An inside look at the evangelical men's movement
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.
What brought out the opposition, I suspect, was not the essays in Seven Promises or even what was being said at the gatherings so much as the controversial politics of Bill McCartney. The charismatic coach first made headlines back in the mid-'80s when he battled the American Civil Liberties Union over his practice of leading the team in pregame prayer. His notoriety reached a peak in 1992 during the debate over Amendment 2, a state ballot question aimed at blocking civil rights guarantees for gays and lesbians. After McCartney authorized the amendment's sponsor, Colorado for Family Values, to use his name and affiliation on its fund-raising letters, the university received complaints about this apparent violation of policy. The coach agreed to ask the anti-gay rights crusaders to drop his name from their printed materials and called a news conference to make the announcement. There, McCartney proceeded to urge Coloradans to support Amendment 2 and termed homosexuality 'an abomination of almighty God.' This prompted campus protests and a reprimand from the university president. U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) called McCartney a 'self-anointed ayatollah.But McCartney seems to be more enigma than ayatollah. At the same time that he was taking his civil rights?denying stance regarding gays, he was a vocal and demonstrative supporter of racial equality -- the only head coach in Division I-A, in fact, to have on his staff as many black coaches as white. And when he resigned in January 1995, and his longtime assistant Bob Simmons was passed over for a less-experienced white replacement, McCartney sided with an unlikely ally, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, in charging racism.
I was guessing that Promise Keepers, McCartney's current focus, was similarly complex. There was only one way to find out what was really going on.
The unmoving line of cars ahead of me must extend all the way to the gates of heaven. At least it seems that way. It's 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning in October, I've just hit a freeway ramp traffic jam at the Texas Stadium exit, and from the looks of things I ought to be inside for the second day of the event by, oh, around noon.
On the radio I hear that chant: 'We love Jesus, yes we do...' I park my car and walk the half-mile to the stadium. Surveying the scene outside, I notice that there are no protesters. No message-toting airplane circling the stadium. Well, there are two signs: I NEED TICKETS, held by a guy who looks like he thinks he's outside a Dead show, and MEN OF GOD: I NEED A JOB, held by a neatly dressed black man of 40 or so who is offered encouragement by men in the passing, mostly white, crowd.
In the parking lots nearest the main stadium gates are a few large tents -- one for registration (a surprisingly reasonable $55, including two meals), one for dispensing literature about related organizations (Christian Men's Network, Focus on the Family, etc.), one for selling Promise Keepers books and merchandise. These tents and other projects of the day -- such as setting up 45,000 box lunches -- are being run almost exclusively by women. 'We're all here as volunteers supporting this ministry and the men in our lives,' says the middle-aged woman behind the cash register. 'I'm here with my husband. This is his second event, and after the last one he was a changed person. Attentive. Positive attitude. Closer to God. So I'm happy to help an organization that has had such a positive effect on our marriage.'
As I finally enter the stadium, Christian Men's Network president Edwin Cole steps to the microphone and launches into a fire-and-brimstone sermon preaching celibacy until marriage. For a while Cole sounds -- dare I say it? -- positively feminist as he talks about how respect for women is lost when a man is pursuing sex without love. Then, suddenly, per Cole's request, dozens of young men all around the stadium are standing to take a vow of chastity, and nearby men are moving closer to them to lay a hand of support on their bodies, all heads nodded in prayer.
The only overtly political statement of the weekend comes in the conference's very first speech, by pastor Greg Laurie. 'When a man makes a promise to his wife -- a marriage vow -- and doesn't keep it, he is teaching her not to trust him,' he says. 'And isn't it true that we have a problem like this with some of our leaders today?' Wild applause. 'I see some of you are ahead of me,' says Laurie with a smile.
That shared humor at the president's expense reveals something about these men that I have trouble overlooking: When push comes to shove, these and the thousands of other Promise Keepers are likely to pull voting-booth levers to abolish abortion or curtail gay rights. Ultimately, these men are a voting block -- an evangelical Christian voting block.
Still, this is a complex gathering. Gary Smalley -- the president of Today's Family, whom you may have seen on late-night cable TV hawking his better-relationships videotape series through infomercials featuring couples such as Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford -- is responsible for one of the most moving moments of the weekend. At the time I am standing in the press box, high above the playing field. Smalley is finishing up on the topic of expressiveness in marriage, and he asks the men to break into groups of four or five to discuss pet peeves and possibilities.
In small groups, the men come alive -- even in the press box, where a couple of small groups form to discuss marital issues. I've never seen reporters participate in anything like this. For the next 15 minutes I'm stunned by all the heartfelt discussions of romance and communication. This doesn't look like a bunch of guys working toward becoming tyrants in their households.Throughout the weekend, as conference speakers delve deeper and deeper into issues that tear couples and families apart -- a husband or father being emotionally distant or neglecting his responsibilities is among the common ones -- I notice that some of the men seem to be fighting back tears, while a few have no fight left: They're crying freely as the men around them offer the comfort of a touch, an embrace, or a quiet word.
Near the end of the weekend, when Chuck Swindoll, president of the Dallas Theological Seminary, leads the men through the seven promises that this conference is all about, there's a hush in the stadium. He explains, step by step, precisely what it means for a man to commit himself to, say, 'pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.' The discussion-and-response process is slow and thoughtful, and it downshifts noticeably when Swindoll gets to Promise Number Six: 'A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.'
'This one may be an especially difficult one for men raised in the South,' Swindoll says. 'So think about it, and do not commit to this or any promise unless you can keep it. This is what being a Promise Keeper is all about.'
The organization does take an uncharacteristically progressive approach to the difficult issue of racial reconciliation. 'I've been at Promise Keepers meetings where men have broken down and cried and renounced their prejudice and hatred,' says the Reverend Edgar Vann Jr., pastor of the Second Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Detroit. 'You just don't often see that in the church.'
After spending a weekend with Promise Keepers, I believe that the organization's commitment to these issues is sincere. I was made to feel accepted in my every contact with the Promise Keepers staff, conference participants, and Christian reporters in the press box -- even after I would identify myself as an editor at, gulp, New Age Journal.
Still, whenever a Promise Keeper drew me into a discussion -- on anything from culture to theology -- I would get the feeling I was talking to a brick wall. A friendly and talkative brick wall, but an unmovable object nonetheless. It was either his Scripture-based worldview -- homosexuality as an abomination, the husband as 'leader' in the home -- or... splat.
Promise Keepers president Randy Phillips maintains that that 'leadership' role is deeper and better than male chauvinism. 'It comes down to whether you understand what it is to be a spiritual leader, which we define in the person of Jesus Christ,' he says. 'What did Jesus do to respond to the needs of others? He gave his life for others. So, from a biblical perspective, a spiritual leader is not one who lords authority over others; spiritual leadership is the absolute commitment to serve and to honor. It means involving yourself in the life of your wife, hearing her needs and responding to those needs, just like Jesus responded to our needs... There is responsibility in providing spiritual initiative and there is authority in carrying out those responsibilities, but it is expressed through a servant's heart.'
With rhetoric like that, notes the Reverend Priscilla Inkpen, a United Church of Christ minister from Boulder who has been one of the group's more prominent opponents, 'It's difficult to be 100 percent critical of the Promise Keepers. I think they are speaking to an important need: for men to take responsibility. A lot of men need to learn that, and Promise Keepers seems to be touching a nerve with many. But... you have to ask: What nerve are they touching? Is it men's hunger to be present in their relationships with their wives and children? Or is it the hunger to be on top?'
Jeff Wagenheim is a contributing editor of New Age Journal.
Excerpted with permission from New Age Journal, (March/April 1995).