"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."
What most people see as a plummeting career—few would recognize any of his 30 or so movies since Half-Baked—has in fact been a deliberate rejection of Hollywood, according to McCullough. "When he came to faith, he still could have done the 'Here, show your butt cheek and make love to this woman, and we'll pay you $4 million.' " But he didn't. Instead, he has dedicated himself to more Christian-themed movies.
And in the Omni Shoreham Hotel on Friday night, at least, Baldwin is still very much a celebrity. Stephen Baldwin at the Values Voter Conference is a lot like Alec Baldwin at, say, Netroots Nation. The difference is that Alec's fans have actually seen his movies. Of the dozen or so Baldwin fans I spoke with, not one had seen The Usual Suspects. "The Genius Club," says Luke Peeler when I ask him which Baldwin movie was his favorite. It's a 2006 film about a group of geniuses brought together to stop a madman from nuking Washington. Like many of Baldwin's recent films, this one has Christian overtones: The protagonist is a seminary student who quotes scripture and has the initials "J.C."
Baldwin is also a powerful speaker, and onstage he has adopted the rolling cadences of an evangelical pastor. "The dream for me is being confident in what I hope for, and believing in what I cannot see," he tells the audience. "Preach it," deadpans McCullough. Sometimes the free association comes out borderline nonsensical: "In order for the spirit of the Lord to operate through us—to allow to that to be imparted into our politics, culture, society, is that we need to be in the place in our experience in that dynamic that allows for the spirit of the Lord to do it through us."
Baldwin has not abandoned showbiz altogether. In recent years, he has harnessed his B-list celebrity on reality TV, appearing on Fear Factor (he won), Celebrity Apprentice (he placed third), and I'm a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! (he came in fifth), the last of which turned him temporarily into a parasitic host. After getting bitten by 185 bugs in one day, another bug laid eggs in the pus of one of the bites. When he returned home, he was pregnant—McCullough's word—with thousands of baby bugs.
Meanwhile, he has nursed a career as a budding pundit. He endorsed Mike Huckabee in the 2008 presidential election and in turn got Sarah Palin's endorsement as her "favorite Baldwin brother." He appears semiregularly on Fox News, and he and McCullough participated in Glenn Beck's 9/12 march on Washington this month. Christianity is his message, but he clearly pays attention to the cable-driven minutiae. "Listen, however the media does or does not cover certain realities and/or how they spin it, over a million people marched on the Capitol for that event," he told me. (That number is highly disputed, and the the person who originally cited ABC as reporting that 1.5 million people showed up for the protest, Freedomworks president Matt Kibbe, has since recanted and apologized.)
As for health care, TARP, the auto bailout, and the rest of Obama's policies, says Baldwin, "Our message is simply this: Who should decide what's best for you? You or your government?" He distances himself from the birthers and those who question Obama's religion. "I don't think that's fair," he says. "I don't think it's anybody's right to judge whether or not somebody called themselves a Christian. But actions speak louder than words." McCullough elaborated: "The president could help himself by not going to Cairo University and saying America is a Muslim nation. By not saying that our values are the same as Islam. He could help himself in those areas by making a stronger distinction."
Both hosts reject the idea that the tone of the debate is getting out of hand. Divisiveness isn't ruining the country, says McCullough: "That's what this country was built upon. In the First Continental Congress, one of the senators beat another over the head with a cane because they disagreed over a founding principle." Baldwin chimes in: "Whereas we attempted to beat Barack Obama over the head with John McCain! But it didn't work. Badum-bum!"
I ask Baldwin if he'd ever considered political office. "This question keeps coming up," he says. "You know it was Alec Baldwin who said to me four weeks ago, 'I've had a revelation: All the things you're doing are positioning you to run for political office in the future.' " At this, Stephen Baldwin erupts into laughter. "I can tell you now there will never come a day where I run for political office."
"To be honest with you," says McCullough, "I'd be frightened for America if that finger was on the nuclear arsenal."
As the ice cream social winds down, Baldwin and McCullough glance over some of the kids' letters to the president. "This is a Christian event," says McCullough, "so anything that doesn't represent a Christian message or tone, we're gonna take down." That appears to be quite a lot of it. While some students wrote long paragraphs arguing against government intrusion or politely explaining why Joe Wilson's outburst wasn't racist, some were less genteel: "Dear Loser: UR Health Care plan sucks!" "Obama Lies, Grannie Dies" "BABY KILLER!" Others were more universal: "Obama, I want a PS3." And my favorite: "Please don't let I Am Legend to happen."
When no one is looking, one of Baldwin's daughters, 12, grabs a marker and scrawls a message in the lower corner of one of the sheets:
"Obama makes a boo boo
Baby go 'bye bye'
Poo poo to you Obama. Liar!"
As her father might say, Badum-bum!