THE REBEKAH HOME FOR GIRLS SITS ON A LONELY STRETCH OF SOUTH TEXAS FARMLAND, a solitary spot where, amid the switchgrass and sagebrush and fields of cotton, young sinners are sent to get right with God. On a warm Saturday in May 1999, a sixteen-year-old named DeAnne Dawsey unexpectedly found herself at its doors. Her mother had said only that their family trip to Corpus Christi would last the day, and DeAnne had no reason to doubt her. Summer felt within reach, and DeAnne was relieved that her sophomore year of high school, which she was in danger of failing, was about to end. She was a slight girl with blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair who always wore a diamond-studded heart necklace. An inveterate flirt—“All she thought about was boys,” her mother would later lament—DeAnne never ignored an admiring glance. Normally she was too restless to stay still for long, but that morning she was in a dark mood: She and her boyfriend had quarreled the night before, and she sat brooding in the back seat of her mother’s car, lost in thought.
She was so preoccupied that she shrugged off a telling remark that her grandfather, who was traveling with them, had made after leaving Houston. Like DeAnne’s mother, he did not know much about the Rebekah Home for Girls or its history: that it was the most famous, and infamous, of the homes for troubled teenagers founded by the late evangelist Lester Roloff; or that punitive “Bible discipline” was the method used to chasten girls who had fallen from grace; or that the home had been the center of an epic, twelve-year battle between church and state—culminating in a standoff that Roloff called the Christian Alamo—in which the maverick preacher and his successors fought to avoid regulation by the State of Texas. But DeAnne’s grandfather felt guilty enough for lying to her about the purpose of the day’s trip that he turned in his seat to face her. “I’m sorry we’re doing this to you,” he said softly. “I’m so sorry.”
AT THE HEART OF LESTER ROLOFF’S BATTLE with the state of texas were his homes for troubled teenagers: reformatories where “parent-hating, Satan-worshiping, dope-taking immoral boys and girls,” as Roloff described his charges, were turned into “faithful servants of the Lord.” Roloff’s method of Bible discipline, which he said was rooted in Scripture, meant kneeling for hours on hardwood floors, licks meted out with a pine paddle or a leather strap, and the dreaded “lockup,” an isolation room where Roloff’s sermons were played for days on end. The state spent much of the seventies and early eighties fighting Roloff in court, insisting that he obtain a license for his youth homes and submit to state oversight. The preacher countered that he answered to a higher power and that his homes were licensed by God. Not until 1985 did the state prevail, forcing the Rebekah Home to shut its doors. At the time, no one anticipated that the political capital of faith-based social programs would rise dramatically in the next decade, or that Roloff’s beliefs, which were far afield of the religious mainstream, would gain a new foothold. But in 1997 then-governor George W. Bush put forth a legislative package that included precisely what Roloff had long fought for: allowing church-run child-care institutions to opt out of state licensing. By 1999 the Rebekah Home was back in business—and the stories of DeAnne Dawsey’s troubled adolescence, Lester Roloff’s crusade, and George W. Bush’s political career would converge.
Lester Roloff, the man behind this long struggle,