"The hogs were really feeding. The greed level, the level of opportunism just got out of control." The speaker is the director of the Office of Management and Budget, describing the final negotiations among the leaders of our nation, liberals and conservatives alike, that led to the 1981 tax bill.

"I hate to say this, but I don't like to work with poor people. They are the kind of people who don't interest me. I can't help it; I'm not a nice guy; I don't like poor people." The speaker is a leading Washington psychiatrist.

"Why worry about the details?" The speaker is a law professor, who boasts that he is pleased to be paid cash for his next consultation because that means he won't have to report it to the IRS as required by law.

"I was entrapped." The speaker is a congressman convicted in the Abscam case who never denied accepting a bribe, but believed it was only natural that he be allowed to escape responsibility anyway.

I don't know about you, but to me these examples suggest that this country is in serious trouble, and that the crisis, at bottom, is a moral one. Thucydides' explanation of the death of the Greek city-state--that it was impossible to distinguish between those who perpetrate crimes and those who prevent them--is almost a reality.

Maybe all of this sounds like an exaggeration to you. But let's not deny it: we are paying a stiff price for our liberation from older values--the "freedom" to be left alone; the "freedom" to be without responsibility; love and loyalty that flash on and off like a neon sign. As we try to "discover ourselves," we're learning to live without shame, not only criminals who can mug pedestrians with a clear conscience but everyone else who can see some of themselves in these examples.

So what is to be done? More government efforts to stop crime? More psychiatric efforts to get us to "talk out" our problems? I think not. The real problem is more fundamental. We've lost something at the core of our national character that once acted to shape our behavior. We've lost our sense of virtue.

Well, that's a nice word, you say, but what does it really mean? After all, isn't virtue a relative term? How can we know what is right or wrong, good or bad? Doesn't a certainty about such matters imply an objectionable kind of religious dogmatism? This is the line of reasoning that many liberals pursue, but I believe the premise is wrong, and that the reasons it's wrong can tell us a lot-- not only about virtue but about liberalism and why it's in trouble.

First, we should accept the idea that virtue is not relative at all. It is very definite. It means love, generosity, and responsibility, not only for yourself and your family but for other people. It means not simply the ability to distinguish right from wrong, but a restless quest to do good and seek justice.

As for the second concern, religious dogmatism, I don't think we have to accept simple-minded, self-righteous dogmatists such as Jerry Falwell in order to realize that religious belief can be a foundation for virtuous action. Instead of that model of modern thinking, the Washington psychiatrist, religion gives us the model of St. Francis of Assisi, with his indifference to material things and his passionate concern for the poor. Instead of the law professor who cheats, it gives us Moses. And instead of ideas like "get mine" and "get even," it gives us the basic principles of Judaism and Christianity that have survived the centuries since Leviticus 19:18 ("Love thy neighbor") and Matthew 7:12 (the Golden Rule).

So I wonder: why are we now so reluctant to engage our students and our children in questions of character and virtue? Why are we afraid to raise the issue of honesty when we teach politics, to raise the issue of love when we teach sex, to raise the issue of faith when we teach science? Is there really something terrible about encouraging students to read religious myths, including biblical texts? The Bible asks the central questions: why are we here? Why does life seem so unfair? Such teaching does not foist faith upon the faithless; it simply helps us understand a little more of what life is about.

Maybe the Moral Majority is on to something, that a spiritual renewal and a repairing of American moral fabric have something to do with each other. These New Right groups may have a simplistic, reactionary, even dangerous view of moral values, but at least they understand the importance of the subject.

Discussion of moral values makes most liberal Democrats nowadays uneasy. Of course, it's important to worry about separation of church and state, but in preserving the pluralistic structure of our democracy we have to be careful not to lose sight of the substance of what we're trying to protect--that is, the moral commitment to doing right. This substance can be safely based on religious appeal. I think if liberals remember back a few years they'll agree that they can't very well rejoice at William Sloane Coffin's use of religion to protest the war in Vietnam but object on principle to the Moral Majority's use of religion to further its conservative goals. The politics and narrowness of these groups are disturbing, but their religiousness per se is not.

The continued inability of the left to grasp this point leads me to believe that there is an element of simple prejudice in current attitudes toward evangelical southern Protestants. The reaction is troubling. Robert Coles recalls a psychiatric conference in Colorado a few months ago where the organizers asked that he change the title of the paper he was to deliver from "The Moral Development of Children" to "The Social Development of Children." It seems the word "moral" contained certain inappropriate implications.

The dangers this attitude poses for liberals are not too hard to figure out. By cutting itself off from religion, the left has failed, as Harvey Cox, a professor of religion at Harvard, puts it, "to understand the power and significance of myth and ritual and symbol in the lives of ordinary people. . . . It has consistently abandoned the task of drawing out these cultural resources and turned the whole field over to the right."

Religious fervor, so central to the abolitionist cause, exhausted itself after the Civil War, and by the late 19th century the social gospel of "do- gooding" had replaced a religion where you meet your Maker and get judged. The latter was viewed as "undignified." Today religion, if it is recognized at all, is to be cool, low-key, and unimportant. Of course, it's only a small step from here to the feeling that fervor, especially when harnessed to social ends, is, well, gauche.

Interestingly, liberals who mock the idea of sin and punishment and find evangelists particularly odious are often able to tolerate and even applaud this type of religiosity among blacks. Thus the northern white Marc Connelly could in 1931 write "Green Pastures," a play of biblical tales performed by blacks speaking in southern accents, while being an agnostic himself. The show enjoyed phenomenal Broadway success and the critics raved. "The real spiritual hunger and steadfast faith of these souls is carried over the footlights by the simplest and most unaffected means," wrote the New York Herald Tribune critic. (Of course such spiritual hunger and steadfast faith wouldn't have counted for much if the play had been about whites. In fact, it probably would have flopped.)

The greatest liberal triumph of my lifetime--the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s --was led by black clergymen who simply asked if segregation was consistent with the teachings of Jesus. This religious appeal had more impact than all the briefs of the government and the American Civil Liberties Union combined. It inspired Americans to examine their virtues and provided a moral foundation necessary to support legal change.

I believe liberals can achieve such triumphs again, but only if they open themselves up to their own religious impulses and reach out to average Americans in a way that touches their souls.