WHILE AMERICANS ponder what to do with their votes in the coming presidential election, they would be well advised to keep a close eye on their souls. That is what the candidates are really most eager to have.

Although we normally view presidential elections in relatively narrow terms of personalities and parties and politics, what is more broadly and lastingly at stake are basic values, fundamental faiths, shifts in cultural and social power.

Notably, for example, the Northeast, home of the Puritan ethic, Harvard and Wall Street, has again proved too weak to field a candidate. The region that was once the very center of American authority now seems parochial and unrepresentative, which is probably the chief reason why so many Northeasterners feel such discomfort these days. Boston, once "the hub of the universe," now seems like the rear axle of the trailer.

Instead, we will be choosing from a trinity of political evangelicals from the South, the Midwest and the West, and more broadly among basic beliefs and symbols that may well underlie the last fifth of this American century.

Jimmy Carter, when not discovering the national "malaise" and our "crisis of confidence," will emphasize "love." Ronald Reagan will stress "work, family, neighborhoods, peace, strength." John Anderson will utter with piety liberal cliches that are new to him but not to others, and exhort his followers to "carry the message in your hearts." All three will call for "a rebirth of the American spirit," as if running for the office of archbishop.

Beneath all of this will be different "theologies" -- the shape of expectations about human life -- and it is these, I think, that need to be explored more carefully.

Consider Reagan's litany of work, family neighborhoods, peace and strength. These terms may have a faintly 19th century sound to the nation's highly educated elites; but they remain the very center of life to millions who have not been educated out of them.

Reagan is consistently underestimated by elites because he speaks to worlds of experience which, while powerful, are contrary to modernist sophistication. While the federal social science establishment tries to solve "structural unemployment" by teaching skills," for example, anybody with experience knows that what counts far more in the workplace is motivation. That, of course, is more difficult to teach.

It is fashionalbe to think that racism has deprived black youth of skills. Reagan's emphasis suggest that the real damage of racism runs deeper, tragically affecting attitudes of self-esteem and drive. These can be lifted again by the spirit of the nation, by institutional incentives and cultural supports. Elites think Reagan old-fashioned, but ordinary citizens hear from him realism learned through hard experience. Reagan understands instinctively that no one can esteem his own work if he does not have esteem for the institutions of his society. Liberals have become incoherent by heaping contempt on the very system they want to enlarge.

In his appeal to neighborhoods, Reagan again evokes the communitarian experience of most Americans. Literary elites may stress individualism, but in the actual texture of most American lives there is much informal dependence, companionship and stress on a cherished aspect of character: neighborliness. Reagan's emphasis on this is quite novel, coming from a Republican; it sounds vaguely like a Democrat's theme. Republicans have classically stressed "the individual."

It is John Anderson's turn of mind that runs in more classical establishment directions. Not only is his appeal strongest to "the new class" around the universities and the research parks, the liberal Republicans and the more highly educated Democrats. The structure of his imagination dwells on their favorite symbolic materials: a vision of independent individuals -- guns for hire, in a sense -- loyal to no party, community or institution, faithful only to their own intellects and wills.

In some ways, Anderson sounds to many like an Enlightment man. (Indeed, one highly placed American historian thinks Anderson is, this year, "the last hope of advanced civilization.") But the distance between conservative evangelical thought and the Enlightment is as close as the heart to the head; both stress the independent individual. Twice-born as an evangelical, Anderson's jump to thrice-born as an independent was not much of a change.

Furthermore, Anderson's reluctance to form a third party is natural to his imagination. A third party would be like a full formal church, with a national office and local chapters, a network of officials and workers and buildings, formal liturgies and creedal platforms: far too "high church." The liturgy of independents is the cocktail party -- independent individuals free to approach the Table at their own discretion, constantly circulating, not fixed in pews.

If Anderson wins -- or even does well -- the independents may well become the nation's de facto, permanent. Third Political Party. Its imagination will be moved by Convictions, based on Enlightment Opinions. Such an Independent Party will be composed of Thinking People, who value Ideas, and who are highly paid for the professional handling of Opinions, the Bekins of mental furniture.

