WASHINGTON — In the blue and gold elegance of the House speaker's private dining room, Jeremy Bouma bowed his head before eight young men and women who hope to one day lead the nation. He prayed that they might find wisdom in the Bible -- and govern by its word.
"Holy Father, we thank you for providing us with guidance," said Bouma, who works for an influential televangelist. "Thank you, Lord, for these students. Build them up as your warriors and your ambassadors on Capitol Hill."
"Amen," the students murmured. Then they picked up their pens expectantly.
Nearly every Monday for six months, as many as a dozen congressional aides -- many of them aspiring politicians -- have gathered over takeout dinners to mine the Bible for ancient wisdom on modern policy debates about tax rates, foreign aid, education, cloning and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Through seminars taught by conservative college professors and devout members of Congress, the students learn that serving country means first and always serving Christ.
They learn to view every vote as a religious duty, and to consider compromise a sin.
That puts them at the vanguard of a bold effort by evangelical conservatives to mold a new generation of leaders who will answer not to voters, but to God.
"We help them understand God's purpose for society," said Bouma, who coordinates the program, known as the Statesmanship Institute, for the Rev. D. James Kennedy.
At least 3.5 million Americans tune in to Kennedy's sermons, broadcast from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Since 1995, the unabashedly political televangelist has also reached out to the Beltway elite with his Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington.
The center sponsors Bible studies, prayer meetings and free "Politics and Principle" lunches for members of Congress and their staffs, often drawing crowds in the hundreds.
The Statesmanship Institute, founded two years ago, offers more in-depth training for $345.
It's one of half a dozen evangelical leadership programs making steady inroads into Washington.
The most prominent is Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., an hour's drive from the capital. The college was founded five years ago with the goal of turning out "Christian men and women who will lead our nation with timeless biblical values." Nearly every graduate works in government or with a conservative advocacy group.
The Witherspoon Fellowship has had similar success, placing its graduates in the White House, Congress, the State Department and legislatures nationwide. The fellowship brings 42 college students to Washington each year to study theology and politics -- and to work at the conservative Family Research Council, which lobbies on such social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Such programs share a commitment to developing leaders who read the Bible as a blueprint.
As Kennedy put it: "If we leave it to man to decide what's good and evil, there will be chaos."
"I'm sure there are people who won't appreciate the fact that this class goes on here in the Capitol," Myal Greene said one recent evening.
He glanced around the stately dining room, reserved for the institute by a member of Congress. (House regulations allow private groups to hold events in the Capitol as long as they are noncommercial, nonpolitical and do not discriminate based on race, creed, color or national origin.)
To Greene, there could hardly be a more appropriate location. He considers his private faith and his public duty inseparable.
Greene, the deputy press secretary for a Republican congressman from Florida, signed up for the Statesmanship Institute in part because he felt his Christian ethics were under constant assault -- from lobbyists offering him free steak dinners, from friends urging him to network over beers.
The seminars proved a revelation. In one, Greene learned that ministers ran many of America's earliest schools. He hadn't thought much about education policy before that class. Now he plans to fight for history lessons on the Founding Fathers' faith, science lessons drawn from the Book of Genesis and public school prayer.
"It's one thing to have a [biblically inspired] position on one or two issues," said Greene, 26, who was wearing a wristband printed with the slogan "Jesus Is My Homie." "This class has you look deeper. It gives you an intellectual consistency."
On this night, the topic was bioethics. As the students unwrapped deli sandwiches and brownies, prominent bioethicist Nigel M. deS. Cameron praised them for thinking about the "great questions of the day" through the prism of faith.
Too often, he added -- to a few startled looks -- "Christians are not noted for using their brains."
In an hourlong lecture, Cameron argued that Christians must move beyond denouncing abortion to see the "moral outrage" in other common practices, such as paying Ivy League students to donate eggs in the quest for a perfect baby.