Because God Said: Youth ministry uses deception to gain access to public schools


When You Can Run But You Cannot Hide held its annual fundraising gala last Saturday night, group founder Bradlee Dean was emphatic about his ministry’s message.

“We passed out over 100,000 tracts in public high schools because God said. Not because some tyrannical government wants to try telling us what we can say and what we can’t say, because we know what the Constitution says,” said Dean. “We know who the problem is, nothing’s changed in two thousand years.”

Dean’s ministry may not believe in the separation of church and state, but they seem well aware that public school administrators do. And they have repeatedly run afoul of school officials and students in recent years for promising to run a program on abstinence and drug abuse, and mentioning God only when in front of students. And by doing so, they’ve been able to earn thousands of dollars per event from public schools that later express surprise about the group’s brand of hardline Christianity.

“They Really Overstepped Their Boundaries”

In 2003, in Benton, Wisconsin, Dean and his band, Junkyard Prophet, performed at Benton High School for students in grades 7-12. According to an article in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Dean “condemned homosexuality and the teaching of evolution in schools” in the process of speaking about abstinence and drug use.

“They had a captive audience for their message, and that wasn’t right,” said Benton Principal Gary Neis, according to the article. Neis later would call an assembly to apologize to students for the group’s decision to stray into religion.

“They talked about influencing and brainwashing people. Be wise to the fact that is what they were doing. They were using the same tactics,” Neis told the students.

According to the article, Neis had contacted other Wisconsin principals about the group, but neither they nor the group had mentioned anything about religion.

But at the time, in a pattern that would quickly become commonplace, Dean simply waived away the complaints. According to the Telegraph Herald, Dean said, “Every one of us are Christian, but what difference does that make? What if Jesus’ name is in one of our songs? ‘In God We Trust’ is on the school walls and on our money. They sing, ‘God Bless America.'”

“Bigotry and Hate-Mongering”

A year later, in Tennessee, Dean brought his group to speak and perform at Roane County High School. And the story was much the same.

According to the Oak Ridger, “RCHS Principal Jody McLoud apologized for any controversy or heartache the assembly generated. In addition to homosexuality, race and obesity, the materials reportedly also included such topics as suicide, drugs and premarital sex.”

“They encouraged bigotry and hate-mongering toward children that may not share their religious beliefs or who are struggling to find an identity or self-esteem,” said Laura Dailey, a parent of a Roane County High student, according to the article. The school district was forced to deal with the controversy by reiterating its policy that “forbids religious statements in schools.”

“There Have Always Been These People Who Have Sold their Testimony”

Writer Sara Robinson, who has followed the fundamentalist movement for the weblog Orcinus, said that she thought the group was “organized very specifically to get either drug treatment money or abstinence money.” And she said that she wasn’t surprised that Dean, a former addict who now claims drug addiction is a myth, would feel okay about using bait-and-switch tactics to gain entry to schools, and access to taxpayer money.”

“To be blunt, Dean is a former addict,” she said. “You know the old saying, ‘You know when an addict is lying — their mouth is moving.'”

Robinson, who was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, said Dean’s group reminded her of speakers she had heard as a child.

“There was a person in the movie The Cross and the Switchblade named Nicky Cruz, who was a gang leader in New York, and David Wilkerson,” she said. “They were huge on the church circuit. There have always been these people who have sold their testimony. That’s the final tradition that [Dean is] working at, he’s readapted it for the 21st century.”

Robinson said that Dean’s road from addiction to religion was commonplace in the fundamentalist movement.

“It’s very common in religious movement to find addicts because it scratches the same itch,” she said. “It lets them keep their demons at bay. There is a heavy bliss state that is addictive all on its own. And there’s also the good two-minute hate,” she said, saying that anger at “others” was a powerful draw for fundamentalists.

“It Was Like a Cult”

In March of 2005, Dean and his group had a presentation to elementary students canceled after a disastrous performance in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

“It seemed like total propaganda. It was like a cult. They were trying to get kids who can’t think for themselves to think like them,” said Amy Deitcher, then a high school junior, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

According to Deitcher, girls and boys were segregated during the presentation, and the girls were “presented with a ‘treasure chest’ theory in which they were told that any sort of physical contact with a man before marriage would result in a woman becoming ‘leftovers’ for her husband.

That tracks with the message given by Dean’s wife, Stephanie Joy Dean, on the group’s website.

“A Virtuous woman is an honor to God. She is one who seeks His glory and His honor all the days of her life,” Stephanie Joy writes. “She lives to honor God and it is always her desire to do His will. She lays her heart continually in the Lord’s hand and asks that He will turn her whithersoever He wilt. She is faithful to God first and foremost, her Heavenly Husband, and to her earthly husband and children as well.”

Once again, school officials expressed surprise at the event’s turn. School board president Rusty Windle, interviewed by the Democrat-Gazette, said, “I don’t know it was exactly what it was billed out to be. [Administrators] thought it was all pretty much a drug awareness thing and there was a lot more to it than that.” He added, “Maybe some more homework could have been done.”

“I’m Extremely Disappointed…That I Allowed This”

And the group was back at it again in November of 2005, this time in Colfax, Illinois, where You Can Run But You Cannot Hide was paid $2500 to perform for three school districts. According to the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph, one of the principals involved in bringing them to perform gathered his students after the show.

“I can tell you, I wasn’t happy.” he said, according to the Pantagraph. “I’m extremely disappointed,” he told the students. “Not in you, but that I allowed this.”

He added, “I felt like the kids got cheated.”

“Let Them Play!”

Dean mentioned his experience in Arkansas at the start of his remarks on Saturday.

“I was actually doing the assembly, and about 15 minutes into it I see this wobbly little wobbly guy walking down the aisle, and I says to myself, ‘uh-oh, he’s going to try to stop the assembly,'” Dean said, saying that every student was stomping their feet. “They were chanting, ‘Let them play! Let them play!'” he said.

And to be fair to the group, not every school administrator has to be hoodwinked to let them play. In 2001, Dean and his band played a concert for Northfield High School. When St. Paul Pioneer Press commentator and Presbyterian pastor Kristine Holmgren challenged Kevin Merkle, then the Northfield High School activities director, he replied simply, “You just don’t want us to do anything Christian, that’s your problem.”

Indeed. While Dean and his followers may not believe in the separation of church and state, the vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of American Christians, do. We may not always agree on where the line should be drawn, but most of us agree that we don’t want our schools pushing a religious message; as parents, that’s our responsibility, in concert with our own religious views and our church, if we have one.

That’s not just to protect the small minority of liberal atheists, either. While Dean feels he is justified in using public money to bring the gospel into the school, he may be forgetting that when the public pays your bills, they get a veto on your message.

Robinson, who lives in British Columbia, notes the lessons of her province’s school voucher program.

“Every school that takes that money has to use the B.C. curriculum,” she said. “When they start to get taxpayer money, they’re going to start getting taxpayers demanding input.”