Promise Keepers

If you haven't heard of Promise Keepers yet, you will. The group is planning the largest mobilization ever held in the nation's capital, with up to 3 million men in Washington, D.C., in October. They hope the numbers and publicity will easily surpass Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March there in 1995. Between now and October, the group plans to fill stadia in 15 other cities.The Promise Keepers' concrete tent revivals feature passionate speakers, emotion-stirring music, massive altar calls, tearful confessions from the massive stage, and messages intended to build inhibition-shedding camaraderie among men. Calls are made to strengthen the family and the church, and to take the nation for Christ. It is this last item that is most troubling about promise keepers. While its leaders claim that Promise Keepers does not have a political agenda, its leadership and philosophy are embedded in groups that seek a theocracy in the United States.Promise Keepers has been organizing in overdrive since it was founded in 1990. Last year, it drew more than 1 million men to rallies in 22 cities. That does not include the 40,000 ministers, 10 percent of all U.S. pastors, who attended the male clergy-only conference in Atlanta last year.Why is Promise Keepers drawing such numbers? Who are their backers? And what is the agenda of this major bidder for national clout? Clues about the nature of PK may be found through examining little-known controversies within evangelical Christianity and the goals of the little-known sect from which PK was spawned.Promise Keepers is clearly a movement to build male bonding, reduce the role of women in society and home, advocate discrimination against gays and make abortion illegal. But its goals are deeper than these matters. According to a Promise Keepers training guide, "The two elements of revival and discipleship became the foundation and focus of Promise Keepers."Ann Arbor businessman Tom Yoder knows what that means. For a number of years, he was involved in a group with such goals. Based in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the Word of God"community" became an international model and leader for like-minded groups from Beirut to Manila, Managua to Johannesburg. Founded in 1967, WOG boasted as many as 2,400 adults and children in its southeastern Michigan community before splintering in the early 1990s. Had it not been for WOG, Promise Keepers might never have existed. Bill McCartney, who founded Promise Keepers, became involved with WOG while he was an assistant football coach at the University of Michigan. McCartney brought WOG practices -- especially the submission of women -- into his plans for a men's Christian group while coaching football at Colorado. Trained in WOG doctrine, McCartney told this writer in 1994 that Jim Berlucci, then a WOG leader, was one of the two most influential men in his life.The essential feature of WOG, explains Yoder, is its practice of shepherding discipleship, a system of control over members' lives. ÒShepherding discipleship simply means people turn their lives over to control of another person, who becomes their shepherd," he says."It requires a posture of total submission, which means obedience to their decisions. All women were in submission to men, usually to their husbands. Men submitted to other men, who submitted to yet other men, in a pyramid of power."When McCartney got the job as head coach at the University of Colorado in 1982, he maintained his association with folks in Michigan. A 1985 WOG document names him as one of their contacts in Colorado. But a key contact was made there between McCartney and James Ryle, pastor of the Boulder Vineyard Church. Ryle is a self-styled prophet in the Vineyard Church movement, a controversial sect even within evangelical circles. It was Ryle who McCartney named as the other most influential man in his life.Vineyard, headed by John Wimber of Anaheim, California, embraces esoteric and bizarre elements beyond what most Pentecostal and virtually all fundamentalists would consider legitimate activity. Vineyard practices include controversial"prophets" and the"laughing revival," which promotes unrestrained laughter, weeping, roaring and screaming. Uncontrollable shaking, jerking and temporary paralysis also occurs in some of its revival gatherings. Still another major influence on PK is a movement called Christian Reconstructionism. Its views are simple -- America is un-Christian and unbiblical. Society needs to be reconstructed along what they consider biblical lines. They clearly oppose the separation of church and state, democracy and pluralism of social views, notes a critical report in Christianity Today. Their architects would establish the death penalty for adultery, blasphemy, homosexuality, incorrigible children and other matters. They call for reinstating forms of slavery. The Righteous would rule; the unrighteous would live in submission. It is called"Dominion Theology," the idea that Christians (of the right sort) should rule all aspects of society. In addition, many of PK's speakers come from the small but potent world of Reconstructionism. They do not reveal their extreme agenda at PK events, although one Reconstructionist has noted the justness of slavery while addressing a PK rally.That such men have been selected to represent Promise Keepers, to be held up as Christian leaders of the future, is revealing of PK's goals.An even more fundamental source of"dominion theology" comes to Promise Keepers through two organizations that were crucial to making PK grow from a local to a national organization. They are James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ.Dobson is a well-known conservative Christian commentator. His daily radio audience of 3 million to 5 million listeners gets advice on how to raise children, have a better marriage and handle family problems. His books are best sellers. He has built a loyal following through such marketing. But, like most marketing, it fails to explain the real Dobson, and few understand his Focus on the Family group.Dobson has an extensive political action network controlled from Colorado but organized through state affiliates such as Michigan Family Forum. Based in local churches, these political action groups are much less visible than Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, but are more powerful in Michigan and elsewhere.Focus on the Family's politics are on the far right. Reconstruction seeps from the seams of this group in Colorado Springs with 1,200 staff and a $10 million a year budget. Dobson has recently written that the U.S. government is no longer legitimate, a clear justification for a new Reconstructionist-type political reordering of power.Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ has been a hard rightist group for many years. Before Jerry Falwell was hired to run the Moral Majority, Bright had organized candidates for Congress on a platform of"dominion theology."Both Dobson and Bright are part of a secretive political group called the Council for National Policy. Started by the John Birch Society, its membership includes folks from Amway and Coors brewery, as well as Falwell, Pat Robertson and North Carolina's Sen. Jesse Helms. These and other members refuse to answer questions about the membership, funding or purpose of the group, and why it is so secretive. What is known is that the group prefers to work behind the scenes to further its rightist agenda. Stated simply, Campus Crusade and Focus on the Family are groups that have blended religion and politics. And they have provided much of Promise Keepers' horsepower.When PK was taking off, Campus Crusade donated 85 staffpersons to the fledgling group. Focus on the Family provided funds, staff and published the key PK books sold at stadium rallies. Despite Promise Keepers' claims that it's not political, its affiliations suggest otherwise. So do statements from PK's leaders.But these affiliations are buried beneath some very effective image-making. The group has been buying one-hour prime time slots on local stations to air its message. Local news programs began puffing PK a month before the Silverdome rally. The message is always the same: PK wants to make better husbands and fathers, reconcile races and has no ulterior motive. A close examination reveals otherwise, undermining the cultivated myths of the groups.* Promise Keepers is against racism Promise Keepers advocates racial reconciliation in one-to-one relationships among the righteous. It does not advocate a fight against racist institutions or practices in the larger society. And PK president Randy Phillips has said that integration is not the goal of racial reconciliation.Instead, PK is identifying those in the African-American, Latino and Native American churches who will bond with white evangelicals on their march to power. The Christian Coalition is doing the same thing. But neither group supports affirmative action. PK speaks against white prejudice because they want members of minority groups to come to PK -- but only on PK's terms. The most prominent African Americans in PK have stronger ties to white evangelical institutions than to the black church.Typical of the attitude of too many of PK's minority representatives was that of Native American Tom Claus, who forgave white men of genocide and oppression because the white man brought him personally to Jesus.* Promise Keepers builds strong marriages and families Promise Keepers is very clear that women should be in submission to men. Husbands are encouraged to practice listening, understanding and tolerance toward their wives. They are encouraged to be romantic, loving and caring as a method to obtain submission. Bill Bright told a PK rally that a man is"head of the household, women are responders."The clearest statement on the subordination of women is made by Tony Evans in the PK manifesto Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, published by Focus on the Family. In a section titled"Reclaiming Your Manhood," Evans writes,"I can hear you saying, ÔI want to be a spiritually pure man. Where do I start?' The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ÔHoney, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.'"Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. I'm not suggesting you ask for the role back, I'm urging you take it back É for the survival of our culture."Evans also states that"the Biblical approach to family planning is quite simple: the more children the better. The way to build a nation (or, in our case, to change a community) was by multiplication of families."Thus the official text of PK defines women as stay-at-home childbearers in submission to husbands, who are to give them affection as a trade-off for equality. Often missed is the narrower role men are also allowed to assume in a PK world.The call for renewing the subjection of women has not engendered a rejection of PK in public opinion, however."If PK had called for renewing the abject subjugation of blacks or Native Americans," says Al Ross, president of Sterling Research in New York City,"everyone would see the hate in their message. But PK's call to do that to women draws a more ambivalent and disturbing response."Former WOG member Kathy Javornisky sees the outlook for women under men committed to Promise Keepers' family agenda as damaging:"It's impossible to develop and maintain healthy traits of competence, initiative, identity, trust and autonomy within a climate of control, dominance and abuse.""In WOG, as a Ôwarfare' mentality with the larger society developed, the submission and regimentation of women intensified. I see a parallel pattern for Promise Keepers," adds Javornisky, currently a social worker developing therapies to correct cultic abuse.Some sources who did not want to be identified indicated that pressure to obtain submission of wives caused problems in previously happy marriages."My daughter's marriage has become stress-filled since my son-in-law began getting into Promise Keepers," said one father. Another woman was forced by her husband to quit a job she held for many years. * Promise Keepers builds better churches Promise Keepers is committed to destroying established church denominations. Vineyard pastor Ryle decries the "sin of denominationalism" and warned listeners at the 1996 Atlanta rally that the denominations were"coming down."They have encouraged the support of pastors by telling PK members that they must support the pastor and become more active in their current churches. Pastors have mistakenly believed that PK would not challenge the denominational structures that support local churches.Denominations serve to delineate and defend doctrinal interpretation of scripture. In its goal of abolishing