Chicago. -- In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy's followers resented having his attack on elusive Communists in government called a witch hunt. When Arthur Miller wrote his play ''The Crucible,'' equating Eisenhower's America and 17th-century Salem, McCarthyites felt wronged. They were not conducting a witch hunt, they claimed.
But when modern evangelicals attack feminists, they are not anxious to dispel the witch-hunt claim. That, in literal fact, is what they are pursuing. Most of them are not ashamed to say so.
Even the vice president's wife told us, in her Houston speech, that feminists are trying to deny ''the essential nature of women.'' That is what witches were up to, in the eyes of their Salem accusers. The devil uses witches to mar and undo nature -- a tactic he has pursued ever since, in Eden, he manipulated Eve to cause the fall of Adam.
Witches are a continuing concern to biblical literalists, among whom Marilyn Quayle counts herself. After all, the witch of Endor is in the Bible.
In parts of the Bible Belt, there are annual efforts to take Halloween out of the classroom, since it glorifies the devil's agents as cuddly things. This belief in witches has simmered in the bayous and backwaters. Now it is in the open.
Pat Robertson, appropriately, leads the charge. In a letter to oppose a state equal rights amendment in Iowa, where he won so many votes in the 1988 primary, Mr. Robertson revealed the true reason for his assault on feminism.
The ERA, he assured followers, is not really concerned with women's rights. Instead, ''it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.''
Wow! Those Iowa ERA folk have a busy schedule. Killing their children must come relatively late on their calendar. How, by the way, do lesbians leave their husbands? All things, it seems, are possible to witches, especially those in Iowa.
It would be fun to watch Pat Robertson bubble away in his chuckly soft lunacies, but this is a man we just saw rubbing elbows with the highest officials in the land, addressing the Republican convention, sitting in the presidential box, welcoming Mr. and Mrs. Quayle to his religious rally in Houston.
Mr. Robertson's, along with Pat Buchanan's, was the most powerful voice in shaping the Republican platform. Mr. Buchanan placed guardhouses along the southern border of the United States.
But Mr. Robertson removed President Bush's own phrase, ''new world order,'' from the platform because it is a satanic term. The Robertson forces also declared ''religious pluralism'' unacceptable in the platform, no matter whether it is in the Constitution.
Mr. Robertson seemed to be given a severe setback by his later primary losses in 1988. But his Christian Coalition is growing at a staggering rate. Its numbers have quadrupled in the last year.
Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who has had to battle Mr. Robertson's troops, thinks that the reverend is the fastest-rising phenomenon fTC in the Republican Party. I don't know if that scares many witches in Iowa. But it sure as hell scares me.
6* Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.