On the National Mall in Washington last year, I had the opportunity to bear witness to actor-cum-evangelist Stephen Baldwin. His Livin' It ministry had set up a giant skate park, and under cloudy November skies young disciples flipped tricks. Baldwin, in giant aviator sunglasses, lumbered onto the half-pipe to testify to his "gnarly" rebirth in Christ to a crowd packed onto bleachers. Before the event, volunteers passed out tiny yellow pencils and "decision cards" to hordes of young spectators, who sat about a hundred yards from where the Constitution lies under thick glass. The cards would commit teens to a life in Christ if they were to undergo their own gnarly rebirth that afternoon.
To plenty of passersby strolling on the mall that day, Baldwin's nouveau Bible-thumping to the kids and parents gathered before him may have seemed like a desperate attempt by a B-list movie star to attract an audience. But, in fact, Baldwin's youth ministry has gathered tens of thousands of decision cards -- and faith-professing e-mails -- in the past couple of years. These days, Baldwin not only has the ear of young boys who cleave to his fundamentalist reading of the Bible, and whatever skein of celebrity still clings to his Jesus T-shirts. He has been named a cultural advisor to President Bush, a formidable follow-up to his invitation to speak at the Republican National Convention, where he announced proudly from the podium, "I'm here because of my faith."
Now Baldwin has released a memoir, "The Unusual Suspect," a reference to the one critically acclaimed film for which he's known. The book, the "Gospel according to Stevie B.," is part testimonial and part evangelical manifesto, a cocktail of anti-intellectualism and a biblical interpretation that would have Jesus spinning in his grave, had he stayed there. Baldwin preaches that free will is a lie of Satan -- we must shut off our brains, he says, and be led by what God tells our hearts. Furthermore, he writes, efforts to end global poverty and violence are just the sort of "stupid arrogance" that incur God's wrath, which we'll be feeling any day now in the coming apocalypse. I suppose when the star of "Bio-Dome" is advising the president and converting kids by the thousands to his gnarly brand of faith, the end is, indeed, nigh.
"The Unusual Suspect" features an open letter to Bono, lambasting him for lobbying for debt relief for developing countries instead of preaching the gospel on MTV. Bono must be in league with Satan, whom Baldwin spends a lot of time thinking about. "I am smart enough to know that Satan is alive and well today," he writes. "Satan has all kinds of power, and he is able to control the minds of anyone whose mind isn't controlled by God." Baldwin's theology -- and criticism of secularists and Christian poseurs like Bono -- is written with remarkable confidence for someone who can only recite six of the Ten Commandments and four of the Twelve Apostles.
All of this might seem like the easily ignorable ravings of a Hollywood has-been if the book wasn't climbing bestseller lists. Baldwin writes that "God has called me to go and make disciples of the youth of America. That is what I am going to try to do, and if you try to stop me I am going to break your face." Most frightening of all, Baldwin is succeeding. All of his dude-speak is actually speaking to the dudes. Thanks to his book, videos and live sermons, he continues to draw thousands of young people across the country into his church of celebrity and absolutism.
The youngest of Hollywoods famous and infamous Baldwin brothers, Stephen was best known for a host of mediocre movies and his passion for blow before Sept. 11, 2001, the day he got religion. His wife had already been born again, converted by a Brazilian housekeeper. Baldwin says the housekeeper was sent into their service not to clean their toilets but to save their souls. Every morning, Baldwin says, he would wake to his wife lying prostrate next to the bed, her head pressed against the floorboards, deep in prayer for an hour. "If you want to love Jesus, great, but can you cook my breakfast now?" was his response. Then two jets smashed into the World Trade Center.
"For Stephen Baldwin, September 11th was clearly the demonstration of the impossible becoming reality," he writes. He was now prepared to believe that Jesus died for his sins and was resurrected, that the Bible was the inerrant word of God.
After his rebirth, Baldwin saw everything in a new light, including his career. His "Usual Suspect" costars were speeding toward Oscar-anointed careers. But God had bigger plans for Baldwin, like starring in "Bio-Dome" with Pauly Shore. The stoner comedy offered Baldwin the chance to utter sacred lines like, "When we're not saving the environment, we're thinkin' of you, naked, thigh deep in tofu."
"God wanted me to make it," Baldwin writes. "One of the reasons kids will listen to me today is because they recognize me from the movies. But not just any movie. One movie: 'Bio-Dome.'" God had also instructed Baldwin to play Barney Rubble in "Viva Rock Vegas," and told him to turn down the part of Jennifer Garner's love interest in "Alias." The deity apparently makes a lousy manager.
Or not. Baldwin says God led him a few years ago to Beach Fest, a Christian revival that draws about 300,000 a year to a holy-rolling spring break party in Florida, where he met the event sponsor, a Portland, Ore., evangelist, Luis Palau. Since then, Palau has thrown millions of dollars at Baldwin's Livin It ministry, in which the actor travels as a headline act with a group of skateboarders who provide entertainment, authenticity and conversion stories at "radical" revivals. The Livin It tour drew an audience of over a million in 2005, selling out stadiums from Atlanta to Kingston, Jamaica. At the Minneapolis Metrodome, the tour packed in 40,000 people in a single evening; the wait for an autograph after the "altar call" lasted three and a half hours. (Last year's X Games drew only 16,000 to a skateboarding competition.)
