Bradlee Dean Interview, Part 1: The Early Days, Finding God, and the Public School Circuit

City Pages sits down with Smith to talk about how his ministry came to be.

City Pages sits down with Smith to talk about how his ministry came to be.

Since starting his evangelical, punk-rock ministry more than 10 years ago, Bradley Dean Smith has been the subject of much public scrutiny.

For years, he's been accused of blurring the lines between church and state by touring public high schools with his ministry on the taxpayer dime

Most recently, Smith -- better known as Bradlee Dean -- hurled himself into the public eye by delivering a controversial prayer on the floor of the Minnesota Legislature. After accepting an invitation from Rep. Ernie Leidiger (R-Mayer), Smith used the opportunity to accuse Barack Obama of being the first president to not believe in Jesus.

City Pages sat down with Smith at his Annandale headquarters in July and spent several hours discussing his ministry and the controversy surrounding it.


For more on Smith, check out this week's feature, The Benediction of Bradlee Dean. Check Monday for the second part of the interview, in which Smith responds to questions about his business dealings with Glen Stoll -- a Washington-based attorney who was served with a federal injunction for giving bad tax advice -- and what Republicans knew about his ministry before he was invited to give the Capitol prayer.

Smith bought his first drum set after high school, and quickly started touring the Midwest.

Smith bought his first drum set after high school, and quickly started touring the Midwest.

City Pages: Did you grow up around here?

Bradley Dean Smith: North Minneapolis. And I moved 37 times before I moved [to Annandale].

I can remember from being left alone at home, me and my brother, three and five years old. I remember we grew up in north Minneapolis, we grew up in south Minneapolis. If you remember the riots back in the day, the race riots, well, we were kind of in the center of all that in south Minneapolis during a portion of my life. I remember one particular time when I got our of the car and my mom walked right in between four guys and they just beat her to a bloody pulp, right in front of me and my brother.

There was other times where I can remember living in north Minneapolis. My mom would leave me upstairs sleeping, me and my brother, and my mom would be downstairs and you could hear music playing. All of the sudden you hear a window break and it would be her boyfriend breaking in because he was drunk, and he'd start beating her up. And she'd come up to us and ask us, well, what is she supposed to do? So we learned real young how to defend ourselves.

It was like, how do we survive this? How do we as kids raise our mom?

CP: And your brother is younger or older?

BDS: No, he's older. He works for the city in Minneapolis, and he's a part-time cop in Maple Grove.

CP: Where'd you graduate from [high school]?

BDS: There are some things that I don't want to say because whatever I say is going to be nitpicked. Let's put it this way, I went to school all over the place, and, yeah, I did. I'm trying to be really careful.

CP: You don't want to say where you graduated?

BDS: I don't. I really don't.

CP: So why all the moving around?

BDS: I don't know. With my mom it was just, she worked for the railroad in Minneapolis, she worked there for 13 years, which was, like I said, my mom was a workaholic. She was always literally working. I honestly don't know why. That would be a question I would have to ask her.

CP: Was your dad ever in the picture?

BDS: No, no. I know his name.

Before finding God, Smith says rock 'n' roll was sucking his life into a bad way.

Before finding God, Smith says rock 'n' roll was sucking his life into a bad way.

I didn't really know a whole lot about him. I remember going to see him when I was a kid in Wisconsin, and he was in jail for something. 

CP: I've read on your website that you were drinking and stuff like that [before finding God], was that in high school?

BDS: Everything I started to become I hated. I never drank, I couldn't stand smoking. Weed was like the thing that was coming in, I never did that junk. You never heard of, like, hardcore drugs. That was never in the picture. So the big thing was to hang out in drink. And if you drank vodka or something, that was, like, the big dare.

CP: How old were you [when you started]?

BDS: I think like 14.

And it started digressing form there. And then what I started doing is started having parties at my house when I was about 16. Keep in mind, I was also, a good portion of my life as a kid, I was a welfare kid. So in saying that, we didn't live in the nicest part of town.

CP: Did it get more serious?

Smith denies he blurs the line between church and state at high schools.

Smith denies he blurs the line between church and state at high schools.

BDS: Later on it did. It was never, like, a serious drinking problem. I did it because I wanted to do it. It wasn't hard for me to say no to it. It never was.

And jumping gears a little bit, back in the day MTV was huge, so I started getting into the music thing. And I loved the drums.

CP: Drums are pretty expensive.

