WASHINGTON, D.C.-Barrett Duke's path to Washington insider began in a grocery store parking lot. It was 1976, America's bicentennial, and Duke was a drug addict living in party-friendly New Orleans.
God, church, politics, and culture-all destined to play key roles in Duke's future-were not foremost in his 22-year-old mind. He had barely graduated from high school four years earlier, and he was well on his way to becoming a victim of the Big Easy's culture of excess.
In a Winn-Dixie parking lot Duke ran into a friend, Dick Flores, who had vanished from the drug scene. Before Duke could invite him to the next drug score, Flores explained his absence this way: "I've found something that truly makes me happy and it never wears off."
"What is it," Duke asked. "God came into my life and gave me peace for the first time."
Duke, first saying he was happy that Flores had found something that worked for him, quickly added: "But that is not for me."
God had other plans. This casual encounter began a deep work of conviction in Duke's life. "I used to party with him all the time," Duke kept thinking. "I remembered what his life was like, and he now was a transformed individual." Several months later, Duke attended his first Bible study. Six months after he professed faith in Christ, Duke was leading two Bible studies of his own.
Today, despite commanding the attention of the nation's top lawmakers, Duke does not hold a public policy degree. He is not a lawyer. And he is likely one of the few people regularly walking the corridors of Congress with a master's degree in Old Testament theology. As the main Washington lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Duke is charged with being the policy voice in the nation's capital for the country's more than 16 million Southern Baptists.
Duke does not discount the labyrinth journey he took to get here.
In New Orleans he learned firsthand how a permissive culture could devastate someone missing a strong moral compass. And he says his biblical training, which also includes a doctorate in Religious and Theological Studies, helps him tackle present-day policy issues. "If you want to know what God thinks about humans living in society, you read the Old Testament and see how God dealt with the nation of Israel," Duke said. "Why would we expect Him to deal differently with us?"
Duke's visceral sense of secular culture's power was reinforced during his 12-year tenure as pastor of a new Baptist church in Denver that began in 1984. There Duke discovered a disconnection between how his congregation acted in church and how they lived during the rest of the week. "It was clear to me that the culture had invaded the church," Duke said.
He began shepherding his flock toward a more active role in local community issues such as abortion.
Then in 1997 Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, provided Duke with an opportunity to engage in the public policy debate on a bigger stage. A former professor at Criswell College in Dallas where Duke earned his undergraduate degree, Land remembered Duke as one of his top students in 13 years of teaching. Land thought Duke would be a good fit for the commission's director of conferences and seminars.
Duke moved his family from Denver to Nashville, where he began writing and speaking about issues from capital punishment to stem-cell research for a nationwide audience of Southern Baptists. Duke found that exploring these issues often took him to Washington and, in 2003, Duke relocated to the Capital Beltway full-time as the commission's vice president for public policy and research.
Operating out of an office just a couple of blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Duke meets directly with lawmakers and their staffs to promote a Christian worldview. While protecting life tops Duke's agenda, he addresses a wide variety of issues: he lobbies for both securing the borders and a path to legal status for illegal immigrants; he favors a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget limited to 20 percent of GDP; he has pressed for a federal Marriage Protection Amendment to the Constitution.
Last year he fought against both the healthcare overhaul and the repeal of the policy preventing gays from openly serving in the military. Duke is also pushing for greater federal funding for internet firewall-breaching technology so people around the world can have free access to information without government censorship. "There is hardly an area that doesn't need Christian moral witnesses," Duke said.
Duke is quick to say that he is not a political junkie. But Land, his boss, thinks that is a plus in a city where politicians are often idolized. "He is immune to the Beltway mentality," Land said. "Barrett Duke knows in his bone marrow that he is there to represent the Lord Jesus Christ and Southern Baptists, not himself. I never have to worry about him getting that confused."
Along the way, Duke has earned the real world equivalent of an advanced degree in public policy: The ideological divide in Washington means lawmakers have many different views on how to solve the world's problems. When Duke first arrived, he thought he could sit down with lawmakers and carry the day by the force of his convictions and arguments. After seven years he has learned that the real question many lawmakers ask is: How many votes do you represent?
"Movement here in D.C. is more a matter of pure political pressure than it is winning minds," Duke said.
That is why he devotes a bulk of his job to convincing the 16 million Southern Baptist voices he represents that they need to get louder. It is the same challenge he encountered as a Denver pastor. He credits the annual March For Life rally in Washington for pushing the House this year to pass several pro-life bills.
"If Bible-believing Christians would decide that what happens in Washington, D.C., matters," said Duke, "most of these issues would be resolved in a way that would bring honor to the Lord."