Among the Promise Keepers

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.

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).

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