Among the Promise Keepers

An inside look at the evangelical men's movement

The jam-packed stadium is a stunning spectacle of men, smiling and back-slapping men, cheering and foot-stomping men, good old boys alongside bad-looking hombres. There are father and son pairs everywhere -- some with Dad in his 30s, others in which Junior looks to be about that age. There are bearded, scraggly bikers in black leather, their Harleys parked out in the lot -- probably right next to the Chrysler minivans that brought in the groups of clean-scrubbed athletic types dressed in caps and T-shirts bearing football team insignias, looking like they've come to Texas Stadium to root for its home team, the Dallas Cowboys.

But this crowd's Sunday hero doesn't wear shoulder pads and a helmet. That point is being made loud and clear by a chant arising from one section of sideline seats and rocking the place all the way to the upper deck: 'We love Jesus, yes we do,' a thousand men are proclaiming in one voice. 'We love Jesus, how 'bout you?' Cheers of spirited affirmation explode from the other sideline, followed by an answer: 'We love Jesus, yes we do...'

Promise Keepers is a puzzle. What to make of an organization that seems to combine the men's movement of Robert Bly with the conservative Christianity of Pat Robertson? Perhaps this Bible-based work fills a void for men who feel safer in the sanctity of their inner holy man than in the company of that threatening wild man. But could the group also be a shrewdly disguised vehicle for furthering the political agenda of the religious right?

Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney, who until recently served as head coach of the University of Colorado football team. With the same fiery faithfulness he used to elevate the Buffaloes into college football's elite, McCartney has transformed his weekly prayer and fellowship group of 72 men into an organization that today has twice that many employees. After holding men's conferences in Boulder in each of its first three summers and achieving its goal of filling 50,000-seat Folsom Field in 1993, Promise Keepers took the show on the road in 1994, reaching nearly 300,000 men in seven stadiums around the country. The 1995 schedule included 13 stadium-sized events that attracted more than 700,000 men. The organization is trying to ride its runaway momentum to draw a million men to a gathering in Washington in 1996.

How to explain this group's burgeoning growth? Looking for answers, I bought a copy of Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, a collection of essays that has become the Promise Keepers' second bible. Though most of what the book's numerous contributors write is loving, commitment-affirming guidance, there are passages here and there that you definitely won't find excerpted in Ms. magazine.

Instructing husbands how to reclaim their manhood, for instance, pastor Tony Evans writes: 'The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: 'Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.' Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. I'm not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back... Be sensitive. Listen. Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead!'

That's a stance that spooks feminists. And gays are nervous about the ramifications of the group's position statement that 'homosexuality violates God's creative design for a husband and a wife and... is a sin.' Protests have dogged each summer's Promise Keepers gathering in Boulder, the acrimony coming to a head in 1993 when the group filled Folsom Field for the first time.

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