BDS: Got a loan. Worked at an Amico in northeast Minneapolis. Worked there, opened the store, and once I got the loan I went to B-Sharp Music, and I bought my first Tama drumset and then we just practiced downtown like crazy down in the Warehouse District.

CP: Who were you playing with?

BDS: The first band was Surprise Attack. As a matter of fact, we used to practice right next to Soul Asylum.

CP: So how does this take us to when you found god?

BDS: Well, we started touring. I got into a band called Sunset Strip.

They were pretty big in the Midwest...I think we played like 35 states in our union, and things just kept digressing.

We were in Iowa one day, and there was this national band down in the basement and I remember that they were all sitting around in a circle doing drugs. And I remember looking down at it and I thought, these guys, they were 40 and 50 years old. And I remember thinking, do I want this kind of end for my life? How am I helping anybody by doing that kind of stuff? And I wasn't a part of the circle, but I remember looking at it and thinking, this isn't what I want. And I started to be convicted like crazy.

CP: What kind of drugs were they doing?

BDS: You know what, then you're going to ask the name of the band, and I'm not going to incriminate them. This was 15 years ago, but the point was, it wasn't good.

CP: This was a popular band?

BDS: Oh, it was huge. They were huge.

CP: And you don't want to say who it was?

BDS: I dont want to say.

CP: Do you remember how old you were?

BDS: 24 years old.

CP: So you'd been doing the rock 'n' roll thing for a few years?

BDS: Yeah.

CP: And in terms of where you were, had it digressed at all? Were you drinking more, were you doing anything else?

BDS: I'd always have girls around me, that was my only thing. Keep in mind, my mom, when we grew up, always had boyfriends, so in a lot of ways, wisdom is justified by its children.

My mom inadvertently taught us everything we were doing, I mean, she used to go to the clubs, she used to be a part of that. And before we knew it, we were doing that. I don't want to paint a picture like she's bad, she wasn't, she was just misguided. She really was. It wasn't like we were a bunch of people sitting around a circle shooting up. My mom never drank. My mom never did none of that stuff. It was just, when me and my brother got older the thing to do was to drink beer. That was the big dare. Then once I got into the rock 'n' roll scene, it was more just the girl thing to me than it was anything, and I wanted to make it in the rock 'n' roll scene, and I had a really good opportunity of doing that, because I wasn't a dummy and I wasn't terrible. Matter of fact, Gordy Knudtson from Steve Miller gave me some of my lessons...Boy, what he'll do on a four-piece drumset is incredible. I mean, he's a bad boy.

Once we started to tour, that's when I started praying. That's when I started asking the Lord, listen, I want to know who you are, because the extent of what I seen of Christianity was going to the State Fair and going to the bathroom and seeing a track on the sink or on the toilet. I just thought, something's gotta be wrong here. This isn't right.

CP: Was your mom religious at all?

BDS: Yeah, we'd go to church once or twice a year. That was the thing to do, with a cigarette hanging out of the hand.

CP: What made God come into the picture?

BDS: He was always there. Here's the deal, I never questioned his existence, I always believed that.

Ever since I can remember the Lord has always had his finger on me in some how or some way, in a fatherly sense.

It just seemed like, when I started to call out, I just started asking to know who he was. I remember writing in the sand one day, "God, I know you're there, help me." I didn't know what else to say. And he started to rock my world. Everything I did would just to come to an end, it just seemed like whatever I touched would just drop, it didn't matter, there was no life to it. I remember one day I was at the State Fair, and a guy walked up to me that I knew from the rock 'n' roll scene, and he had said to me that he was born again, and I thought "Oh my gosh, what you talking about dude?"

I knew when I looked at him that something was different about him, that's all I knew.

He started talking to me. I was swearing up and down, thinking I'm all that and a bag of chips. And he just started telling me about God, and I was like, "Ok what about this guy?" I just thought he was kind of a loon. But I knew who he was, and I knew that he wasn't, so I couldnt just brush it off.

CP: Was this something that happened overnight, or over a course of years?

BDS: No, it was always there. It was always on the tip of my tongue, it was always in my heart. I just really didn't know how to do the right thing.

