With exquisite timing, the stage drama of Elmer Gantry has opened to appreciative audiences here even as the fall of another energetic saver of souls played live before millions of Americans on television.

So striking were the similarities between the two con-man preachers-for-profit that it was hard to tell where fiction ended and fact began. Both are, so to speak, cut from the same imperfect cloth.

Sinclair Lewis' Gantry, an engaging tent-preacher and rogue, publicly gulls the faithful and privately indulges in pleasures of the flesh by seducing the innocent. Jimmy Swaggart, a spiritual descendant of the athletic devil-slayer Billy Sunday, builds a $100 million evangelistic empire by railing against pornography and hypocrisy on worldwide TV, then employs the same electronic medium to purge himself by confessing weepily to nameless sin with, it is whispered, a two-bit hooker with tattoos.

This latest real-life episode in soap opera bathos is not the only extraordinary spectacle to which the nation has been exposed this week.

At the U.S. Capitol, police prowled corridors of Senate office buildings at midnight in search of senators whom they were charged with arresting on grounds of being "absent without leave" from Senate duties. One senator fled when sighted. Another was forcibly taken from his barricaded personal office, then carried, feet first, into the chamber. Political charges flew: The Capitol more resembled a "banana republic" than a serious deliberative forum.

At the same time, a few blocks away, the tribulations of the nation's chief law enforcement officer continue. Each day brings more headlines, and more controversy, about the well-documented penchant of Attorney General Edwin Meese III for helping personal friends gain inside access for potential profit. Each day demonstrates anew that Meese wouldn't know a conflict of interest if it hit him in the face, as it has, repeatedly.

These incidents involving preachers and public officials not only contain elements of farce but also reinforce a growing feeling that something is wrong with the state of the nation. They form a backdrop for the current political campaign.

Among doubledome heavy thinkers, the Great Debate currently raging concerns whether America is in decline.

That theme underlies much of what is masquerading as debate in this otherwise themeless, issueless presidential race. It also is manifest in new studies and statistical evidence citing everything from declining productivity and savings rates to status as a new debtor nation sinking ever deeper into poverty measured nationally, corporately or personally. Poorhouse, here we come.

Why is all of this a subject for debate? Why is it even considered a new subject? For more than 20 years, during many nationwide swings sampling voter opinion, I've heard people repeatedly suggest that America is slipping.

By the late 1960s, people expressed that sentiment, particularly after the adverse effect on public opinion of pot and pills, sex and drugs, urban riots, the drift into war in Vietnam and, later, the Watergate scandals.

We'd lost our way as a nation, they cried. Our supposedly superior values were being eroded. Permissiveness, moral decay, corruption, ungodliness permeated society. To the self-pronounced righteous, the inevitable outcome seemed to be a shattering fall from greatness. We were destined to go the way of the Romans, as the TV preachers were quick to say in calling for a rebirth of religion in national life.

In fact, life in America then was never as bad as it seemed. Those years also marked great advances in health, science, technology, race relations, opportunities for women and minorities and standards of living.

Politically, the sense of national malaise created opportunities first for Jimmy Carter, who coined the phrase, then Ronald Reagan, to be president. One promised purity of purpose, the other a rekindling of national faith and optimism. As Reagan said, employing wartime rhetoric: We did it before, and we can do it again. Eventually, that glow of confidence suffusing his first term was dissipated by negative events of the second.

Again, the country appears to be in a mood to focus on its problems, to seek a political savior.

The bad news is that the country hasn't found one. The good news is that it won't be Jimmy Swaggart.