By his own account, Bill Dallas grew up in an unhappy household. His mother had been sexually abused by her father and had her first pregnancy aged 17. Dallas’s dad was an alcoholic and a depressive who died at 51. Dallas was an intense, obsessive child, dogged by feelings of inadequacy. You could say he was wired for the bitter schema of sin-and-salvation religion.
But despite his challenging start in life, he had clear talents. He attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, known for its vast academic offerings. He dreamed of becoming an actor and after graduating with honors, he moved to San Francisco. Blessed with photogenic looks, he modeled for “a major retail chain”. Soon Dallas was at the center of an energetic social whirl. He and his friends rented stretch limos and people gave him the nickname “Mr GQ”. Soon his connections started to yield fruit – and temptation. Dallas found his way into real estate and then the money began to pour in. But even as he accumulated outward signs of success, Dallas couldn’t shake the anxieties at his core. Then, things really fell apart.
Dallas has publicly offered few details of his crimes, but he was convicted of grand theft embezzlement and sentenced to prison. He was fined $772,000 in connection with illegal contributions to six candidates for city offices in Oakland.
As Dallas tells the story, he spent time in Susanville and then San Quentin prisons, moving into a cell on the fourth tier of North Block. It was there that his life began to turn around.
His prison experiences launched him towards a network of thousands of pastors, on the steering committee of Project Blitz, and in the cockpit of Christian nationalism’s taxpayer-subsidized, data-driven voter turnout machine.
As Dallas became acclimated to life in prison, and with the assistance of some of the “lifers” he met there, he deepened his connection to God. He got a job at the prison’s TV station, working his way up to being a producer and on-air host.
When he left prison, he says, he was in the best mental, physical and spiritual shape of his life. But he still hadn’t paid his debts. Dallas owed multiple fines and taxes – one fine alone was close to $750,000. He immediately looked for ways to make a living.
In March 1998, Dallas had a holy visitation, telling him to start a satellite network delivering ministry training programs to churches around the country. And he did – conceiving of a national network of evangelical pastors and other church leaders. As it turns out, this was exactly what the growing Christian nationalist movement needed.
With the help of Silicon Valley businessmen including Reid Rutherford and venture capitalist John Mumford, Dallas’s Church Communication Network grew with exponential velocity.
But Dallas had a bolder vision. Working with thousands of pastors allowed him to reach literally millions of congregants – and potentially millions of voters. With marketing and communications increasingly driven by data mining, he knew there had to be a better way to mobilize the nation’s conservative Christians.
Dallas soon established a fruitful partnership with George Barna, the California–based evangelical pollster. It was a match made in heaven. Dallas realized his vast network could collect data and use it to create more effective messaging. And now he had the resources to make it happen.
Dallas set up United in Purpose (UiP), and by November 2016, he had thousands of conservative churches in reach. These “strategically cultivated support for a variety of pro-life, pro-family, limited government candidates in swing states,” according to Barna – all bound by the idea that “politics was one of the life spheres in which their faith should have influence”.
The initiative catapulted Dallas into the upper echelons of power. He appears on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s leaked 2014 membership list for the Council for National Policy. When Donald Trump met privately with evangelical leaders in June 2016, Bill Dallas helped organize the event.
The organization’s inner circle included some familiar names. These included David Barton, who acts as a “director”, contributing two hours per week to the cause but drawing no salary – according to UiP’s form 990s. Jim Garlow, the politically connected preacher, is another “director”. And the seasoned Republican operative Robert D McEwen – commonly known as Bob – received a salary of $18,000 for two hours’ work a week in 2017.
It’s not surprising to see David Barton’s name pop up here: he’s the Where’s Waldo of the Christian nationalist movement. Garlow, is recognizable from California’s rightwing political scene; a key force behind the passage of California’s 2008 anti– marriage equality amendment known as proposition 8.
Bob McEwen is a telling addition. His lobbying work has put him in the company and on the payroll of a number of international political figures. He has longstanding ties to the Fellowship Foundation, also known as “the Family”, which organizes the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of about 4,000 participants, hosted by members of Congress. That breakfast has long served as “a backdoor to American power”, according to Jeff Sharlet, who executive produced a Netflix documentary on the Family. The Family “[dispatches] representatives to build relationships with foreign leaders,” explains Sharlet. “The more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have.”
In December 2015, Chris Vickery, an information technology specialist who hunted for data breaches as a hobby, came upon a massive database on 191 million US citizens. It contained data belonging to registered voters, from cellphone numbers to evidence of gun ownership. A second breach contained even more detailed information – including income levels, whether the person was a fan of Nascar, had a “Bible lifestyle”, or had an interest in hunting or fishing.
After some sleuthing, Vickery thought he had a clear idea of where it all came from. It linked, he said, to Pioneer Solutions Incorporated, a company run by Bill Dallas. It also linked to a campaign titled “Champion the Vote”, run by UiP.
But the real significance of Vickery’s discovery was the number of voters UiP had access to information on.
“We have about 200 million files, so we have pretty much the whole voting population in our database,” said Dallas. “What we do is we track to see what’s going to make somebody vote either one way or not vote at all.”
UiP assigns points to each individual in its database for characteristics that line up with conservative religious voting patterns. Individuals receive points if they are members of conservative churches or if they homeschool their children. They also get points if they appear to oppose marriage equality or abortion rights, or if they hunt, fish, or follow Nascar.
“If [your score] totaled over 600 points, then we realized you were very serious about your faith,” Dallas explains.
