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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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Whatever happened to Promise Keepers? PK was one of the most visible and controversial religious movements of the 1990s. It burst onto the scene in the early years of that decade, determined to change men’s hearts and transform them into “warriors for Christ.” The spectacular stadium rallies, held in many cities throughout the United States, drew upwards of 50,000 men for a weekend of preaching, teaching, singing, praying and swaying, tears and hugs. But by the turn of the millennium, the movement had dropped off the radar.

Well, Coach Mac is back! He’s repackaged his message of racial reconciliation and revamped PK’s heady brew of muscular Christianity, personal transformation, and evangelical nationalism for a post-9/11 world. On Friday and Saturday of last week, Coach Bill McCartney, who founded Promise Keepers nearly twenty years ago, brought thousands of guys back to Folsom Field at the University of Colorado in Boulder, site of the first stadium rally in 1992. Back then, the event’s motto was, “What Makes a Man?” The question set the stage for years of ministry targeted exclusively to men: grandfathers, dads, their sons, single men. But things were different for “Ignite and Unite,” the rollout of PK 2.0. This time, the ladies were invited too, a sign of the movement’s reinvention. Promise Keepers will remain a men’s ministry, but it has placed “reconciliation between men and women” at the 50-yard line.

Another major change was the prominence of Messianic Jewish speakers and entertainers at the rally. On Friday evening, July 31, Promise Keeper President Raleigh Washington offered a welcome to those he called “our special guests, Jewish believers.”

Shabbat Shalom!” he yelled, and the crowd gave it up with gusto. Over the course of the two-day event, a parade of these Messianic Jewish speakers and entertainers joined veteran movement personalities—Coach Mac, Raleigh Washington, and Tony Evans—on the stage before the largely white, middle-aged (and presumably gentile) audience. They included Rabbis Jonathan Bernis and Joel Chernoff, Dan Juster, and musicians Paul Wilbur and Marty Goetz. The Folsom Field rally was, in some sense, a coming out party for Messianic Judaism, a movement almost completely unknown to most American Christians.

This ain’t your daddy’s Jews for Jesus, the rally seemed to be saying.

“This is going to relaunch Promise Keepers, and go across this nation like nothing before,” a revved-up Washington had promised in a promo video distributed months in advance of the weekend rally. “It is for America!” he added.

The organizers had hoped to fill the stadium with 50,000 men (and women) as in the glory days, but fell far short of the mark. I watched the weekend event via a paid webcast, as did others (there was even a shout-out to a men’s group watching via webcast in Nigeria). At times, the enormous stadium looked almost empty, especially on Friday night. But those who did turn up at Folsom Field paid $49 each ($45 for active military) to push past the turnstiles and get a taste of reconciliation and unity—between rich and poor, men and women, and Jews and Gentiles—the necessary prerequisites for the “spiritual warfare” on the road ahead.

Theocratic Crypto-Fascists?

Back in the mid-1990s, Promise Keepers appeared to be mobilizing the men of evangelical America, pleasing some people and scaring the hell out of others: the stadium rally was its stock-in-trade—the praise band, the testimonies, the marriage advice, the Jumbotron video collage, the tearful reconciliations between father and son. The hugeness of these events and their emotive power were key ingredients to the spectacle. It was something to be seen, something to be felt.

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.

This past weekend, “slave nor free” was translated loosely as “the haves and the have-nots.” The reconciliation between the rich and poor didn’t play prominently, either in the event’s promos or at the stadium rally itself. PK did offer a “pay what you can afford” program to woo low-income rally-goers, and it also urged attendees to bring food donations for the Denver Rescue Mission.

At the rally itself, there was no sustained talk about the spiritual or political effects of the global financial crisis, but there was a call to support something called the Hatikvah Project, which works to alleviate poverty among Messianic Jews in Israel (who, we were told, are poor because their families and nation reject them as apostates). American Christians were exhorted to extend a helping hand.

