Michael John Gerson was born on May 15, 1964, in Belmar, N.J., to Michael Fred Gerson, a dairy scientist who developed ice cream flavors, and Betty (Buckler) Gerson, an artist. When Michael was 10, he, his parents and his brothers, Victor and Chris, moved to St. Louis.
His brothers survive him, as do his wife, Dawn (Miller) Gerson, and his sons, Michael and Nicholas.
His household was evangelical Christian and politically blended — his father was a Republican, his mother a Kennedy Democrat — and Michael’s first political hero was Jimmy Carter.
Even as a White House speechwriter, he listed Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Woodrow Wilson, all Democrats, as his favorite presidents. But he became a Republican, he said, over the issue of abortion, and in 1984 he campaigned for Ronald Reagan’s re-election.
He attended Georgetown University for a year, then transferred to Wheaton College, an evangelical institution outside Chicago, where he majored in philosophy and biblical studies.
After graduating in 1986, he worked for Charles Colson, the disgraced former adviser to President Richard M. Nixon who later founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, and then for Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana.
It was in Senator Coats’s office that Mr. Gerson first began to develop his ideas about compassionate conservatism, mixing the free-market orthodoxy then dominant in Washington with domestic policy ideas aimed at helping poor communities lift themselves up, often with the help of religious organizations.