Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) today warmly embraced a group of fundamentalist Christian educators, telling them that Christianity is "higher than religion" and is "the meaning of America."

Helms made his remarks in a speech here to the North Carolina Christian Educators Association in which he said he had been attacked and ridiculed for championing their causes.

"I'm repeatedly called a 'Prince of Darkness' because of my efforts to restore school prayer and a right-wing extremist because I stand up for the most innocent and helpless humanity, the unborn child," he said.

Helms, locked in a tight and vitriolic reelection battle against Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt, said that his friends had told him to stay away from the abortion issue because it was "dynamite" and "polarizing" but that he refused.

"I won't back off even if it costs me the election," said Helms. "Some things are more important than the election."

The crowd of about 400 cheered wildly. One woman waved a placard that said, "Thank God for Jesse."

"I wish people would get as excited about Jesus as they do about Jesse," said Don Carter, an educator from nearby Burlington.

Helms said that "secular humanism" permeates the halls of Congress and that a senator once told him, "Christianity may be popular today, but some other religion may come along tomorrow."

"Christianity is not only true," said Helms, "it's much higher than religion. It is the meaning of America as far as I'm concerned."

Hunt, a moderate Democrat, has consistently attacked Helms, the leader of the New Right forces in the Senate, as a right-wing extremist who is more interested in his pet causes than in the problems of North Carolina. Hunt curtailed campaigning much of today to plot strategy for the final days before the election and wait for the political fallout from the execution in Raleigh of Margie Velma Barfield, the first woman executed in the nation in 22 years.

Conservative Christians are one group of voters that Helms hopes can help win him a third term.

Today, the North Carolina Christian Educators Association embraced him as a conquering hero. President Blair Berkeley introduced him as a man he would vote for "even if he was a Democrat" and assured Helms that he could count on "our support and our prayers."

Helms' speech was repeatedly interrupted by applause. When he finished, Berkeley closed the meeting with a prayer, saying, "We thank you, O Lord, for Sen. Helms, who is willing to stand up without wavering or compromising."

Helms told reporters that he respects other religions and feels they have a right to practice their beliefs, but that he believes the United States was founded on Christian beliefs.

"I don't know anyone who is saying Jews or anybody else shouldn't have their say, but I think Christians should have their say, too," he said.

Helms accused the press, particularly The Washington Post and The New York Times, of ridiculing and trying to intimidate fundamentalist Christians from participating in politics.