from the pages of December 1995

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The Promise Keepers
are on the road to stardom

By Sara Diamond

Fifty thousand men filled the Oakland, California sports coliseum and kicked off their Promise Keepers weekend men’s rally by chanting: "We love Jesus, yes we do. We love Jesus. How about you?" Thus began 17 hours worth of hand-clapping, singing, shouting, praying, weeping, and endless speeches by evangelical celebrities on the need for men to repent for neglecting their families and to, once again, take their rightful place as head of the household.

The Oakland rally was a repeat of the Promise Keepers road show that packed stadiums in 13 cities in 1995. A total of 720,000 born-again Christian men, some traveling great distances, paid $55 each to don baseball caps and polo shirts and sit in the blazing sun for hours. They must have had a motive.

There was the surface level spectacle of a standing army united to some degree by a drive to reaffirm male dominance. The Promise Keepers organization, started in 1990, is growing rapidly. It is a phenomenon worth probing because it reflects what is going on within the evangelical subculture as well as how some men are, belatedly, responding to feminism.

As an event series, the Promise Keepers idea is simple and a sure-fire draw. Legend has it that in 1990 Bill McCartney, who was then coach of the University of Colorado football team, was driving with a friend to a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes when the two hit on the idea of filling a sports stadium with Christian men. They held their first gathering of 4,200 men at the University of Colorado in 1991, then went national with 250,000 men gathering in seven sites in 1994. By 1995 the full-time staff of Promise Keepers had grown to 250, with an annual budget of $64 million.

There are some obvious keys to the success of Promise Keepers. The events bring men to familiar local sports stadiums, where they can eat hot dogs and feel like it’s just another day at the game with the guys. The speakers all dress and talk like coaches. Most of the speakers are well-known evangelical leaders, including some who have been regulars on Christian TV and radio shows for years: Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Luis Palau, Franklin Graham (son of Billy), Pastors Jack Hayford, E.V. Hill, T.D. Jakes, and Raul Ries.

The Promise Keepers events are promoted relentlessly through Christian media. This past summer, KFAX radio in the San Francisco area, along with 400 other radio stations, broadcast a 90-second "Men of Action Radio Highlight" every weekday afternoon. The popular monthly Charisma magazine, with a circulation over 100,000, was an early promoter. In 1994, Charisma’s publisher Stephen Strang started New Man, the Promiser Keepers’ own glossy bimonthly magazine; circulation: 500,000. New Man is full of easy-to-read stories about Christian athletes, happy marriages, and churches that foster inter-racial friendships.

Promise Keepers brings out the crowds through a network of 10,000 local church coordinators. Volunteers called Point Men are appointed by local pastors to link Promise Keepers with church men’s groups. Volunteer Ambassadors are recruited to introduce Promise Keepers to clergy and to encourage them to start a men’s ministry connected with the national organization. Promise Keepers does not compete with the projects of a local church. At the Oakland rally and others, men came in groups from their home churches. Some blocked off areas of the stadium so they could sit together wearing their church T-shirts.

 

Camp Meetings

At one level Promise Keepers is a form of cheap entertainment and a social gathering for the male division of the already converted. Promise Keepers has made front-page news in major newspapers because it looks to secular reporters like something new. (Or is it because any large assemblage of men must be inherently newsworthy?) This series of stadium events is part of a long tent revival tradition within the evangelical subculture. In the 1940s and 1950s evangelist Billy Graham made headlines when he began preaching to large rallies in major cities. In those years, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce of Time magazine gave Graham fawning press coverage because Graham was a strident anticommunist.

Graham continues to draw the multitudes, as do countless other preachers one rarely reads about in the secular press. The "Jesus freak" movement of the early 1970s was built through mass rallies and Christian rock concerts, some of which went on for days. Currently leaders of the charismatic movement are embroiled in a controversy over something called "holy laughter." Preachers of this phenomenon persuade the audience to experience the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" by falling to the floor and letting loose with wild laughter, sometimes for hours at a time.

Promise Keepers is a variation on the tent revival. Its goal is to revitalize evangelical churches, with a particular bent on male "leadership" and "racial reconciliation." Despite the male pastorate in evangelical churches, women attend and participate in far greater numbers. (Women are also over represented among Christian TV and radio audiences.) Promise Keepers is in part an effort to get hubby excited about going to church more often and to tap his unused time and energy for all sorts of missionary and possibly political projects.

There is also an economic incentive. Christian book publishing is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. In the past few years, Christian book stores have cleared shelf space for new "men’s issues" sections stocked with titles such as A Man’s Work is Never Done, The Man in the Mirror, and Tender Warrior.