Baldwin also directed the "Livin' It" video, an infomercial for Jesus directed at heathen teens. It's a typical skate video: all low angles under leaping boards, quick intercuts, grainy stock, a soundtrack of hip-hop and California surf punk, and behind-the-scenes antics of skaters pelting each other with McDonald's fries between dips into the half-pipe. Christianity isn't mentioned for the bulk of the video, save for a brief moment when Baldwin looms into the lens and lauds one mutton-chopped skater as his "gangsta for Jesus."
Only after the skateboarders have wowed the viewer with their athletic prowess and hip haircuts is the purpose of the video revealed. Then, Christian music fades up under a montage of soulful camaraderie. Skaters stand together in prayer circles, arms wrapped tightly around each other's shoulders, exchanging meaningful smiles. It's the very picture of belonging, a visual distillation of what it feels like to be in, to experience all that the viewer might crave. Then the music dips under a voice-over of skaters' testimonies, voices cut together phrase after phrase, intoning "true purpose" and "eternal comfort."
The "Livin It" DVD came out in 2004 and was expected to sell 20,000 copies in four years; it sold 150,000 in 15 months. Within its first year of release, 15,000 people sent e-mails to Baldwin, telling him they converted because of the video. A follow-up video is in the works. Baldwin has recently released a comic book called "Spirit Warriors," a two-dimensional fictional attempt to yield more conversions. The comic is the story of "six radical young kids [who] enter the spiritual war zone every day for classic battles of good against evil. The Spirit Warriors have given their hearts over to the Lord and will battle for his glory no matter the cost."
To witness Livin' It at its most intimate, I met up with the tour in Sayville, Long Island, just down the sound from where the Baldwin boys were raised. Sayville is a perennially uncool town, where oldies bands play the annual summer fair on a main street that's actually called Main St. When the tour's skateboarders arrived, all trim chests and shaggy hair, it was clearly the coolest thing to happen since local boy Joey Buttafuoco was convicted. The town is about as mad for Stephen Baldwin as one can imagine people being for, well, Stephen Baldwin.
Instead of the usual stadium setup, that night Livin It appeared at a nearby church. A giant white tent sheltered skate ramps and endless rows of folding chairs, which couldn't hold the crowd of kids and parents with cameras, who spilled out beyond the tent poles. Baldwin -- a slightly different figure than the one you may remember from his slimmer, blonder days -- jogged out onstage, his Jesus T-shirt billowing, his hair slicked across his scalp and down the back of his thick neck. "Yeah, yeah!" he yelled over the music. "There's a new Jesus in town, and that's what he sounds like! Are you ready to get gnarly?"
Baldwin launched into what appeared to be a hackneyed impersonation of what many youth-group survivors would recognize as embarrassing Pastor Cool. "You've heard of Jesus Freaks?" he bellowed. "Well, I'm the first Jesus Psycho!"
After several minutes of Baldwin's surfer-dude revivalism, the skaters began to loop their willowy frames along curves of plywood and rails of steel, tracing arcs in the air, flipping their boards under confident feet. The Long Island kids who had taken a valuable evening away from improving their video game scores were star-struck. After the demo was over, Baldwin took the mic once more to command, "Come up here right now. The team wants to pray with you." The stage overflowed with the eager bodies of hundreds of boys, all filling out decision cards with tiny yellow pencils hoping that their shoulders would be the next under the grasp of the praying skateboarders.
Baldwin is just one of many pitching evangelical Christianity -- with a side of politics -- to young America. Like dozens of recent books that line the shelves of Christian bookstores, there's plenty of talk in "The Unusual Suspect" about how Baldwin is an "adrenaline junky," how he's on the "gnarliest thrill ride" with Jesus. Venerating scripture in the vernacular of extreme sports -- best seen in two books by Ryan Dobson, son of James Dobson, founder of the notorious Christian right group Focus on the Family -- is the latest trend in youth-marketed publishing.
Ryan Dobson receives a shout-out in Baldwin's book as a messenger for "Homey," as Baldwin calls God. In Dobson's book "Be Intolerant," he rails against relativism, homosexuals, environmentalists and "inclusive, open-minded Christians," charging his readers to "get your armor on and take up your cross." He knows just how to instill pride in the heart of his father. "I bleed conservatism," Dobson told me when I met him at a Christian publishing convention in Denver last year, crossing his ornately inked arms over a T-shirt that says, "Jesus Loves My Tattoos." "I see conservatives like me everywhere, at hot rod shows in Vegas, surfing top breaks on the coast, crazy motocross freaks like me living for Jesus. We know we're right, we have the power of the truth behind us. And because of that, I see cities on fire."
For Dobson, Baldwin and young Americans the nation over who yearn for the certainty this brand of Christianity pitches, the personal is political. Absolutism reigns in the new evangelical youth movement, shining through the chaos of modernity, global terror, media bombardment and glorious moral relativism. Baldwin pitches the ultimate dumbed-down fundamentalism, offering reductive, brainless theology. "I sleep good at night because I am totally content in the knowledge that God is in control," he writes, a conviction glittered up with the fact that it sprung from the mind of an honest-to-God celebrity.
Intentionally or accidentally, Baldwin has braided together what young Americans seem to crave most today: fame, cool and answers. Answers to the questions of who will look out for them, who will love them, who will tell them how to live. Answers from a man who called himself the son of God, and another one who calls himself Stevie B.