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Keeping an Eye on the Promise Keepers

Copyright © 1997 by Dick Gilkeson


"...middle-age guys sobbing and hugging and professing love for one another. They admit to having broken promises, they beg forgiveness-for insensitivity, for infidelity, for abandoning their children, for racial hatred, for sins as petty as reading pornography to transgressions as heinous as abusing their wives-and they swear to be Promise Keepers-with the help of the Big Guy."

Ron Stodghill II description of a PK meeting in Oct. 6 , 1997 Time Magazine

"Is Promise Keepers a new folk religion? The large mass rallies, the exaltation of emotion over reason, the lack of doctrinal integrity, the taking of oaths [the seven promises PK men are told to keep]. The focus on fatherland and fatherhood, and the ecumenical inclusion of aberrant esoteric doctrines, bears a disconcerting similarity to an era which gave rise to one of the most dreadful armies in history.

Jewel van der Merwe, European writer


The Third Great Awakening is upon us, and if Promise Keepers have their way, we're headed for transformed lives and to significant moral reform. The Second Great Awakening, which had its roots in a Call to Prayer promulgated by pastors in Northamptonshire, England in 1784 led to the conversion of thousands to Christianity and is also credited with swaying the national debate on abolition in this country.

Of course this effort is not the first in this country, nor is it the first aimed at men by a man with a background in sports. Billy Sunday organized exclusive men's tent revivals at the turn of the century, relying on high-powered sermons of "Muscular Christianity" to win the day.

Beginning in the '40s and '50s we had Billy Graham rallies. More recently when poet, storyteller, and Jungian, Robert Bly, Michael Meade and James Hillman, respectively, brought men together in gatherings at rustic retreat settings to get in touch with their "Wild Man" nature, and when Louis Farrakhan called 800,000+ men to the Million Man March, we saw the prototypes of the most recent efforts. Promise Keepers attendees have already grown from around 4200 men in 1991 to nearly 2 million this year.

Promise Keepers founder, Bill McCartney, an ex-Catholic no doubt aware of the power of guilt, has portrayed this evangelical movement as a mostly agenda-less, wholesome effort to make men behave and atone for the ills of the world, which he blames exclusively on men. His events have a simple purpose: to bring men together to promise to be better fathers, husbands, brothers, friends and Christians. Renewal in pledging men's best efforts to honor God and meet their God-given "leadership" responsibilities in their families and communities, and their best efforts at "racial reconciliation" consisting of repairing relationships, are also parts of the mostly benign agenda.

McCartney says that "Promise Keepers is about helping men see a picture, giving them concrete goals and helping them move toward those goals, whether that's spending more time with their children, learning to honor their word to their wives, or learning to own up to failure on the job. It is about becoming men of integrity, because integrity is impossible without keeping promises."

McCartney's focus is on men, because he sees men as the gender with moral problems, the gender more likely to break marriage vows through adultery or violence, or to abandon their children. "Men are impregnating young women in record numbers and leaving them to deal with the consequences-a stint on welfare, an education cut short, or a trip to an abortion clinic. Men are also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and then engage in a wide range of criminal behavior. Indeed, it is men, overwhelmingly, who commit most of the nation's violent crimes and dominate its prison system: At least 94 percent of all inmates are male," according to McCartney.

"Social problems are moral problems, which ultimately have a spiritual cause," and McCartney's goal is to have men "leave with a new resolve, saying, 'I'm gonna take responsibility, and it's gonna show up in the church, in the community, in the workplace.'" Christian values define the Godly course to overcome the problems of poverty, illegitimacy, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, and disease. Sign up, or go straight to hell and take the country down with you, seem to be the only options.

"In my view, every society needs the restraint of the people of God, who act as bulwarks against people's ill-informed and destructive choices, like offensive linemen protecting the quarterback," McCartney instructs, using the football analogies that remind listeners that he once coached a national champion college football team. "Today, more than ever, America needs men who will 'stand in the gap' and stand against a culture that mocks commitment, sacrifice, and virtue."