UiP’s first mission is to ensure all 600-pointers are registered to vote. For the 2012 election cycle, it aimed to register 5 million conservative Christians – a number Dallas believed could decide the presidency. In 2008, as he has pointed out, key states such as Florida, North Carolina and Missouri were decided by slim margins. Registering conservative Christians could make a difference.
To do that, Dallas was able to access a ready army of volunteers, many recruited from organizations such as the Family Research Council or conservative churches.
All major political operations now rely on big data and activist networks in election campaigns. One key difference, however, is that UiP’s voter turnout machine is at the top of a long pyramid that largely operates in the religious sphere, almost all of which is exempt from taxes and shielded from public scrutiny.
So where does UiP get its financing and other forms of support? One source of support, no doubt, is UiP chairman and tech multi-millionaire Ken Eldred. Eldred has donated generously to Republican campaigns, including those of Rick Perry and the disgraced former Alabama hopeful Roy Moore. At a breakfast hosted by UiP in 2018, Eldred said the upcoming midterm elections were about “judges, judges, judges” before leading the audience in prayer that “the Lord Jesus Christ would be the King of America once again”.
According to UiP’s own paperwork, their biggest funder by far is a single individual: Maj Gen Vernon B Lewis Jr. Lewis led a distinguished career in the army and, when he retired, co-founded two businesses. The first – a military training and education company – was fined $3.2m to resolve allegations of false labor charges on a contract to support the US army in Afghanistan.
Lewis’s other company, Cypress International, consults with the US Department of Defense and other federal government agencies, and claims to have “a deep understanding of business opportunities in the defense and homeland security sectors.”
Lewis also founded the Lone Star Eagle, which offers syndicated content from Breitbart News Network and the Daily Caller. His contributions in the political arena are notable. He was a top sponsor for the Faith, Family and Freedom gala dinner for the 2019 Values Voters Summit. At that dinner, Trump delivered a lengthy address with the customary mix of falsehoods, boasting, and invective, and was received with multiple standing ovations.
On March 7 2016, Dallas and Eldred appeared with Marcus and Joni Lamb on a Christian broadcasting network, to deliver a clear message to viewers: vote – the “right” way.
Lamb cut straight to what that meant. “Recently same-sex marriage became the law of the land,” he said, knitting his fulsome eyebrows. “And principally it happened because Christians didn’t vote in the presidential election, and supreme court justices who were very liberal were appointed to the bench.”
Dallas was the guy with the numbers and a plan: “Ninety million Christians, OK, and 39 million don’t get involved,” he said. “If they got involved, eventually the fragrance of this country would have a Christ-like fragrance.”
In response to a question about what churches can do, Dallas continued: “They can go to championthevote.com. We’ll help the pastor determine who is registered or not registered in their congregation.” Referring to UiP’s special toolkit for pastors, Dallas says: “We provide … like I make my brownies, ‘just add water’ – tools. Contact us! We have a ministry consultant who will work with each church to help them get their people out to vote on election day.”
UiP’s pastor-focused initiative, Project 75, aims at “mobilizing 75% of church members to VOTE”. The program features a Church Voter Lookup Tool, which promises to “run your church database all at once.” It provides reports on what percentage of a congregation is registered to vote, what percentage actually voted in the last election, and after each election, they provide a follow up reports to track progress.
UiP was at the epicenter of a dense web of faith-based initiatives aimed at turning out conservative Christians for Trump and Pence. The religious right is not a single organization, and yet it is surprisingly well organized. It may be perceived as a grassroots movement, not answering in a formal way to a command-and-control hierarchy. But it is the big-picture strategists who are, to a largely under-appreciated degree, acting as its architects and engineers.
In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Dallas appeared on Andrew Wommack’s Truth & Liberty Coalition broadcast to discuss the Trump-Russia scandal.
“Christians, we don’t have the right to sit back and not engage. We have a duty and a responsibility,” said Dallas. “It is so important how we lay the foundation of the judges, both at the supreme court level and at the federal levels, so that we get the right judges in place.” Referring to a Christian nationalist voter awareness event, which would be taking place at Wommack’s Charis Bible College, Dallas said: “This is the Super Bowl where Christians are going to gather in our country.”
At some point in 2018, the website for United in Purpose was scrubbed. All that remained was a splash page. Nevertheless, its profile within the Christian nationalist movement continued to climb. UiP was a co-sponsor of the 2018 Values Voter Summit in Washington DC, alongside the Family Research Council and other top organizational players.
UiP also doles out awards to hard-right leaders. At a ceremony in 2017, which took place at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, awardees included the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo; Frank Gaffney, who has warned of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the conservative movement; and Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn. Other awards went to Sean Hannity and Richard Viguerie. The awards were introduced by Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the president of Liberty Consulting and the wife of supreme court justice Clarence Thomas. In 2018, it was Fox News host Mark Levin’s turn to collect UiP’s outstanding impact award.
It remains to be seen whether UiP’s visibility outside of the Christian nationalist hothouse will increase as the 2020 presidential election approaches. In early 2018, before it was taken down, a question appeared on the UiP website: “Is it possible to transform American culture by bringing together conservative Christian organizations to act in unity to reach their shared goals?” The answer was “a resounding YES”. And, it said, it was “Just getting started…‘Transformation through Unity’ is a reality that is building momentum as we look to 2018, 2020 and beyond.”
This is an edited extract from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart (Bloomsbury, $28.00) on 3 March