"Children! Children!" Stephen Baldwin is shouting across a room full of kids at the Values Voter Conference on Friday night in Washington. The room goes instantly quiet. Baldwin seems surprised. When he talks "like your creepy parents," he says, "you guys listen."
Baldwin sounds nothing like anyone's creepy parents. Quite the opposite: He's the cool dad they never had. The one who has 18 tattoos and likes skateboarding. The one who lets them stay up late and eat ice cream and crack jokes about Joe Biden.
Which is exactly what they're doing right now. A few dozen young people, roughly between the ages of 12 and 25, have gathered in a big room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel after a long day of speeches, panels, and general right-wing team-building. Some have come to the Family Research Council's annual convention with their schools. Others came with their parents. (For many, school and home are the same thing.) Caterers in tuxedo shirts are scooping vanilla and chocolate and strawberry ice cream out of giant vats, while Baldwin and Kevin McCullough, with whom Baldwin co-hosts a weekly conservative radio show, brief the kids on the night's activities.
First up: The drafting of what McCullough describes as the "largest letter ever sent to Barack Obama from people 25 and younger." On one side of the room stand four easels supporting four giant sheets of paper, each of which says at the top, in big writing, "Dear President Obama." Each sheet has a different theme. There's one for social and moral issues, one for national security, one for the environment, and one for health care. Over the next hour, the students are supposed to grab a marker and fill each page, which will then be delivered directly to the White House.
Meanwhile, Baldwin and McCullough lead the room in a Joe Biden-themed version of "Two Truths and a Lie." The gist: They read three statements about the vice president, and the kids guess which one is false. For example, which of the following is a lie? A) Joe Biden was the longest-serving senator from Delaware. B) He was once the second poorest senator. C) He voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act. Whoever gets it right (C) moves onto the next round.
Putting a Baldwin in charge of a roomful of children might strike many parents as a terrible idea. When the words "Baldwin" and "parenting" appear in the same sentence, they usually refer to the ugly incident in which Alec Baldwin berated his daughter over the phone.
Stephen is a different story. For years, he was the worst role model since, well, Alec.He's the youngest of the four Baldwin brothers but hardly the least. (Most people can name three of them: Alec, Stephen, and Billy. The last one—the one you're trying to think of right now—is Daniel.) Stephen started acting in films in 1988. His career peaked seven years later, when he landed a role in The Usual Suspects. Things went downhill from there, as Baldwin recounts in his memoir, The Unusual Suspect: My Calling to the New Hardcore Movement of Faith. His life descended into a godless vortex of drugs, sex, and Bio-Dome. It wasn't until after 9/11 that Baldwin decided to clean up.
Since then, Baldwin has dedicated himself to spreading his own brand of family-friendly gospel, especially to young people. Aside from his radio show, he writes books—his latest is a murder mystery—appears on talk shows, and has founded a network of 200 "skating ministries," or groups of Christian skateboarders.
It's easy to see why Baldwin, or as he calls himself, "Stevie B.," targets youth. He communicates on their level. "This guy is gnarly," he says, posing for a photo with 15-year-old Luke Peeler of Triangle, Va. When I ask if I can record his comments, he jokes, "As long as you promise to use these comments against us in our political futures. … Badum-bum!" While playing "Two Truths and a Lie," Baldwin playfully struggles to read one of the facts: "Biden is the first—what is that word?" "Delawarean!" say the kids in unison. "Is that really a word?" Baldwin asks. "Biden is the first"—he pauses again—"Duuueeeeaaahhh to become vice president." Everyone laughs.
Talking like a tween has its drawbacks. When he went on Fox and Friends to promote his new book during the Republican National Convention, host Steve Doocy said, "You walked up to the set, and you were absolutely effervescent in talking about Sarah Palin last night." Baldwin stared at him. "I was what-ey what-ey?"
Of course, his unpretentiousness is part of his appeal. Baldwin has the number 330 tattooed on the back of his neck. "John 3:30," he says. "I must decrease so that God may increase in my life. It's about humility."
That's one way of looking at it: to declare yourself a tool of God is to suggest that you're merely a tool of God. There's also another way: to declare yourself a tool of God is to say, I'm a tool of freaking God. Everything I do is meant to be. This seems to be Baldwin's way. "I believe it's by the grace of God and God's perfect will that we've all had this success," he told an audience Friday afternoon, referring to his and his brothers' careers. "For me, in retrospect, it's completely understandable that the Lord would use me now with that platform to do his work in these times. I'm very grateful for that opportunity; it's a privilege."
God was also the force behind his radio show. McCullough had been in New York radio for a few years when Baldwin called in to his show one day. The two hit it off and became friends. Then God told them to start their own show, which launched in July 2008. "Without trying to sound too hocus-pocus-y," recounts McCullough, "we had an experience where we heard God saying to the other, to us, that we're supposed to work together."
McCullough has known Baldwin only since 2004, but by all accounts, he says, Stephen is a different person from the tabloid-fodder Hollywood star. "What his brothers will tell you is, they may not like his politics, but they can't argue with the fact that he was once a womanizer, a drug addict, an alcoholic, an addictive personality who has been set free from all of those things."