McCartney's game plan, aimed at strengthening local congregations and bringing men and masculinity back into the churches, is to 1)use stadium conferences to challenge men to rededicate their lives to Christ; 2) to establish men's ministries that give pastors the tools to challenge men to grow in their faith and in their ability to live out the promises they make to their wives, children, and churches; and, 3) to see men become significantly involved in their congregations and local communities.

With these kinds of stated goals and purposes aimed at increased prayer and social responsibility, how then could Joseph Hough, the Dean of Vanderbilt University and William Howard, President of New York Theological Seminary challenge Promise Keepers by warning the nation's churches of potential dangers? How could the National Organization of Women pass a resolution declaring the movement "the greatest danger to women's rights?"

Perhaps it is rooted in McCartney's open support for Amendment 2 in Colorado, which opposed various gay-rights laws, or his insistence that men exclusively lead their families' spiritual lives, rather than stand side-by-side with their spouses, or his religious bigotry apparent when he claims that "The only way God can be worshipped is through Jesus Christ. There is no other way."

If the roots of the basic issues were all related to McCartney and his personal values, simply shooting the messenger might have served to discredit the man and to cast doubts on the Promise Keepers mission; however, the concerns go much deeper.

McCartney, along with his "Face-to-Face" partners developed the themes, and got the parade moving. Original funding, as well as help which continues today in publishing the Promise Keeper's key guide, The Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, came from religious extremist, Dr. James Dobson, whose simplistic, exclusionary, divisive and alarmingly sectarian views have been shielded under the "Focus on the Family" banner flown by his own $100 million organization. Dobson claims that this is a "Christian nation" that should be "ruled" by fundamentalist Christians and their doctrines. He is a member in the Alexandria-based Council for National Policy, a conservative strategy group inspired by leaders in the John Birch Society, believed to be trying to create a concentration of power aimed at replacing the traditional power centers in the U.S.

Stretching his credibility, Promise Keepers President Randy Phillips has said that "neither Dobson nor (Pat) Robertson (Christian Coalition head and an enthusiastic Promise Keeper supporter) has any impact on Promise Keepers' planning, strategy or message development; "however, since the Promise Keeper guidebook contains a chapter by Dobson, and he remains closely tied to Promise Keepers, the issue is problematic at best.

Other detractors, who refer to the group as the "Penis Keepers," or "Power Keepers," point to the messages which reinforce "God's way," where wives submit to their husbands based on the verse of the Bible that suggests that as Christ is to the church, man is to woman. There is a "Promise Keepers Statement of Faith," which includes a basic tenet of fundamentalism: that the Bible is the literal word of God; "that the Bible is God's written revelation to man and that it is verbally inspired, authoritative, and without error in the original manuscripts." McCartney says that husbands are meant to "serve" their wives and be prepared to lay down their lives for them in explaining how men lead. Other Promise Keeper speakers, notably Tony Evans, tells women they should submit for "the survival of the culture." The fact remains that only one woman is known to be on the Promise Keepers payroll of 360 or so employees at this time.

Patricia Ireland and other NOW leaders are concerned that reliance on the Bible's messages regarding women as followers and the like are threats to the gains made by feminists.

Having turned to men's groups, Bly retreats, and other related events to find more meaning for myself and to join with other men to break my own isolation and develop new and deeper friendships with them, I understand the hopes that the now millions of Promise Keepers have in the visions of a better society, one with restored economic stability, of connection and purpose.

At our men's events and at many religious events, the hat is passed. Promise Keepers, by contrast, regularly charge upwards of $70 per man for their events, except, of course, when they want sheer numbers as in the Washington, D.C. event, which was free. They have already grossed over $100 million in 1997, and grossed $16 million in merchandise sales alone last year. The average event attendee now spends about $15 on hats and the like. It is clearly a big business, targetting the middle class, and last year ranked seventh out of 850 evangelical groups in operating income - right behind the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. Their surveys have revealed that the median family income for their supporters is around $48,000. Their mailing list alone, a chief engine of modern politics, is no-doubt worth its weight in gold.

