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Warriors for Christ: Is Promise Keepers Making a Comeback?

Promise Keepers has repackaged its muscular Christianity and evangelical nationalism for a post-9/11 world.

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At the Boulder rally this past weekend, much was familiar to anyone who followed PK during the ’90s. There was Coach Mac himself, who had returned in 2008 as Chairman and CEO, along with his old friend, Raleigh Washington, now PK’s President. There was Tony Evans too, the Dallas-based pastor who, back in the day, incensed the movement’s critics when he told the guys at the stadium rallies to take back their rightful place as the head of the family, urging their women to submit. They all looked a little older, grayer, and to my eyes, a little less threatening.

Understanding Promise Keepers, studying it, fighting it, or defending it became a kind of cottage industry among journalists, academics, and activists. Smackdowns were common, and sometimes ugly, pitting NOW, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the Center for Democracy Studies against PK’s supporters: Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson, and many other evangelical groups. Was it a theocratic crypto-fascist men’s movement whose activities would lead to dire consequences for women and LGBT people? Or was the movement simply a way for men to build deeper and more caring relationships with God, and with each other, making them better husbands and fathers along the way? Was it both?

Promise Keepers’ wave probably crested on October 4, 1997, at its “Stand in the Gap” rally on the Mall in the Capitol. Between half a million to a million men (depending on who was counting) showed up. Of course PK judged its Washington event a success; and if media attention was any indication, it certainly was. Soon after, though, the organization headed into a tailspin. Promise Keepers could no longer sustain such phenomenal growth, having tapped out its market of evangelical-minded men. The budget dropped from a peak of $117 million in 1997 to about $34 million in 2001. Gone were the stadium rallies, replaced by much smaller arena events. There was a grandiose plan to extend the success of the DC rally through millennial marches to all 50 state capitals, but that plan faltered big-time. PK limped along, largely unfocused. In 2003, Coach Mac stepped down, a major blow to an organization built largely on his vision and charisma.

Racial reconciliation was central to PK’s message back in the 1990s. The genius of PK, in one sense, was that it tapped into that decade’s multicultural zeitgeist, giving it a spiritual spin. The stadium rallies provided tableaux of white, Latino, Asian, Native American, and African American men, singing, holding hands, and praying together in a show of Christian male bonding. True, Promise Keepers provided no theological or political critique of structural racism in the United States—racism was deemed a personal sin to be confessed.

These attitudes about race found their iconic moment at the 1997 DC rally. When white evangelist John Dawson knelt in prayer to ask forgiveness from his African American brothers for his own sin of racism, men of color gathered around him to affirm his repentance and accept his apology. PK rallies always seemed to draw mostly white men, but there was (and remains) a very real and significant African American presence in leadership positions. PK’s current President, Raleigh Washington, a black man, got his start back in the 1990s as PK’s VP for Reconciliation.

Promise Keepers’ leadership seems to assume that racial reconciliation is a done deal in the Obama era; so with the rollout of PK 2.0, the focus has shifted to women, poor people, and “Jewish believers.” Galatians 3:28 became the rally’s biblical mandate: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The verse was cited again and again, both in the run-up to the Boulder rally and during the event itself. American Christians have wielded these Pauline words for generations, as an argument against slavery in the 19th century and later, among progressives, as a call for women’s ordination. In the hands of Promise Keepers, Galatians 3:28 took on new meanings.