"Reality and Rhetoric of the Promise Keepers"

by Philip Lamy
(This article first appeared in The Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus, Rutland, Vermont. October 29, 1997.)

I attended the Promise Keepers "million man" rally in the nation's capital as a filmmaker and sociologist documenting the event for the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. The rise of the Promise Keepers (PK) is yet another millennial event in the ever growing parade of new social movements--both religious and secular--that march across our culture "as the millennium turns". Supporters and critics alike point to the Promise Keepers as the "third wave" (after the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition) of a new "Great Awakening" of believers in America in anticipation of...you guessed it...the return of Christ and the end of the world. The seventh and final "Promise" of the Promise Keeper is to "be obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission" (Matthew 28:19-20), which state, respectively, "You must love him (the one Lord and God) with all your heart, soul, and strength"; and "Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples...I will be with you always until the end of the world". Many of the Promise Keepers we interviewed in DC did indeed see the gathering as a "sign of the times" that the end was near.

But these observations are obvious to those of us who are millennium watchers. What is less obvious is the struggle over the hearts and minds of PK followers and the larger public about the deeper meaning of the movement and its goals for America--a struggle fraught with contradictions. Some of these contradictions were apparent from the start of the event and throughout the afternoon. The Promises Keepers claim to be an "apolitical" organization, and that they chose Washington, DC for their gathering because it was the "spiritual center" and the "soul" of the nation. I've heard DC described as a lot of things, but never in such sacred terms. Staging a mass gathering of Evangelical Christians in the center of the nation's political capital, calling on followers to "take back America for Jesus", and broadcasting the event across the nation and the globe is hardly apolitical. The Promise Keepers share the agenda and garner much of its support from political activists within the right wing of the Republican Party, including the Christian Coalition. For example, Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney was a leader of the political campaign to single out homosexuals for legal discrimination in Colorado. Pat Robertson, founder and president of the Christian Coalition, has featured many Promise Keeper events and leaders such as McCartney on his television show, "The 700 Club". Robertson calls the Promise Keepers "a major part of God's plan for America." The list of political organizations and individuals linked to the Promise Keepers is quite extensive and easily obtained from the many groups following the evolution of the organization leading the movement.

The title of the DC event was "Stand in the Gap", presumedly the gap vacated by men in their responsibility to their wives, families, communities, churches, and to God and Jesus. Herein lies one of the main points of contention with critics and another contradiction reflected in the comments of some Promise Keepers. Many of the men and women we interviewed denied that PK philosophy meant giving men authority over women, a charge frequently made by its critics. They seemed sincere when they claimed that PK was about making men more responsible to their wives and families. One PK wife said that the movement "was about men sharing the duties of marriage and parenting, and of being fully involved in the family, not as a superior to the wife but as an equal". Another PK wife told us that "Feminists should be congratulating the Promise Keepers, not criticizing them." However, when reading the literature of the Promise Keepers and listening to the speeches from their leadership one hears something quite different. Promise Keepers "biblical" philosophy is based on a hierarchical structure in which God is male and men, created in God's image, are superior to females in the home, in the Church, and in the community. Bill McCartney has said, "I believe we've sat idle too long in this country as men abdicated the role of leadership to their wives." This was not the line enunciated by all the Promise Keepers we talked to. However, others did hold to it, which suggests that there is a "gap" in understanding among the rank and file and the leadership on this crucial issue.

Another oddity that struck me was that the event seemed less a religious gathering than a sporting event. It may be that the gap between men and women has occurred because of the American male's addiction to sports. It was hard not to notice the pervasive sport symbolism throughout the event. PK founder Bill McCartney is a former football coach of the University of Colorado. Until the DC gathering most major PK events were held in sports stadiums. In DC venders hawked all kinds of PK products and souvenirs; from the ubiquitous PK baseball caps, to coffee mugs, pendants, t-Shirts, books and tapes. It seemed that every other Promise Keeper sported the Nike "swoosh" on something he was wearing or carrying, while younger men tossed around a football or listened to college football games on their boom boxes. At one point the "wave" rolled across the masses for a few minutes. Many Promise Keeper wives, who were politely asked not to attend the rally, remained on the periphery of the event, alongside the many anti-PK groups. Not fifty yards from where the National Organization of Women's (NOW ) press conference was held, and even closer to a radical lesbian organization, PK women staged their own rally. Cheering on the men as they paraded along a main street into the mall, the women did resemble a cheerleading squad for their male heroes, many of whom raised their Bibles (instead of football helmets) in salute to the cheering ladies.

