company to revamp its price lists and literature.

At Amway one hears much less about the people who buy its products than about the people who sell them. The company's distributor network has created a base -- a sort of Amway Nation -- that is receptive to the free-enterprise message of the founders.

While Procter and Gamble in 1975 spent $360 million to advertise its products with consumers, Amway spent only $1 million, concentrating instead on communicating with the distributors, holding out the rewards of diamonds, rubies, pearls, yacht trips, limousines and other incentives, but above all taking pains to make every Amway distributor feel appreciated, even loved.

For many distributors the network is a support group, a way to meet new people, a relief from boredom. The company's frequent conventions are less like business meetings than political rallies, with DeVos and Van Andel delivering upbeat speeches heavily laced with patriotic rhetoric and exhortations to the assembled distributors to believe in themselves and hand on to their dreams of success, sometimes with remarkable success.

For Dan Williams of Santa Barbara, Calif., one of Amway's top distributors, involvement has meant more than financial benefits. An engineer for a chemical company, Williams suffers from ulcers and a severe stutter before he became an Amway distributor 15 years ago. Then he began "a whole new life," he says.

"My energy level went up and I found my speech becoming fluent. It was the excitement of the business and getting my mind off myself. People at work were flabbergasated that I was volunteering to stand up in front of people and talk. Most of us reach a plateau where there is no future. What Amway does is to remove the lid."

DeVos says his links to distributors give him a political sense of the hopes and dreams, the frustrations and aspirations of a broad cross-section of Americans.

"The great performers in Amway are a unique breed of people. Those are the real goers, the tigers of the world. But there are all sorts of people in Amway. There are the Maudes and the Nellies out there, and the Johns, too, who just sell a hundred bucks worth a month. How do we keep them? They don't have any great results . . . they get a $3-a-month bonus check. We keep them around, I think, because they have a sense of involvement. Because we recognize their self-worth. We keep telling them we love them for whatever they do."

But DeVos plainly has little sympathy for those who won't help themselves. In a interview with Banner, the magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, DeVos said he did not believe there are "a lot of people in this country whose needs are not being met," and added that Chicago's South Side slums exist because that is "the way they choose to live."

The skeptics still view DeVos and Van Andel as opportunists who have used elements of Dale Carnegie, the human potential movement, modern public relations and religions and patriotic rhetoric to build their own personal and political fortunes. Amway, wholly owned by DeVos and Van Andel, does not publish a financial statement or reveal the incomes of its distributors, other than to say the average is only $143 a month.

And the critics also call attention to DeVos' green Rolls-Royce, valued at more than $40,000, as a sign that the partners are conspicuously wealthy from the labors of underpaid distributors. Yet many of the distributors don't see it that way. If Rich DeVos, a small-town boy from Grand Rapids, can end up behind the wheel of a Rolls through the fruits of his enterprise and risk-taking, some say, then so perhaps could the "Maudes and Nellies" of Amway.

DeVos is convinced that economic necessity eventually will persuade other captains of American industry to copy Amway's model of success.

"If managements would really make an effort to reach out and love them [the employes] and touch them and make them feel important you might see a change [in the economy]. I think that's coming," he says. If he is right, then Amway may also be the model for the political organization of the future: the militantly political business enterprise ready and willing to mobilize its resources and its manpower on behalf of the causes to which it is committed.