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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.

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.