“Let them rule!”

The reconciliation of the sexes was a headliner theme. Back in the ’90s, PK had a kind of ladies’ auxiliary, the “Promise Reapers,” who cheered the men on as they arrived for the stadium rallies. But on Friday night Jane Hansen Hoyt, president of Aglow International (the influential evangelical women’s ministry) became the first woman ever to speak at a PK event. And what a powerful speech it was, delivered in a driving rainstorm.

“Have you ever wondered why there is such hatred and violence against women?” Hoyt asked. “One out of every three women experience verbal or sexual abuse from those who profess to love them,” she declared, and then chided the Church for its complicity in women’s oppression. She denounced the fiction that women are inferior, and called this “a time to honor each other.” Hoyt’s stirring ethical appeal included the most blatant expression of the rally’s ideological subtext: Dominion theology.

In a promo video distributed in advance of the rally, Hoyt called the PK relaunch a “strategic event.” “The relationship between male and female must be fully restored for the Church to fulfill its destiny and exercise its heavenly authority in the world,” Hoyt said, in terms that reflect her understanding of spiritual warfare. To the crowd at Folsom Field on Friday night, she thundered, “Let them rule!” (Leaving me to wonder, of course, who is them?)

“The Jewish people are coming to Christ!”

The Galatians 3:28 theme that played most consistently (and insistently) throughout was the need for reconciliation between gentiles and “believing Jews.” The Messianic Jewish movement focuses on the conversion of Jews to Christianity, yet it also encourages Jews to maintain their cultural and religious identities, including their observance of Mosaic laws. You could see some evidence of this impulse in the audience at Folsom Field: the Israeli folk dancers, the shofar blowers, the men (and even some women) wearing kippot and tallitot, arms upraised, singing the praises of Yeshua. “God loves diversity,” Rabbi Jonathan Bernis of Jewish Voice Ministries declared on Friday night. During the altar call, Bernis told Jews to remember that “if you are Jewish and you have converted, you are still Jewish.”

Saturday afternoon brought the heaviest dose of Messianic Jewish themes, with performances by Paul Wilbur, the man who pioneered Messianic praise music, Joel Chernoff, and Marty Goetz. (Wilbur’s band anchored the music throughout the two-day event). There was an Israeli folk dancing troupe and a shofar team, whose heralds included even a few Deborahs blowing their ram’s horns.

The afternoon’s “Did You Know?” PowerPoint slideshow proclaimed the Jewish people as “the fathers of the faith,” firmly embraced the Jewish roots of Christianity, and soundly rejected Christian supercessionism. God had not abandoned his covenant with Abraham, the voiceover declared, and the Jews are still God’s chosen people. The slideshow also offered an explicit apology for the church’s complicity in supporting and sustaining anti-Semitism. (In the webcast’s chat room, Stanley from West Lafayette, Indiana, typed, “Please forgive us Lord Jesus for not honoring and respecting our Jewish family.”) Then to great applause in the stadium, the narrator declared, “The Jewish people are coming to Christ in record numbers.”

The goal of some Christian Zionist and Messianic Jewish groups is the repatriation of all Jews to Israel, and the conversion of all Jews to Christ. Saturday afternoon’s sermons reflected those hopes. The Jewish humor of David Chernoff, one of the Messianic movement’s most prominent rabbis, fell flat when he addressed the crowd. The mostly gentile audience just didn’t seem to get his joke about Jews and Chinese food. But Chernoff received rousing applause when he declared, “God is moving among our people” and “Yeshua is the only way.”

Coach Mac appeared on stage to speak about what sparked his interest in Jewish-Christian reconciliation, and to introduce material from his new book, Two Minute Warning, where McCartney calls reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles “the biblical pathway to worldwide revival.” In a dramatic moment, he also vowed to protect Jewish people “to the death.”

