By Katherine Stewart
Tue 3 Mar 2020 01.00 EST
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 breakfasthas 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.”