"Racial reconciliation" is a major theme for Promise Keepers as it is now for most of the evangelical movement. This is something many progressives are loathe to recognize, because they would prefer to cast evangelicals as uniformly racist. But after decades of segregation in the churches, it is the conservative white denominations that have, for the past several years, been publicly repenting for church racism, and forging new alliances with Black church leaders. The secular press has largely ignored this story, even though it has implications for the Christian Right’s goal of racially integrating its ranks.

The Christian Coalition invites panels of African American speakers to its annual conferences, though this tokenism is not yet matched by more than a handful of people of color who attend Coalition events. But since the late 1980s, the guest lists and hosts of Christian TV shows have become increasingly integrated. Charisma magazine has published a series of articles on racial reconciliation, including a June 1995 article that was favorable toward inter-racial marriage. Rhetoric around racial reconciliation typically does not mention the political-economic roots of racial injustice. Instead, racism is portrayed as a sin of prejudice among individuals. Still, racial reconciliation offers great growth potential for church builders and for the Christian Right, which wants to absolve itself of the racist stereotype and enlist Black and Latino conservatives who oppose abortion, gay rights, and affirmative action.

Promise Keepers is playing an important role in the racial reconciliation project. Men who attend the stadium rallies pledge themselves to uphold "seven promises." These include obeying the Bible; "practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity," i.e. no extra-marital fooling around; and "building strong marriages and families." Promise #6 is to reach "beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." The Promise Keepers rallies all feature Black and Latino speakers. The crowds are mostly white men, but they are being inculcated in the virtues of crossing racial lines for a shared "family values" agenda.

 

Leaders and Servants

As an organization, Promise Keepers backs no partisan agenda. However, the group’s politics are evident. Founder Bill McCartney has been a board member of Colorado for Family Values, which sponsored that state’s 1992 anti-gay rights ballot measure. The event at the Oakland coliseum included an exhibit hall of "ministry booths." Organizations ranged from Christian father-and-son camp out groups to well-known missionary agencies to the more overtly partisan. Focus on the Family, which publishes The Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, was on hand as was the affiliated Washington, DC-based Family Research Council think tank. Exodus International, the country’s leading "ministry" to counsel gays and lesbians out of their "lifestyle" was there with pamphlets from a slew of local anti-gay church groups.

There was no political hard sell, but the message was uniformly conservative. There were no ministries for "men of integrity" who want to help men in poverty. No Sermon on the Mount stuff for these Christians.

Yet they use Jesus as their role model as it suits them. The Oakland rally was preceded by a heavily attended press conference. Coach McCartney was asked about Promise Keepers’ incessant talk about "male leadership." McCartney’s canned response, repeated by Promise Keepers president Randy Phillips, was that when they say "leadership," they intend the word in a Biblical context, meaning "servanthood." Christ led by serving his disciples. Therefore, Promise Keepers need to go home and be "servants" for their wives and kids. By dodging and weaving around "leadership" and "servanthood," Promise Keepers may encourage men to do more chores around the house. But the role model, Christ, is still King of Kings.

McCartney and Phillips were trying to maneuver the press away from the impression that Promise Keepers promotes crude, old-fashioned sexism. The impression comes through in some of the literature circulated at Promise Keepers rallies, despite the rhetorical wiggling about "servanthood."

One of the regular speakers, an African American preacher named Tony Evans, circulated a newsletter from his Urban Alternative ministry in Dallas. Evans writes that "American men are increasingly allowing themselves to be ‘sissified’.... I must lay the burden of the demise of our community and our culture directly in the hands of the feminized male.... We are raising a generation of passive men -- a generation of men who are going to raise boys that become effeminate wife beaters. We are raising boys who will beat their wives because that’s the only way they can get control." To head off this disaster, Evans tells men that if they want to "reclaim" their manhood, they must start at home, not by asking their wives to let them have their leadership role back, but by simply demanding it.

There is no way to know how many Promise Keepers are drawn by this tough-guy talk. For some, Promise Keepers may be nothing less than a last ditch effort to feel the rush of male aggression directed toward women. Others, I suspect, are trying to create for themselves a new male identity within a religious subculture that is male supremacist to the core. The "new man" may be some sort of hybrid, a mix of John Wayne, Alan Alda and Billy Graham, ready to "serve" as long as he can also still "lead." Promise Keepers allows men a place where they can still be "men only," where they can cry and repent for their sins without feeling too "girlish" because they are, after all, in a stadium with "the Coach."

In the real world, even Promise Keepers must cope with a society increasingly less tolerant of brutish men at the workplace and in politics. Like it or not, feminism has changed the way even the most fundamentalist women relate to their husbands. The economy demands that many take wage-paying jobs, and they cannot help but notice that other women succeed when they demand to be treated as equals. Even the Christian Coalition relies heavily on women chapter leaders and paid organizers. Inside their own four walls, the Promise Keepers may still reign supreme, but somehow even these goodol’ boys must live with the idea that women are more than doormats.