I think the day has passed, here inside the Beltway, when powerful mainstream, hard-news reporters can actually sit in the Oval Office and informally offer advice to a president about this or that speech or this or that public policy (think JFK and the likes of a young Ben Bradley). However, you know that op-ed page columnists must, from time to time, send their share of smoke signals to the political-party powers that be. There are times when it seems as if the columns of the progressive Catholic E.J. Dionne Jr. are written to be emailed directly to the people producing talking points for Democratic Party candidates (as they should be).
This brings me to a Michael Gerson column -- yes, that Gerson -- the other day in The Washington Post. I have been meaning to mention it for a week now, but there are people in this world (and other worlds, too) who think we are already totally obsessed around here with the challenges facing former governor Mitt Romney and the question of whether he should or should not do a JFK-meets-the-Baptists speech. So it is good to space these Romney posts out a bit.
Anyway, the Gerson column in question ran with this rather blunt headline: "What Matters About Romney's Religion."
There are times when it really helps to know what you are talking about and, in this piece, Gerson veers into some rather technical theological language. But he makes a crucial point, one that, if grasped, will help journalists who are trying to cover the complex and tense dance that is going on between Romney and the leaders of the evangelical right.
So here is the heart of the matter:
There is a long tradition of American leaders who believe that religion is so personal it shouldn't even affect their private lives. But this rigid separation between religious conviction and public policy lies outside the main current of American history. Abraham Lincoln's theology, while hardly orthodox, was not his "own private affair." "Nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness," he asserted, "was sent into the world to be trodden on." Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that to find the source of our rights, "it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given."
These were theological arguments, not merely rhetorical adornments. But they were also carefully limited.
American political leaders have generally not talked about soteriology -- how the individual soul is saved. In Christian theology, these choices are fundamentally private, and government attempts to influence them are both doomed and tyrannical. American leaders have also wisely avoided the topic of eschatology -- inherently speculative theories about the end or culmination of history.
But religious convictions on the topic of anthropology -- the nature and value of men and women -- have profoundly and positively influenced American history. Many of the greatest advances toward the protection of minority rights, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, came in part because people of faith pushed for them. And religious men and women made those efforts because they were convinced that all human beings -- not just all believers -- are created in God's image.
Do Mormons ever offer what evangelical Protestants refer to as "altar calls," where sinners are urged to come down to the front of the church and "get saved"? Repent? If so, Romney needs to say, in effect: There will be no altar calls in my campaign.
Gerson thinks that Romney has to say that he knows Mormons and members of traditional Christian bodies are divided by a host of issues linked to salvation, Christology and the doctrine of God (and/or gods). But he also needs to say that these issues should have no impact on what it means to be an effective political leader of women and men.
Gerson seems to be suggesting that Romney will have to do this in a speech. Surprise, surprise. Then again, Gerson is a speechwriter and, therefore, must assume that speeches have the potential to solve all kinds of problems.
But these tensions are real and Romney does not have to go the full JFK route to address them. At least, that is the signal that I get out of this Gerson missive.
Many Christians have serious problems with Mormon theology on personal salvation and the nature of history -- disputes that go much deeper than those between, say, Baptists and Presbyterians. These disagreements are theologically important. But they are not politically important, because they are unrelated to governing.
Romney, however, should not make Kennedy's mistake and assert that all religious beliefs are unrelated to politics. What Mormonism shares with other religious traditions is a strong commitment to the value and dignity of human beings, including the unborn, the disabled and the poor. This conviction is unavoidably political, because it leads men and women to act in the cause of justice, not in order to impose their religion, but to protect the weak.
Photo: A typical Baptist pulpit and Lord's Supper table, scene of old-fashioned altar calls.