Education Secretary William J. Bennett last night continued the administration's push for public schools to teach civic and moral values, telling an audience that American children must be told that this country is morally superior to the Soviet Union.

In a speech prepared for the Eagle Forum Leadership Conference, the New Right education lobby founded by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, Bennett defended himself against critics of his assertion that religion belongs in schools as a way to instill children with basic values.

"I was accused of trying to promote my own 'brand of Christianity' and of seeing myself as a messenger 'heaven-sent to silence the heathen,' " Bennett said. "For supporting the free expression of voluntary prayer in our public schools, I was called an 'ayatollah.' "

He continued, "Clearly, our schools should not attempt to inculcate sectarian beliefs, or support any one religion over another . . . . But just because our public schools do not teach religion does not mean we wish them to be places devoid of respect for religion, for the Judeo-Christian tradition, or for the values that so clearly emerged from it."

The values he said should be taught are "patriotism, self-discipline, thrift, honesty, and respect for elders." He added: "To be specific, one should know, for example, that there is a moral difference between the United States and the Soviet Union."

Bennett told of Horatius, guardian of the bridge defending Rome from the "tyranny" of the invading Etruscan army under Tarquin, then told of a high school teacher's discovery that only two out of 53 students felt that "the United States is a morally superior system to the Soviet Union."

Bennett asked what brave Horatius would think about "a country that raises some of its brightest children to regard the values of a totalitarian police state as morally commensurate with its own."

Bennett and his under secretary, Gary Bauer, have made value education a cornerstone of a "fall offensive." Bauer two weeks ago told an Ohio anti-pornography convention that lack of values in public schools was the principal cause of a breakdown of America's social fabric.