Communicants of this party will keep their souls spotless of Unapproved Opinions or Binding Loyalties. On ERA, abortion, gun control, ecology, nuclear energy, food stamps and whales, they will pride themselves on Thinking.

Anderson's American should have a natural alliance with teachers, municipal workers, and technical workers of all sorts. But some of the union leaders of such groups, alas, may not be high-minded enough to "choose country over party." They may be low-minded enough to side with the Democrat who controls the purse strings on the state, by which they live.

The independents scavenge both parties for converts and Ideas. Republicans and Democrats look at America and see institutions, groups, interests. Independents see atomic individuals and Ideas. The latter regard politics and its persuasions -- its willingness to set convictions aside in order to agree upon practical necessities -- as inferior stuff.

Jimmy Carter's problem arises because, having a base in the evangelical South, and knowing that he needed another on the Main Line, he put a foot in each camp. With one leg in Georgia and the other in Minnesota, he was felt as constant pain right and about Washington. As Eugene McCarthy once cracked, if half the country were for vertical integration of the oil industry and half for horizontal, Jimmy Carter would announce for diagonal.

Carter can do this because "the children of light" -- his basic constituency -- actually occupy two camps. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who invented the phrase, fought those in both camps.

On his right, Neibuhr combated those "children of light" who believe in American innocence and hold that if indviduals were converted in their hearts, a sound "Christian politics" would follow. To such opponents, Niebuhr wrote to the immense gap between private morality and the morality of social institutions, of irony, of tragedy, and of sin and power. On his left, he combated those "children of light" -- John Dewey and other liberal intellectuals -- who trusted too much to reason, enlightment, negotiations and good will. Against such opponents, Neibuhr invoked common experiences.

Instead of joining Niebuhr in opposition to both these camps, Jimmy Carter has tried to form both into a coalition. He flattered America's longing for a lost innocence. He evoked the most simplistic hopes deep in the American tradition. In his choice of assistants in his administration, he chose preeminently "children of light" from both camps: with Bery Lance and Cyrus Vance.

Anderson and Carter must fight tooth-and-nail for the "children of light" among independents, but the most interesting shift has been occurring on the other flank. Carter's Bible Belt has been becoming more sophisticated, experienced and realistic. Millions of evangelicals have gone to college, entered the professions, tasted power and wealth and responsibility. They are no longer innocent.

It is the newly enlarged constituency that Reagan may be stealing from Carter. Reports abound that Reagan may not only carry New York, but also several states of the South outside Georgia and Alabama. One might expect Reagan, the booster, to talk sweetness and light in the mode of the old innocence. Not at all. If Jimmy Carter speaks about the sunny side once preferred by the "children of light" in rural America, and John Anderson speaks about reason and morality as preferred by the "children of light" in suburban America, the sharpest theological conflict of the campaign may be between both of them and Ronald Reagan.

Reagan is well-positioned to undercut a leader who appears too innocent. Reagan is appealing to the health of American institutions, neighborhoods and social loyalties, despite their inevitable flaws. But he is critical of rationalists and individualists, on the ground that life doesn't work the way they hope it will. Nowadays working people no longer defer to experts, who have had long enough power. Their situation rubs them against harsh realities which the more highly educated may evade. What Reagan is saying has the unpleasant sound of common sense, the threatening ring of realism.

Yet Jimmy Carter, as a Southern, knows a little bit about defeat; he knows the dark side of life. Beneath that Huck Finn smile, there is an iron jaw and a firm determination to do whatever winning takes. He sometimes seems divided, the player of hardball out of touch with the pious teacher of Sunday School. If he could ever let "the bad Jimmy" out, he would be a far more formidable statesman and president. "The good Jimmy" is weak.

We can expect more and more realism from Jimmy Carter in the next few months. We can expect to hear him running against his own innocence.

As 1980 educates the entire republic in a deeper and sharper realism, it disappoints romantics and idealists in our midst. But the American dream has always worked best when based on realism. Yankee traders failed to build a reputation as a soft touch, their decency tempered by a flinty eye for their own hard interests.

Our educational classes, remote from hardship, may recently have been cheering utopian illusions. But the nation as a whole is happiest when its leaders, like its people, have iron underneath their dreams. That is the heart of the larger struggle we will be deciding in November and living with for years to come.