Inside the Promise Keepers

I am sitting in a sweltering sea of 50,000 bodies, part of the growing rank-and-file army of Christian soldiers that is Promise Keepers. We are young, old, able-bodied, disabled, straight and -- no doubt -- gay. All variations on every category of male, except me.Mile High Stadium is a perfect venue for Promise Keepers, the Bible-based men's group founded six years ago by then-University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. Like other sports stadiums at which PK rallies are held, it has a welcoming hot-dogs-and-beer-with-the-guys feeling -- a distinct and familiar comfort given the emotional uncertainty of the soul work we've signed on for.At this moment, my anxieties are more secular than profound, rooted in the Ace bandage binding my breasts, the hint of mascara thickening my eyebrows and the ball cap pulled low over newly shorn hair. I'm uncertain what to do if my cover as a taciturn but regular guy fails to conceal my biological womanhood.But nobody's paying any attention to me, and I begin to relax. My Christian brothers have more important things on their minds: getting right with God, with each other, their families. They want to be what PK literature describes -- men of integrity -- and in this quest they are willing to touch each other in love, to pray and cry together, to kneel on cement and stretch hands of praise toward a capricious sky. They are willing, in the absence of women, to become more womanly, while never forgetting they are men and warriors of God.I am willing, during my brief sojourn in the alien kingdoms of masculinity and Christendom, to forget I am a woman, to see through these men's eyes and hear with their ears. To witness this bright, ascending star of evangelical Christianity without becoming blind to its shadow, where I, as a woman, must live.A MANY-COLORED ARMYThe theme of this year's conferences is "Break Down the Walls," a broad call to unity across denominational and racial lines. "Coach Mac" wastes no time indicting our mostly white gathering, which has greeted him with a standing ovation and thunderous applause."Where are the men of color? Why are there not more of them here?" he asks as my fellow Promise Keepers fall silent. "We need to recognize that there is a spirit of white racial superiority. It's defined as insensitivity to the pain of people of color."Most of Coach Mac's multiracial vision is clustered near the stage, where a bright, bold banner depicting a lantern-jawed, dark-skinned man, eyes upward, hands clenched in prayer, is unfurled as a backdrop. Other minority men -- mostly blacks and Hispanics -- will be on and near the stage this weekend, wearing the shirts and logos that identify them as PK staff and speakers.By contrast, most of us communing in the stadium seats are white. It's time for us to get down on our knees and wash the feet of our minority brothers, Coach Mac says. He tells us how important it is that Promise Keepers present a multiracial front at a million-man prayer march planned for next year."I want to ask you to make a bona fide effort to bring someone of a different color to Washington, D.C.," he says, bringing us to our feet in a pledge. "When we have that kind of intentionality, that kind of sensitivity, we can stand together as the church of Jesus Christ and make a statement."Then he asks anyone who's willing to go a step farther, and have "a bona fide relationship" with a minority brother, to continue standing. Not a man among us makes a move to be seated; instead, we stand ramrod straight and square our shoulders."Almighty God's watching, men," McCartney booms. "He's going to hold us to it." We cheer wildly - for Coach Mac, for each other, for the possibility of this many-colored army of men for Christ.RACIAL HARMONY, PK-STYLE Unlike most Christian Right organizations, PK has delivered on its pledge to cross color lines. Pastors and priests at February's clergy conference in Atlanta came from more than 70 American Indian tribes, as well as black, Hispanic, Asian and other minority congregations. The ministry recently pledged $1 million to help rebuild black churches authorities suspect are being torched by racists.But a long-time watchdog of the Right quickly casts a pall over this colorblind display of brotherly love. Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates, tells me the call to racial unity is best understood as the coping strategy of a historically privileged class -- white men -- under fire not only from women, but from a growing minority population that wants a piece of the pie."Ask yourself the musical question," he says. "If people who traditionally have had greater access to power and riches in the U.S. had to make a decision between holding the race line and holding the gender line, guess which one they chose?"In Promise Keepers' football-stadium world, the answer is obvious. The cost to minority men answering the call is less apparent but immense, according to Berlet."The price that people of color pay to Promise Keepers ... is to adopt an overwhelmingly Eurocentric view of Christianity which is at odds with the black church's traditional values," he tells me. "So really, the price you pay for being in the boys' club is to give up your ethnic heritage."National Baptist Convention President Henry Lyons has condemned Promise Keepers' recruitment of blacks as "an attempt to put us back on the plantation." Indeed, one of the common effects of racial harmony PK-style is a willingness to forgive -- after the remorseful prayers of