[Years later], I'm going to a church where a lady keeps coming up to me and asking if I would do a high school assembly. And I said well, what, you want me to do a high school assembly? Well, Little Falls High School, they've got a huge drug problem. Bradlee you really need to get out there, you really need to get out there. And I thought, well how do you do a high school assembly? And I thought, well you know what I could do, is take the band, go in there, and I could do all the stuff that I study. Get some stats, see what's happened since 1962--because there's been a huge fallout since 1962. Started doing homework, and I started thinking, Ok, I could put a message together. Called up the principal.

He liked the assembly so much that we came back and did it again. What was awesome about it is, you could literally hear, after we were done playing music, the kids had such respect for us. Because it's like, OK, cool the drummer's going to get up and talk to us. They thought I was going to get up and give them a message of pro party on, right? Well it wasn't that at all.

CP: Who was the person who originally suggested you [go to high schools]?

BDS: It was a lady from our church. I used to call her Mama Bastine. I don't even know her first name.

CP: Ok, and I want to talk about the high school stuff. You've gotten some criticism for going into public schools, and you talk about a religious message.

BDS: There's nothing religious about what I'm saying in a public school.

CP: So you get there and you don't talk about God, you're talking about anti-alcohol abuse, that kind of stuff?

BDS: That's right.

I'm a Christian and I'm not gonna take my hat off for anybody. I'm not leaving my faith at the door, and the Supreme Court doesn't require that of anybody neither.

I talk about a whole plethora of things. I talk about what's happening in our country, why such a fallout, what have we forsaken, and then what I do is show them the price, of our veterans. Why did they die? They died to ratify the Constitution. And then I ask the kids "How many in this room know the Constitution?" And they laugh about it. "How many know the Bill of Rights?" And they laugh about it.

And then I'll say, "Well if you don't know your rights, you don't have any rights." And then when I ask them the question, "How many have uncles, aunts, cousins, dads, grandpas, grandmas who have served in a foreign war?", and about 85 to 90 percent of hands go up in the room. Then I ask them the question, "What did they die for?" I say, "What would you think of me if I say let's go back and desecrate an American flag or the graves of vets?" And they say back to me, "I'll rip your head off!" I say "Good, we're on the same page. So then, shouldn't we be magnifying what they died for?" And they get it, they get what we've been talking about. Because I hit them pretty good for the first hour, hour and a half.

CP: How long are these?

BDS: Depends on how much time they've allotted us. Sometimes it was an hour, sometimes it was three hours. We play for about 45 minutes and then I get up and talk.

CP: How many have you done?

BDS: 331 of them.

CP: So in 331, you're saying it never gets into religion?

BDS: Never have.

I had one kid come up to me and ask, "aren't you crossing the lines between church and state?." Once a kid did that, I started to expound lines between church and state. And the reason they would ask the question is because, you talk about moral issues like abortion, to the extent of homosexuality in public schools -- this is probably going to shock you a little bit, but the only thing I ever did was cite the laws. 

I do a whole piece on media, and I say 47 percent of those who write your paper in this country think that adultery is OK, dad and mom cheating on each other. It's illegal in 22 states still, and it hasn't been enforced since 1944. Then I'll say, 76 percent of those who write your paper in this country see nothing wrong with homosexuality. Did you know it was illegal until 1961? Did you know it was considered to be a mental illness? End of story. Then I'd go on to the next topic. Did you know that 90 percent of those who write your paper see nothing wrong with aborting a baby? All the way up until 1973 it was completely illegal. Read the Constitution. Read the Bill of Rights. Read the Declaration of Independence. It still is. We've aborted 55 million babies in the name of freedom of choice, and that's the extent.

What's interesting about that, and I want to clarify this point, I never had any problems in public school assemblies until that agenda started coming forth.

CP: What agenda?

BDS: The gay agenda.

CP: I just want to make sure you have your position on this totally clear. You've been accused of pushing this Christian agenda, and you're saying that's totally false. I guess I can see that you're talking about issues that people often associate with Christianity, but you're saying that's totally separate. You're not there to push a religious agenda, is what you're saying?

BDS: Well, let me say this. What I'm doing is going back to 1962. I'm going back to the foundations of who we are. First of all, I want to know the intent of our forefathers, and I also want to know why have we been so well sustained since 1962. What happened in '62 that we started digressing rather than progressing? I started to look, and you should see stats, it's scary man. Stats are getting out of hand. We're breaking at the seams here.

[A principal] in Arkansas, he shut down the assembly because I was talking about the Constitution. He wrote in the paper that it was anti-American.

Well, what was anti-American about the Constitution here, bro?