Despite the interesting sports symbolism the Promise Keepers event was pretty low key; an afternoon filled with over-long and tedious speeches, punctuated by less than stirring religious hymns, a lot of sitting around reading the Bible, quietly talking, praying and sometimes crying. It was quiet and peaceful and boring. For almost a million men that may indeed have been an accomplishment. Perhaps the PK leadership tried, successfully it seems, to play down the enthusiasm of its followers so not to offend or frighten the public and media. In part, this is why critics claim the movement is a "wolf in sheep's clothing". PK leaders talk about the grassroots nature of the movement, yet the event (like the organization itself, with a 1997 budget of $117 million) was highly controlled by media savvy consultants, technicians, and political operatives.

Fortunately there were enough counter movements and controversy on the periphery of the mall to keep the Promise Keepers on their toes. There was NOW holding rallies and press conferences challenging the alleged sexism and racism of the movement. There were radical lesbians, Atheists for the Separation of Church and State, Operation Rescue representatives carrying signs that said, "Promise Keepers are Wimps" (for being apolitical in their antiabortion attitudes), and a host of other organizations, both supporters and critics. And there were the hordes of media who conspired to make the event a spectacle with its own mass cultural and millennial promise. One of the more humorous incidents involved a small group of lesbians who doffed their bras in protest of the PK attitudes toward women and homosexuals and marched into the heart of the PK encampment baring their naked breasts. After their initial shock, more than a dozen men circled the lesbians, turned their backs to the women, and sang a religious hymn.

Perhaps the most bizarre example of the gap between followers and leadership occurred at the end of the gathering. During the day thousands of Commemorative PK Bibles stuffed with advertisements for PK books, tapes, and other products and services were given away at the event. The last speaker of the day led the masses through a reading of scripture, a final prayer, and without missing a beat, a lengthy sales pitch. He told the men to pull out one of the two PK business envelopes from the back of the Bible they had just read from and put in a donation. He urged them to give more than they might want to and to "listen to Jesus" who would tell them how much they should put in the envelope. Then he said, "Some of you may not have the money on hand, but American Express, Master Card, and Visa are welcomed." I saw more than a few Promise Keeper eyes roll and I heard a faint chorus of guffaws.

This may have been the reason that the Promise Keepers finale, which was to be a video-taped address by Billy Graham, never occurred. The PK people claim they had run out of time and the government had pulled the plug. However, some reporters speculate that the Graham organization, already a little shaky in its support for the Promise Keepers due to PK's alleged anti-denominationalism and sexist theology (Graham's daughter is an ordained minister), may have decided to can the video after this crass "biblically based" salesmanship. But these are only rumors.

Finally, it's important to note that the Promise Keepers is not an example of mass conversion occurring in the United States, despite what some Promise Keepers may say. According to Fred Clarkson, author of "Eternal Hostilities: the Struggle between Theocracy and Democracy", more than 80% of the Promise Keepers rank and file are evangelical or fundamentalist Christians. For the large part, the Promise Keepers are preaching to the converted, though they are no doubt revitalizing that faith and evangelizing to the world. The larger question concerns the nature of their social and political agenda. "Diversity in Unity" was the theme of one speech that responded to critics who charge that the Promise Keepers are exclusive of minorities and women. While the Promise Keepers exaggerated the numbers of racial and ethnic minorities at the event, diversity was apparent. (PK said one in five were minorities. My own estimate was one in twenty.) There were black, Latino, native American, and Asian American Promise Keepers. There were 3000 members of the Christian Motorcycle Association, Jews for Jesus, and Christian Lakota Sioux, who erected "Prayer Tents" for their white, black, and yellow Christian brothers to repent of their sins and rededicate themselves to Jesus. The Promise Keeper philosophy of "Unity in Diversity" seems to say that as long as you are Christian, you can practice your native culture--Cultural diversity in Christian Unity: paradox or oxymoron?

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