white Promise Keepers -- certain quibbling historical injustices."At one time this land was 100 percent ours, and today our people have only 6 percent left," an unofficial spokesmen for more than 600 Native American pastors said at the clergy conference. "But I forgive the white man. Because if the white man had never come, we never would have come to know Jesus ... We forgive you."'THESE GIRLS' GOD HAS GIVEN USBeach balls bounce wildly among us; we cheer the progress of Styrofoam gliders launched high in the air, held aloft, it seems, as much by good will as by strong updrafts that foretell the coming storm.We are playful with each other, and soft; when we make our way to our seats, we say "Excuse me, brother," and "Thank you, brother." The night before, 2,500 of us had answered an altar call to make or renew a commitment to Christ. I watched one long-haired man, in a black leather Harley Davidson vest, pick his way down the steps to the stadium floor, legs trembling. Afterward, red-eyed Promise Keepers prayed intently in tight circles, arms around each other's shoulders, heads bowed.Now, we are ready to hear Bishop Phillip Porter, a beefy black man with receding silver hair. Porter, a Denver minister and the father of eight, has been married 38 years and is here to teach us how to "go all out in love" for our wives. He cites 1 Peter 3:7, which commands men to honor women as "the weaker vessel," and Ephesians 5:23: "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its savior.""The husband is called head of the family, head of the wife. God created it that way," Porter says. "That means for the working out of the marriage, the husband has been given authority in every area ..."Husbands must take their positions, or confusion will reign and many blessings will be cut off from the family."Such authority comes with grave responsibility, Porter reminds us. "The husband must want what's best for his wife," he says; he should be respectful of her, and listen to her. "If you do this, you will not only be happy, but your wife will be satisfied. She'll be satisfied that you considered her before the decision was made."He exhorts us to faithfulness, support and self-sacrifice for "these girls" God has given us; as our love helps relieve the pressures in their lives, Porter explains, "they can devote themselves to our attention and the attention of our children ..."God's on your side; that girl's on your side," he declares. "Go for it men - love those wives!"'PHALLIC KINDS OF GUYS'My brothers are on their feet, cheering wildly. I am thinking of the women at home, praying for their Promise Keepers, and women at this stadium, too -- not inside with us, but working along the periphery, volunteering as ticket-checkers, lunch-servers, support crew. Helpmates.I'm remembering what Berlet told me earlier: "What we're talking about is a theocratic world view in which God talks to men, they tell their wives what's up, and together they own their children and have dominion over the earth."My fellow Promise Keepers are pledged to a vision of beneficent but absolute male authority. In Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, published by Focus on the Family, Dallas pastor Tony Evans helps husbands regain the power they've relinquished: "The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: 'Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.'"Don't misunderstand me," Evans continues. "I'm not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back. If you simply ask for it, your wife is likely to [refuse]."This retro-Father Knows Best vision holds little appeal for feminists. "You cannot say to one whole group of people, because of their gender, that they are God-ordained to be in charge," says Rosemary Dempsey, action vice president for the National Organization for Women. "Whenever you give that kind of authority, even if you pepper it with benevolence, that absolute authority will be abused."Dempsey tells me she's concerned about mainstream media portrayals of Promise Keepers, written mostly by male journalists. "A lot of people ... have reported Promise Keepers as nothing more than a great group of guys who get together and hug each other, and never talk about their primary message, which is one of male supremacy."Indeed, when Promise Keepers in 1993 handed out 50,000 hard cover copies of a book explaining how manhood defines a person's relationship to God, it triggered little scrutiny."Possessing a penis places unique requirements upon men before God in how they are to worship Him," Robert Hicks wrote in The Masculine Journey. "We are called to worship God as phallic kinds of guys, not some sort of androgynous, neutered non-males, or the feminized males so popular in many feminist-enlightened churches."ANOINTING THE NEXT GENERATIONI am feeling less a part of the brotherhood by the time Dennis Rainey, director of a Christian family ministry in Arkansas, takes the pulpit to tell us how to be better fathers."It's up to us, as the protectors and providers of our family, to rescue our children from a culture that would drown them in tolerance and lack of absolutes," he says.Rainey offers as an example his insistence on interviewing his teen-age daughter's prospective dates. "I want you to keep your hands off my daughter -- totally," he tells these boys. This, he tells us, makes his daughter beam, "because her daddy is protecting her."This "protection" sounds suspiciously like ownership to me, particularly because Rainey fails to mention a parallel safeguard for his