The "parade" analogy I proposed earlier captures my major concerns. I worry that the parade started by McCartney and relying on the word of God to shepherd it in the right direction, might not be able to keep away those who would jump in front and try to steer it in their own direction. More concerned worriers fear that the Promise Keepers are already a part of a Trojan-horse strategy formulated by the religious right exemplified by Dobson's Focus on the Family, Robertson's 700 Club, Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ, Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, as well as Jerry Falwell's messages.

When Falwell wrote of a 1995 Promise Keepers rally he hosted, "It appears that America's anti-Biblical feminist movement is at last dying, thank God, and is possibly being replaced by a Christ centered men's movement," or when Bill Bright said that "wives should be treated with love and respect and included in decision making, but the man is the head of the household and women are responders" or that Supreme Court decisions have too "sharply defined the separation of church and state" in matters such as state-sponsored prayer in schools or the teaching of evolution rather than creationism, I winced. Whether or not the movement is simply a spiritual revival, or is intended to build numbers with the goal of influencing public and social policy, will those in the middle or the back of the parade know when the direction has been changed? It's awfully hard to see through a million men and know who is up front, or who is influencing the directions.

It is also particularly difficult to determine right wing agendas in an age where leaders have developed media savvy and political correctness and are able to create comfort zones by speaking of inexplicit notions everyone can get behind such as "individual responsibility," or "immoral" behaviors; where neutral "reconciliation" is carefully used rather than controversial "equality "or "integration;" where "leadership" becomes "servanthood;" where membership is in a "holy race" superseding all other racial issues; where "traditional" is code for patriarchy; where men gather in football stadiums and eat hot dogs and cokes; where the speakers are all cheer leading "coaches;" where baseball caps and T-shirts are the uniforms that erase class distinctions; where men sing, do the wave, or even cry knowing the "coach" is there to make it OK; or where abortion and homosexuality as issues are now carefully avoided; and where minorities are recruited to overcome the image of white fundamentalists as intolerant bigots, and to strategically gain a foothold in the Black community.

It's apparent that overt agendas are not the order of the day as the structure is being put in place. The large rallies are reminiscent of the free EST and Lifesprings recruiting meetings where prospects were regaled with stories of how those who had signed on had been profoundly helped.

Presumably, once the structure is in place, and the dollars have been accumulated (Christian book publishing alone is a multi-billion dollar a year industry), we may expect to see prophetic agents of God leading thousands of others disciplined and primed to obey the Lord's commands, which will no doubt be "morally "rather than "politically" motivated. Watchdogs are expecting the wider goals of the secular and Christian Right, such as outlawing abortion and homosexuality, or dismantling public schools, to be adopted by Promise Keepers.

Conrad Goringer, a freelance writer, points out that the Promise Keeper approach shares most of the qualities associated with dangerous cults:

  1. The cultish admiration and worship of a strong leader.
  2. Use of mass spectacle as an instrument of proselytizing.
  3. Construction of a totalistic ideology.
  4. Division of the world into good and evil.
  5. Suspension of skepticism, critical judgment, and disbelief and the pressure to conform.
  6. Fabrication of a crisis, or last days mentality, which defines the actions of the group.
To these six I would add the power of taking an oath for life.

The grass-roots infrastructure that the believers are building is working to recruit and motivate leaders with an emphasis on discipline, command, and control. "Ambassadors," who report directly to Promise Keepers headquarters in Denver, and "key men" supervised by ambassadors and appointed by pastors at churches all across the country are being given Promise Keeper leadership training in areas such as public speaking. The key men, whose mission is to oversee Promise Keeper activities in each of the country's 400,000 Christian congregations, to create a "male context" in their churches, and to actively foster the creation of small groups of motivated recruits, have already formed at least 8000 groups. The goal is to have at least 200,000 key men, and 40,000 ambassadors in place, by the year 2000.

