The Rev. Jerry Falwell, attempting to counter what have become increasingly negative ratings from the general public, yesterday announced that Moral Majority, a symbol of the hard-line Christian right, will be submerged into a new group called the Liberty Federation.

"We are not disbanding or retreating," Falwell said, although aides said that the move amounts to the abandonment of the name of one of the best-known political- religious groups in the country.

Falwell said that the Liberty Federation will work in a broader area than did the Moral Majority, backing President Reagan not only on traditional moral issues such as abortion but in new areas, including support for the administration's Strategic Defense Initiative; backing of the counterrevolutionaries, or contras, in Nicaragua, and support for the governments of South Africa and the Philippines.

The shift, however, reflects major internal and tactical alterations for Moral Majority, which has gained national prominence in politics. In a recent survey by Republican pollster Robert Teeter, Falwell ranked on the bottom in tests of general public attitudes toward 21 well-known figures, including President Reagan, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), actress Jane Fonda, Vice President George Bush and Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace (D).

On a ranking of zero (unfavorable) to 100 (favorable), Reagan received a 68.3; Kennedy, a 54; Fonda, a 43, and Falwell, a 33.1. These findings, which suggest that public support from Falwell and his Moral Majority can easily be turned into a political liability, have been confirmed by other polls.

The benefit of a name change was met with skepticism by leaders of both the left and right.

Paul Weyrich, president of the conservative Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, said, "Survey data shows that the name [Moral Majority] has a significant number of negatives. I'm not sure that it [a name change] will do them a lot of good. The organization will still be known by its founder."

Paul G. Kirk Jr., chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said: "This public-relations name change speaks volumes about the reputations of both Jerry Falwell and his organization; a Liberty Federation won't stand for true liberty any more than the Moral Majority represents the moral values of most Americans."

Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: "The title may be less offensive, but the tune [of] Rev. Falwell and other intolerant leaders of the Republican Party still is. He will still be special-interest baggage for GOP candidates."

Former U.S. representative John Buchanan (R-Ala.), chairman of Moral Majority's most consistent adversary, People for the American Way, said Falwell now "admits that he is in the political arena . . . He should stop pretending to be chairman of the Lord's political action committee and stop suggesting that to disagree with Jerry Falwell is to side with Satan against God."

At a news conference, Falwell denied that the name change was a fund-raising tactic. He acknowledged earlier this year that donations were "soft," but he said cash flow has picked up.

Conservative direct mail fund-raisers said such domestic social issues as pornography and abortion, for which Moral Majority is best known, have not produced the level of donations they previously have. Instead, they said, such issues as SDI and aid to the contras, both of which Falwell wants Liberty Federation to embrace, are "hot," producing good revenues in mail solicitations.

In addition to the name shift, Moral Majority also has been going through some major personnel changes, including the loss of Ronald Godwin, former executive vice president, who was widely credited with maintaining the organization's steady source of cash.

Godwin, who has taken a job with The Washington Times' Insight magazine, has been replaced by Charles E. Judd, a former deputy finance director for the Republican National Committee, who is moving up from his post as Moral Majority's director of operations.