News & Politics

Promise Keepers: Christian Men's Movement Making a Comeback?

The Promise Keepers -- a conservative men's group -- is focusing on women, the poor and Jews.

If it seems like it was another century, that’s because it was: almost twelve years ago Promise Keepers – then the most visible and audacious of Christian men’s organization – brought nearly one million men to Washington, D.C. to a rally called “Stand in the Gap.” The organization was hotter than the Jonas Brothers are today; okay, well maybe not that hot. The more men – and we are not talking “girly men” here – the Denver, Colorado-based Promise Keepers brought out to football stadiums and sports arenas around the country, the more buzz-worthy it became. And the more buzz-worthy it became, the more the mainstream media glommed onto its every move. The more the mainstream media publicized its work, the more its leadership crowed about its successes.

However, not long after unveiling ambitious plans for growing its operations, the organization imploded; leaders left – including PK founder, former University of Colorado head football coach, Bill McCartney -- staff was laid off, events were cancelled, and the organization’s ambitious goals were deeply downsized. While in 1996, more than 1.1 million men participated in events at stadiums across the country, by 2006, only 132,000 attended 18 conferences.

According to the Associated Press, “Tax forms … show[ed] steadily declining gifts, grants and contributions … - from $15 million in 2002 to $9 million in 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available.”

For some, the only visible evidence that the organization actually existed was a Promise Keepers mug or key chain buried in a trunk in the garage. Or, perhaps one might be able to hustle up a dog-eared copy of New Man, the group’s flagship publication.

Promise Keeper makeover?

"It's not about changing Promise Keepers. We're just calling men to rally around the righteous as the days get more difficult." – Bill McCartney

In September of last year, AP reported that Coach McCartney had returned to the organization as chief executive officer and chairman of the ministry. The group also announced that former Promise Keepers executive Raleigh Washington would serve as the organization’s president. During his time away from PK, McCartney founded an organization called “The Road to Jerusalem,” whose purpose, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006, was “to hasten the end times.” “The Bible says Jews will be brought to jealousy when they see Christians and Jewish believers together as one — they’ll want to be a part of that. That’s going to signal Jesus’ return,” he pointed out.

Now, twenty years after its founding, Promise Keepers is gearing up for a 20th anniversary celebration scheduled for July 31- August 1 at Folsom Field on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. According to its website, Promise Keepers will be “returning to its roots,” by holding a one-time-only day-and-a-half conference titled “A Time to Honor.”

And, “For the first time, men and women are invited.”

“This year we are calling men to bring the women in their lives. To celebrate our 20th year of ministry, we are called to do three things: honor our wives, daughters, and sisters, be a tangible blessing to the poor and oppressed, and embrace our Messianic Jewish brothers as our spiritual fathers in the faith.” Although the price of the event is $59.00, PK announced its intention not to turn anyone away, making registrations available for “what you can afford.”

In a letter to supporters, McCartney pointed out “that God has called PK on an extraordinary journey of change in 2009. … [during which] we'll see the beginnings of the greatest move of God in our lifetimes -- a move God showed me recently after a five year pursuit to learn his will.” According to McCartney, the goal is “to revisit three key priorities embraced by the first century church. These priorities are also embraced in the Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper”:

* Proverbs 31:31: They celebrated virtuous women at the city gates. We expect men to invite thousands of women to "A Time to Honor." This will be powerful. We need to rally around women and raise the bar for what it is to be virtuous. The next generation must have a true model for womanhood.

* Acts 2:43-48: They shared their resources equally. As the days get more difficult, the church that is truly anointed will be one that opens its arms to the less fortunate. We want to catalyze men to serve the poor, the oppressed and the needy through their local church.

* I Corinthians 4:15: Honoring the Spiritual Fathers of the Faith. Paul said that though we may have countless teachers in the faith, we will not have many fathers. And he became our father through the Gospel. We want to honor the Jewish Believers who are the spiritual fathers of our faith.

"The ministry has been on a downward spiral. Our staff and our resources are really limited," said McCartney. "We felt like we wanted to have all hands on deck for the Boulder event, and we feel like it will relaunch the ministry."