denominations, PK seeks to end the debates on doctrine. Leaders tell local PK members to not discuss doctrine.For PK followers, doctrine will be replaced with ecstatic, emotionally satisfying worship. PK leaders will be the sole owners of doctrine. And much of that doctrine would be rejected by most Christians if it was understood.Essentially, it is"warfare" doctrine that asserts present-day"prophets" are perfecting an army to purge America and the world of non-Christian influences.Jewel Van der Merwe of Holly, whose Discernment Ministries has been concerned with the rise of self-described prophets, notes that"call for unity of the churches totally disregards doctrine. Doctrine is seen as an evil that divides. Once united, they believe their power will be unstoppable, and they will rule over all domains of the earth." * Promise Keepers is not politicalPromise Keepers is fundamentally concerned with power -- of men over women, men over men, Christians over non-Christians and the organization over Christians.All the political far-right evangelists are backing PK, including Robertson, Falwell, D. James Kennedy, as well as Dobson and Bright. All are part of the Council for National Policy, the purpose of which is to radically alter national politics to the far right. PK leaders, writers and speakers tie in to so many extreme right-wing groups that it would take a book to describe them all. The entire movement is hostile to democracy, freedom of choice and separation of church and state. In short, they want a theocracy.So where is this leading the men who attend PK's stadium rallies? The rallies are clearly a means to get ongoing commitments from those who attend."In a stadium event, men feel bonded (together) more than any other time," notes PK recruiting materials. They are most likely to show emotions and shed inhibitions there -- which is perfect for PK's purposes. The real goal of the stadium rallies are to get men to join a PK-led"accountability group." In an accountability group, two to 12 men meet weekly to hold each other accountable for every aspect of their lives.In an accountability group, each member is expected to answer fully all questions regarding his marriage and family relationships, sexual activity, business and financial dealings, according to PK training materials. There are no probing questions that PK considers inappropriate for accountability group members to pose to other members.One PK book recommends members ask such questions as: What disappointments consumed your thoughts this week? Did you look at a woman in the wrong way? What are you wrestling with in your thought life this week? What did you do this week to enhance your relationship with your spouse? Did you pray for others in this group?PK says such"vital" dynamics in"face-to-face covenant relationships" are necessary because men"need each other to be complete."People who have lived in these kinds of submitted relationships see a pattern to the shepherding discipleship practices. Jarvornisky notes that"accountability group rules remove boundaries of personal autonomy. They used to tell us in WOG of the need to be Ôtransparent,' to be like an open book. It is de-selfing people.""The Word of God had the same idea, that of a Ôcommon mind,' " says Yoder."You don't think for yourself. You bring your ideas, problems to the group, to be dealt with by the group. You are expected to reveal everything."When husbands are in mutual submission to other husbands, they make decisions about one another's families without wives and children being part of the discussion. So five married members of an accountability group are making decisions not just about themselves, but about all five of their families. But what if a wife disagrees with a course of action taken by her group-led husband? According to PK, the husband follows the group rather than his wife.When PK refers to men having"covenant relationships," they are referring to oath-bound bonds as strong as marriage. PK videotapes explain that men cannot walk away from these commitments to other men."Like in a marriage, divorce is not an option," notes one PK leader."Men must work out their problems together as do husbands and wives. É These commitments are a lifetime."PK appoints a"Key Man" to oversee, or shepherd, accountability groups within a church. The Key Man reports to an Ambassador, also selected by PK, to oversee 10-20 churches. The Ambassador reports to Colorado. This cell group structure is what Promise Keepers calls"unity of command." Yoder calls it a replica of the WOG shepherding structure."Basically, Promise Keepers is a revival of the Men's Shepherding movement that was begun 20 years ago with some of the same players involved," notes Yoder.Why bother with such planning, organization and structure? McCartney is quite direct on this matter -- because PK is preparing for war. He tells rallies to"stand with the blood of the lamb. We'll take this nation for Christ." He uses military metaphors. He sees the"Unity of Command" structure of PK like that of an army; he envisions members"marching the front lines in unity and courage, upholding the truth, often against violent opposition."McCartney is not alone in his war plans. Ryle told this writer in 1994 that he saw Promise Keepers as the fulfillment of prophecy of a terrifying end-times army:"Never in human history have 300,000 men (PK's 1994 turnout) gathered except for the purpose of war." He added that he had a"dream" that PK would"purge America of secularism," which he characterized as an"abortion" of godliness. Convicted Watergate felon Charles Colson told a Minneapolis rally that Promise Keepers was creating"a new world order."When PK leaders say it was founded to promote"revival and discipleship," they did not mean creating happy families. That's the marketing image. From the beginning, one PK video says, Promise Keepers was seen as a means"to turn this nation around."You'll hear plenty of this rhetoric if you catch soundbites of this weekend's Silverdome rally on TV and the march on Washington in October. Mobilizing 3 million men to descend on the nation's political capital reveals a bit about Promise Keepers' goals.The revolution just may be televised. Russ Bellant teaches a class on far right politics at Eastern Michigan University, and recently wrote The Religious Right in Michigan Politics.


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