For most of his career, Stephen Baldwin, the youngest of Hollywood's four famous Baldwin brothers, cultivated a reputation as a bad boy, both on screen and off. In a new book, "The Unusual Suspect," he writes about "snorting enough cocaine to throw the entire population of a small South American country into anaphylactic shock."
But Stephen Baldwin, the man born into Hollywood royalty, has been born again. Just how exactly did the guy who played a crook in critically-acclaimed "The Usual Suspects," and a stoner in the bomb "Biodome," become an evangelical Christian youth minister?
Six years ago, Baldwin's wife, Kennya, became a born again Christian. Then came 9/11. Baldwin says he concluded that if terrorists could topple the towers, then Jesus could come back tomorrow.
"Jesus Is Coming Back
"Jesus is coming back and if you really know what that means, and if you are experiencing and understanding what that's all about, that's pretty urgent," Baldwin says. "Fires are burning all over America. This is biblical stuff." He points to three major recent tragedies -- 9/11, the tsunami in eastern Asia, and Hurricane Katrina -- as signs that Jesus is returning.
Baldwin's change of heart (and mind, and lifestyle) has inspired a lot of skepticism. The Daily Show asked, "What the f*** is wrong with Stephen Baldwin?!"
But Baldwin insists his new direction is based profoundly in his experience.
"It's real, it's changed my life, it's transformed my heart, I'm not who I was," Baldwin says. "No longer … do I feel the pressure of, 'how fancy are my shoes? Or what kind of car am I driving? Or how much money do I make?' None of that matters to me anymore … I'm having a daily experience with the spirit of God that's more priceless than anything I've experienced before."
Making Jesus 'Gnarly'
After his conversion, Baldwin says he quickly found that Christianity lacked a certain edge. So Baldwin decided to fill Christianity's gnarly niche by starting a youth ministry that evangelizes with skateboards, bikes and motorcross.
"I'm here to reach the youth culture of America that's dying everyday spiritually," Baldwin says. "They're overdosing, they're committing suicide, they're doing this and that. And the thing that transformed me was coming into the understanding the things of God and the spirit of God. And I want to share that with people -- and I want to share it in a fun way."
We interviewed Baldwin on a skate ramp in Houston, a recent stop on his evangelical road show, "Livin it Live." Baldwin says the stakes are high: no less than a "spiritual battle" for the souls of young people.
Before the "Bikers for Christ" and the "King of Kings skate team" could start the show, Baldwin insisted his riders take a safety precaution of a higher order -- an invocation.
"I just ask that every skateboard and bicycle and motocross bike lord have a legion of angels all around them," Baldwin said, as he led a group prayer.
The "gnarly" niche, unconventional though it may seem, is proving very effective.
Baldwin is now one of the most influential up-and-coming evangelicals in America. He and his holy rollers regularly sell out stadiums, and he's put out one of the best-selling skateboard DVDs of all time.
His newfound prominence has brought Baldwin into conflict with big brothers Billy and Alec -- two of Hollywood's leading liberals. They are not big fans of the fact that Stephen is now a cultural advisor to the president, or that he was invited to speak at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
According to Stephen, there is no sibling rivalry -- at least, not on this issue.
"Look, you know, the Baldwin brothers are still more interested in who's going to win the football game after Thanksgiving dinner than whatever a particular religious or political point of view anyone has," Baldwin says. "Alec and Billy don't judge me and I don't judge them. It's about everybody doing their own thing and hopefully it'll all be for the glory of God."
At the skate park in Houston, Baldwin takes the stage to preach.
"I've been around the world, hung out with movie stars," Baldwin says to the crowd, "and the experience I am having now … is so much more awesome and powerful and satisfying than anything I've ever experienced in Hollywood. And that's the truth."
He then called to the stage anyone who wanted to accept Jesus as their personal savior for the first time. Many of them were very young, and for this and other reasons, Baldwin is not without his critics.
Lauren Sandler, the author of a new book called "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement," says Baldwin and others like him are leading young people toward a rigid worldview.
"These are people who talk about love, but when it comes down to it, they are absolutely anti-abortion, they are absolutely against gay marriage," Sandler says. "It's an absolute, straight-up us-against-them. It's you're either with us or you're against us ... not only are you a sinner, but you are working for the enemy -- the enemy being Satan."
Baldwin contends that his faith is strong, but his commitment to dogma is not.
"I'm somebody who believes that the Bible is true," Baldwin says. "The Bible says it's wrong to be a homosexual. Is it my place to judge that person about that? No. God is the judge, not me. It's my job to love that person, lift them up, share my experience with them, and then hopefully make whatever decision they want to make about their life. But again, that older regime of the Christian movement has handled that stuff the wrong way. And that's changing."
A Surprising Spark
Baldwin's new quest was spurred on, in part, by what may be a surprising spark: "Biodome."
Though the film was universally jeered by critics, the DVD has become a cult hit with young people. And since the movie has spurred people to join his church, Baldwin says, that must mean "Biodome" is part of God's plan.
"So many kids that come to these events that want to see Stephen Baldwin and what I'm doing in ministry -- it's directly as a result of their being a fan of that movie," Baldwin says. "So for me, having a spiritual life that I have today I say to myself got had a plan, God's using 'Biodome' for me to have a platform to preach his gospel."