sons. The double standard becomes clearer in another anecdote: After his young daughter tells him she wants to be a gymnastics instructor when she grows up, Rainey tempers his encouragement with a reminder that, should she have children, God would want her to stay home to raise them."I am sick and tired of career being exalted over motherhood," Rainey thunders. "It's time to exalt the high and holy privilege of being a mother. It may not be politically correct, but it is Biblically correct."At this, my brothers erupt in cheers. Beneath my ball cap and Ace bandage and smudge-proof eyebrows, I am separated from them now by a vast expanse: the one wall they are building up, not breaking down.We are caught up then, suddenly, in a fluid spectacle as 4,500 young men -- sons of these Promise Keepers -- march into Mile High from nearby McNichols Arena, where they have completed a youth breakout session. We have been asked to stand in reverent silence as these young men, many of whom wave small crosses, file into the stadium, crowding its floor.When our cheers and foot-stomping finally erupt, they roll through the stadium in a wave, and keep rolling, loud and proud and, to me, chilling -- not because these men are cheering their sons, but because their daughters are absent. I sense for the first time the destructive potential of this brotherly separatist movement, in which men's emotions are so readily available and their passions so easily inflamed.This seems harmless only if you overlook Promise Keepers' use of the language of war, its belief that it has the corner on Biblical truth, and its stated intention to "rebuild the land," as illustrated by banners displaying muscular, dark- and light-skinned forearms wielding Bibles and pick-axes. McCartney himself has directed these men to "take the nation for Jesus Christ.""What you are about to hear is God's word to the men of this nation," he said in 1993. "We are going to war ... We have divine power; that is our weapon. We will not compromise. Wherever truth is at risk, in the schools or the legislature, we are going to contend for it. We will win."Standing in Mile High among these cheering and chanting men, I recall an excerpt from a scathing critique of Promise Keepers posted on the World Wide Web by Indiana-based Biblical Discernment Ministries, which describes PK as "one of the most ungodly and misleading movements in the annals of Christian history." Ironically, the criticism is ferociously Right Wing; BDM believes PK is soft on gays, weak in its declaration of absolute male authority and willing to overlook doctrinal differences that should separate denominations.It also believes the movement has ominous similarities to Nazism."The large mass rallies, the exaltation of emotion over reason, the lack of doctrinal integrity, the taking of oaths, the focus on fatherland and fatherhood ... bears a disconcerting similarity to an era which gave rise to one of the most dreadful armies in history," BDM says.It's too far a stretch, no doubt. But I consider it anyway as 50,000 fervent Promise Keepers drop to their knees a minute later, their prayers for righteousness and strength and leadership and integrity anointing the next generation of leaders - men, and only men, like themselves.## SIDEBAR, by Cate TerwilligerPopular and profitable: a Promise Keepers primerPromise Keepers was founded in 1990 by then-University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. His goal of filling CU's Folsom Stadium with 50,000 men was realized in 1993, and the ministry continues its explosive growth: Last year, more than 725,000 men gathered in 13 stadiums, and this year, as many as 1.5 million are expected to pack conferences in 22 cities. Organizers plan a march of more than a million Promise Keepers on Washington next year.The group's statement of faith declares the Bible "God's written revelation to man ... verbally inspired, authoritative, and without error in the original manuscripts." A Promise Keeper pledges to honor Christ through seven oaths addressing all aspects of his life.In addition to stadium events, Promise Keepers offers educational seminars, a field ministry, resources for personal or small-group study, clergy support, a weekly radio program, a glossy bimonthly magazine and a quarterly newsletter. The recently activated PK World Wide Web site includes "Man to Man About Being A Son of God," which tells the Biblical creation and redemption stories in simple language and suggests a prayer for cybersalvation.With a staff of more than 500 and an annual budget of $115 million, the ministry is as wealthy as it is popular. President Randy Phillips and seven other top brass in this army of Christian soldiers are paid annual salaries of $60,000 to $95,000, according to Time>< magazine.Much of the paychecks comes from the wallets of rank-and-file Promise Keepers. Men who paid $55 to attend a conference last year generated $38 million in registration revenue alone. The expanded 1996 schedule and an increased registration fee ($60) could bring in more than $90 million, if attendance expectations are met. If each of the 50,000 men that packed Mile High Stadium June 21-22 paid full price, that conference alone grossed $3 million for Promise Keepers coffers.More money changes hands through a growing line of Promise Keepers products hawked through catalogs and conferences. Merchandise, priced between $5 and $100, includes books, audio and video tapes, shirts, coffee-mugs and ball caps.##

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