“It certainly seems that the PK are using their 20th anniversary as an opportunity to revive the men's movement, seen most prominently in their reference to Proverbs 31, one of the key verses of Scripture cited by members of the self-described Christian "patriarchy" movement, which advocates strict adherence to biblical gender roles,” Kathryn Joyce, the author of “Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement” (Beacon Press, 2009), told AlterNet.

“Within patriarchy, and its more mainstream counterpart, complementarianism (which promotes ‘complementarian,’ rather than egalitarian, roles for husbands and wives), Proverbs 31describes the attributes and responsibilities that a godly, submissive wife should have, and states that such a virtuous woman is more valuable than rubies -- a sentiment that is echoed in the title of one of the oldest magazines of ‘biblical womanhood,’" Above Rubies,” Joyce pointed out.

“Promise Keepers' reference to this well-known verse seems an obvious effort to tap into the widespread network of biblical womanhood ministries and teachings across conservative evangelical churches, which has flourished as the PK brand fell into obscurity over the past ten years. At the same time, they also seem to be making a token gesture towards the softer style of ‘new evangelicals,’ such as megachurch pastor Rick Warren, with their emphasis on alleviating poverty -- though true to other conservative evangelical work on poverty, they seem to promote a church-driven charity model rather than a systematic solution. Similarly, their problematic reference to Christianity's Jewish roots, which recalls many conservative Christian efforts to construct a common ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage, seems like a familiar evangelical stand against secularism or religious pluralism, even as the Promise Keepers maintain a facade of respect for other religious traditions,” Joyce added.

“What we see in McCartney's eschatology is a move out of classic Dispensationalism,” Bruce Wilson, the co-founder of the blog Talk2Action, told AlterNet. According to his “brand of Christian Zionism, Christians can try to move the hands of the prophetic clock, to hasten the end time. Perhaps McCartney's ‘Road To Jerusalem’ project “flopped because he was too blunt about wanting to do that.” The more well-known Pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United For Israel, “declared the US invasion of Iraq would cause a Muslim army of millions to attack Israel (Hagee was a supporter of the US invasion), he tries to maintain he's not trying to hasten the end-time and has said that trying to advance the prophetic clock is ‘off the charts theologically,’" Wilson added.

As part of the pre-celebration prep, PK is “recruiting ‘5400 Watchmen on the Wall’ warring male and female intercessors to stand in the gap and make up the Wall on behalf of men, women, children, pastors, rabbis, and leaders from across the nation Fight to Finish Faithfully the race set before them.” Apparently the 5400 figure results from the fact that Folsom Field “is situated at 5400 feet above sea level, one of the highest college stadiums in the nation.”

Speakers confirmed so far include Jane Hansen Hoyt, president and CEO of Aglow International, who will be a keynote speaker; Dr. Tony Evans of Dallas, Texas; relationship expert Gary Smalley of Branson, Mo.; pastor Tommy Barnett (Phoenix); Rabbi Jonathan Bernis; Rabbi David Chernoff; Dr. Dan Juster; Promise Keepers president Dr. Raleigh Washington, and McCartney.

Does the Promise Keepers 20th anniversary event -- which will undoubtedly draw thousands to Boulder -- presage a revivified Christian men’s movement, or will it be something akin to the recurring celebrations of Woodstock (forty years old this summer) – a nostalgic sentimental moment with little greater meaning?

“I suspect McCartney isn't so much trying to restart the Christian men's movement but, rather, trying to mimic what New Apostolic Reformation leaders such as Lou Engle are doing,” Bruce Wilson.

”McCartney has participated in Engle's TheCall events and my guess is that he's trying to copy elements of Engle's winning formula,” Wilson added. Engle has held TheCall events in South America, Asia, Africa and Europe and in early June at Virginia Beach Rock Church Engle introduced and laid hands on Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. “I think Bill McCartney is trying to catch the new wave.”

McCartney is also the co-author – along with Aaron Fruh -- of a book called “Two Minute Warning,” which takes an in-depth look on the topic of Jewish reconciliation. Due to be released in the fall, New Man magazine pointed out that early copies will be available at the “A Time to Honor” event.

"The book chronicles 1,900 years of how Satan has done everything possible to divide Jewish and gentile believers," Fruh, a Jewish believer and pastor who has written several books on the topic, told New Man. "This event is basically seeking to heal this divide."

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.