The disciplined military-style hierarchies being created are modeled after the Word of God community which surfaced in the 1960s and which increasingly demanded more control over adherents' personal lives and family matters. ("Shepherding" as used by these people was a cult-style close supervision of all personal activities including leisure activities, finances, politics, intimate marital details, and the like). Apparently Promise Keepers are replacing shepherds with cell (sell?) groups of no fewer than three and no more than five other Promise Keepers who will meet weekly to pray, account for their actions, and mature as Christians by sharing their day-to-day decisions about all areas of their lives.

Suzanne Pharr, who has watched carefully and chronicled the progress of the Right in this country, warns that the structure is being built, under the guise of addressing men's spiritual longings and hopes for pathways out of the current cultural chaos, to facilitate very real fascism. The movement "threatens democracy by blurring the distinction between church and state, and dividing the country along gender and religious lines, " claims Alfred Ross, executive director of the Center for Democratic Studies. Chip Berlet, who is writing a book about right wing populism and scapegoating suggests that every time the demand arises that the people who hold power and privilege in society share it, those in power make an effort to redefine who "we" are as opposed to "them."

McCartney has begun to focus the basic conflict between the religious right and the left. His detractors will continue to label him power-hungry, bigoted, ignorant and politically motivated. His followers will, no doubt label detractors as the devil's advocates, sent by the devil to once again try to thwart God's way, as evidenced by the current state of our society. The battle is being pitched. Will we recognize fascism when it is supported by millions of men and their supportive wives who will be calling it "God's way," and claiming that God is on their side?

Having watched the mythopoetic men's movement divide when the New Warriors were trained and returned to their old men's groups creating their own "deeper" subgroups, I can predict that increased Promise Keeper activity will begin to divide the congregations of mainline churches. If the war rhetoric used by McCartney and other Promise Keeper leaders accurately captures their approach, a divide and conquer strategy should surprise nobody. A focus on personal rather than denominationalized faith, although touted as useful for biblical unity, is more likely to create sharp rifts. Many clergymen opposing Promise Keepers are nevertheless willing to work with them, fearing their men might otherwise be more attracted to the para-church than to their own denomination.

Promise Keepers are now well represented in the Armed Forces Chaplaincy. The implications of this positioning are a bit chilling when mutiny against the Constitution seems possible. At least three retired military officers, Richard Abel (who has doing "wake-up calls" throughout the active military), Chuck Stecker (who is introducing Promise Keepers in the military), and Jim Pack (a psychological warfare expert), have been hired by Promise Keepers.

Call me the devil's advocate, and try to discredit my concerns if you wish. I would like little more than to believe that we men could become conscious, (not deliberately conditioned), and be able to share with our mates and friends the responsibility for building a new society. I would really enjoy being able to accept that no one with political agendas will be able to jump in front of the parade. God knows, we all share the hope that we can turn this country around and solve many of the problems that McCartney has pointed us toward. Each of us has part of the solution within us, and prayer or other forms of meditation combined with the support of others, may well lead us each to take responsibility for moving ahead in positive directions.

My challenge is for men to seriously question this organization that presents itself as building "men of integrity." Author Frederick Clarkson warns that "there is a great deal of opportunistic double talk. Love your wife, (but demand submission). Serve your pastor, (but undermine his denomination). Seek racial unity, (but only among the biblically correct). Gather in Washington, D.C. (but claim it's not political). Bring Christian love to the world (and prepare for war)." Use Christ as the ultimate model of the Godly man, but neglect references to him as the "Prince of Peace."

Beware of those who would shepherd us with their own agendas. The mechanisms are being built to facilitate control by few over the many. They may well be being put in place with the best of intentions. Never doubt that there are people out there who will be trying to use the structures to further their own ideologies. Even the threat of political action may be a viable tool given the ticket sales and numbers the organization is building. Have faith if you must that Promise Keepers will be kept free of people seeking political power, but don't close your eyes as you pray.

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