By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
On a humid Thursday evening, Bradley Dean Smith approaches the podium at Jesus People, a church hidden by miles of back roads and farmland 25 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
It seems immediately obvious that the audience isn't in for a traditional service. For one, it's not even being held in the church's sanctuary. Smith—better known by his pseudonym, "Bradlee Dean"—is preaching in a small meeting room barely big enough for the six tables and scattered chairs it holds.
Even so, there's plenty of elbow room. Only four people are actually paying any attention—all men, sitting as far apart from one another as possible. Three women are sitting in the back attending to a pair of toddlers who won't stop screaming.
Smith seems unfazed by the low turnout. The towering minister begins bellowing the Word as if he's delivering a sermon to a congregation of thousands.
"Before I got saved, I lived the rock 'n' roll life!" proclaims Smith, testifying with his right hand. "I did everything under the sun. I indulged in everything. I didn't know salvation was the way!"
He doesn't dress like the typical minister. With his long hair pulled into a ponytail and draped through the back of an Adidas baseball cap, Smith looks like a guy on his way to softball practice. He's wearing a Penn State jersey and basketball shorts that reveal the spider's web of tattoos that crawl up and down his arms and legs.
In only a short time, Smith's sermon manages to cover a lot of ground: Teachers are "queerifying" the kids. Americans brought illegal immigrants to Arizona by purchasing their drugs. The war on drugs and alcohol could end tomorrow if the government just started "enforcing its own laws."
Then there's the media, one of Smith's favorite punching bags. Journalists are persecuting Smith, he explains, by printing flat-out lies. Two thousand reporters wrote about a controversial prayer Smith delivered at the Minnesota Capitol a month earlier, Smith claims, and none of them bothered to call him for comment.
The sermon eventually turns to the subject of homosexuality, another of Smith's favorite talking points. He didn't start the war on homosexuals, he says, but he'll fight it in the name of God.
"Everything with them is backwards!" Smith hollers. "The women acting like men, and the men acting like women. And you want them to rule over you?!"
IT'S HARD TO TELL by the scene at Jesus People, but Smith's ministry, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, has a high profile in the Midwest.
Michele Bachmann, now a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, has publicly prayed for the success of You Can Run, and will appear at an event with Smith this fall. Former gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer—now a leading Republican voice on the radio—has also come out publicly to support Smith.
At the end of the legislative session this year, Smith became the center of state politics when Rep. Ernie Leidiger (R-Mayer) invited him to give the opening prayer at the Capitol.
Smith took the opportunity to declare Barack Obama the first president to not believe in Jesus, causing such a row that even the GOP had to denounce the man who had been their invited guest.
"That type of person will never, ever be allowed on this House floor again, as long as I have the honor of serving as your speaker," House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) told the Legislature.
Yet Smith has found a lucrative business model. Since the ministry was started 10 years ago, You Can Run has seen skyrocketing revenues, blossoming into a $1 million operation by 2009, according to tax records filed with the IRS.
Even the Capitol prayer disaster turned into a money-making opportunity for Smith: He's currently selling copies of a movie he made about it—humbly titled "The Prayer That Rocked the Capitol"—for $10 each on his website. Get the special "Family Package" for just $15 more.
You Can Run has found a way to put a price tag on everything—comic books, school assemblies, CDs, drum pads—but the majority of its funding comes from a street team that was recently banned from Walmart parking lots for being less than truthful about the church's mission. In 2009 alone, this clan of young acolytes raked in more than $444,000, according to tax records.
"You don't raise that kind of money walking around with a boot like the firefighters do," says Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "That's a lot of money."
In person, Smith can be just as convincing as he is on the pulpit. He swears he's doing the Lord's work in Minnesota.
"Did Bradlee Dean pay his taxes? Yeah," says Smith. "So what's the issue? There isn't one."
ONE OF SMITH'S FIRST memories is of being babysat by his five-year-old brother. The son of a single mother who worked full-time for a railroad company, Smith was forced to learn at a young age how to fend for himself.
Even when his mom was home, life was far from wholesome. The family moved dozens of times to various apartments in low-income areas of north and south Minneapolis. Smith tells tales of his mother's boyfriends breaking into the house late at night and beating her up in front of him.