The most explicit naming of the endgame came from Daniel Juster of Tikkun Ministries International (TMI). “We are both the Jewish part of the Body of Christ, and the saved remnant of Israel,” he said, referring to Messianic Jews. The conversion of Israel is a necessary precondition for ushering in the Messianic age. “Israel’s salvation can only be accomplished by the whole church,” Juster declared, “We can only accomplish this task by coming together as one new man. Only then will we have the power to convert Israel.”

Coach Mac’s interest in this kind of reconciliation reflects a decade of his deepening interest in the role that Jews and the nation of Israel play in the unfolding drama of the end times. As the story goes, Coach Mac and Raleigh Washington were oblivious to the importance of “believing Jews” within the Christian fold until a Messianic rabbi confronted them in 1996 and expressed his dismay at his community’s invisibility. All that talk about racial reconciliation at PK rallies, but what about us, the rabbi asked? What about the Jews?

PK’s rhetoric of reconciliation gave McCartney and Washington a way to conceptualize one missing piece of their Christian multicultural mosaic. Yes, white Christians have oppressed black and brown people, the logic of this thinking goes, but there is a rift even more ancient: the divide between Jewish and gentile believers. That divide is holding the church back from its achieving its rightful destiny—dominion over the earth.

After leaving Promise Keepers in 2003, Coach Mac, along with Washington, started up another ministry, the Road to Jerusalem. They have forged deep ties to other Christian Zionist and Messianic Jewish leaders and their organizations, honing a message about the urgency for reconciliation between Christians and “believing Jews,” and advancing their prophetic interpretations about Israel’s pivotal role in the last days. The men brought these preoccupations and passions to Promise Keepers when they returned to lead the organization in 2008, imagining PK 2.0 as a way both to resurrect Promise Keepers and introduce Messianic Judaism to the rest of evangelical America.

Is PK 2.0 up to forming spiritual warriors for 21st-century America? Despite the hopes of Coach Mac and others that the weekend’s event would “ignite and unite,” thus regaining for Promise Keepers some of the cultural capital it possessed back in the ’90s, the relaunch of PK seemed never to take flight. Attendance was disappointing; much of the energy at Folsom Field and on the webcast seemed nostalgia-driven, a misty-eyed remembrance of the time when PK could pack a stadium with 50,000 men.

But this doesn’t mean the game is over for Coach’s dreams, which may be more widely shared than some might think. PK’s reinvention, even if it falls flat, tells us a lot about the reach of Christian Zionism, philo-Semitism, and Messianic Judaism within some quarters of evangelical America. Some of the signs—all abundantly in evidence at Folsom Field—might appear quaint, even sweet in a multi-culti kind of way: Jewish melodies in contemporary Christian music, Israeli folk dancing, the sprinkling of Hebrew words in sermons and media productions (“Shalom!”, “Boker tov!”, “Behold the kavod of the Lord!”)

Yet Christian Zionism, in many of its forms, carries not only significant theological implications but political ones as well, and that is worthy of attention; especially at a time when the prophecy clocks tick louder and louder to those with ears to hear. One indication of the apocalyptic energies in the PK event was the militant language of spiritual warfare that characterized the promotional blitz leading up to the PK 2.0 launch. Much of Christian Zionism, including McCartney’s Road to Jerusalem, reflects the preoccupations of many politically conservative evangelicals in the post-9/11 period; in particular, the hope that a new Judeo-Christian alliance might be the bulwark that saves the West against the threat of “radical Islam.” To my surprise, there was much less of that talk at the rally itself. It was there in the subtext, of course, but rarely did it explicitly appear. Was it the absent presence?

The rollout of PK 2.0 might have been Coach Mac’s failed Hail Mary play, but I have a feeling there’re other teams waiting in the wings to take the field to play God.

J. Terry Todd is Associate Professor of American Religious Studies at Drew University and director of Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict. The author of several articles on religion in 20th-century America, Terry is especially interested in religious conflicts over family life and sexuality, and how Christian ideas and practices shape US politics and mass media.