Grooming Politicians for Christ
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.
“Taking human life made in God’s image may not be as bad, from God’s point of view, as making human life in your own image,” said Cameron, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Our humanity, warts and all, is what we have been given to steward. It’s not to be manipulated.”
When Cameron called for questions, one student tentatively raised his hand to ask about embryonic stem cell research -- specifically, the use of “spare” embryos, frozen in fertility clinics. “Under current practice, they’re going to be discarded” unless they’re used for research, he said. “What do we say about that, as Christians?”
Cameron did not hold back.
“They’re going to die anyway, right?” he said, indignant. “We don’t apply the same principle to death row inmates. They’re going to die anyway, so why can’t we get some use out of them? We’d be able to do some fascinating experiments.
“The principle of manipulating human life to get experimental benefit,” Cameron said, “that is a very, very serious line to cross.”
The philosophy animating Cameron’s lecture -- that federal law should be based on biblical precepts -- troubles the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“This nation was founded specifically to avoid the government making religious and theological decisions,” Lynn said. “We are not to turn the Holy Scriptures of any group into public policy.”
Kennedy counters that evangelicals have every right to put up candidates who vote what they believe to be God’s will -- and let voters judge them.
To which Lynn responds, with exasperation: “He says that because he knows in a majority Christian country, the Christian view is going to be expressed by more voters. They have no problem imposing their biblical worldview on every American.”
Evangelical conservatives acknowledge that’s their goal.
And they now have a systematic plan for achieving it.
Early evangelical leaders were determined social activists, championing causes such as the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of alcohol. But in the 1920s, a theological dispute split the movement. The more liberal ministers pushed for continued engagement in politics -- and went on to take leading roles in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests.
The conservative faction called for withdrawing from politics and focusing instead on building up the church.
“Getting into politics didn’t fix anything. It just diverted them from saving souls,” said Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
With the legalization of abortion in 1973, some fundamentalists began to argue that they had an obligation to try to arrest society’s moral decay.
“We realized we [were] having our little holy huddles but not having any influence in Washington,” said George Roller, a former public school teacher who now directs Kennedy’s Center for Christian Statesmanship.
Ministers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson jumped headlong into politics. They succeeded in helping to elect conservatives, starting with President Reagan. “But things haven’t changed very much,” said Robert D. Stacey, chairman of the government department at Patrick Henry College.
“Our candidates tick off the right policy positions, but it turns out, once they’re in office, they’re willing to compromise an awful lot -- not just to bend but to break,” he said. “Now, religious conservatives are saying they want the real thing.”
To develop such steadfast politicians, evangelicals are building on decades of work by nonprofit groups such as the Leadership Institute and Young America’s Foundation, which train conservatives in grass-roots activism, effective campaigning, even how to launch a right-wing magazine.
The new evangelical initiatives reach out to the same up-and-coming leaders, but put them through courses that sound a lot like a seminary.
“If you’re clinging to conservatism just because you like conservatism, you don’t put yourself on the line for your beliefs,” Stacey said. “Your positions need to come from something deeper and more meaningful.”
That message resonates with Jessica Echard, 23, who completed the Statesmanship Institute last year.
Growing up in rural West Virginia, Echard believed passionately in her church’s teachings against abortion, but thought little about such issues as economic policy or foreign trade.
The institute gave her a framework for evaluating those topics.
Now the director of the Eagle Forum, a conservative lobbying group founded by Phyllis Schlafly, Echard says Jesus would approve of a call for lower taxes: “God calls on us to be stewards of our [own] money.”
She dips into the Bible to explain her opposition to most global treaties, reasoning that Americans have a holy obligation to protect their God-given freedom by avoiding foreign entanglements.
“The Scripture talks of taking every thought and making it captive to Christ, and that’s what the Statesmanship Institute helps us do,” Echard said.
Like other evangelical training programs, the institute avoids endorsing any party or position. Lecturers this year include a Democratic congressman and a Republican who says the Lord inspired him to buck President Bush by demanding a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq.
Homework includes readings from the Bible -- but also from Nietzsche, Engels, Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger.
“We don’t tell our students what to think,” Roller said.
Yet professors also make clear that “there absolutely is an objective truth,” in the words of Paul J. Bonicelli, academic dean at Patrick Henry College.
Hannah Woody, for instance, came away from the institute’s seminars confident that abolishing the Department of Education is not just a Republican goal, but also a Christian imperative.
The Bible gives parents -- not some distant bureaucracy -- the primary responsibility for raising children, said Woody, 26, who hopes to one day run for governor in her home state of North Carolina. (For now, she’s working as a legislative assistant for a Republican congressman from Kansas.)
Kennedy offers a similar take on education policy in the gilt-edged, leather-bound Bible his staff delivers to each new member of Congress. In an introductory essay, Kennedy quotes Scripture to explain God’s views on taxes, capital punishment, gay rights and a dozen other issues. Most of the policy prescriptions he finds in the Bible dovetail neatly with the Republican agenda.
That focus on legislative victory disturbs some evangelical leaders, who would prefer to work on spreading Christian values throughout society.
“Too many programs start with the idea that if we [enact] right-wing, conservative policies, we’ll change America and God will be pleased,” said Ryan Messmore, who runs a leadership academy aimed at helping young Christians share their faith through the arts, the media and other professions.
But to Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican, it’s clear the institute is “doing the Lord’s work.”
The nation needs more politicians who take their cues from God, not Gallup, or “our morality will crumble,” he warned. “We won’t recognize America.”
Roller shares that fear. So he ended the recent class on bioethics with a plea: “Heavenly Father, we pray you will help us to know how we should respond to these issues.”
The students answered as one: “Amen.”