Promise Keepers: A Million Man March of Their Own

Some 4,500 "Promise Keepers" occupied the Centrum Arena in Worcester, Mass., for half a day on July 26, capturing local media attention and drawing opposition all over the state. On the surface, it was a mini version of the big stadium rallies for which the lead agency of the "Christian mens movement has become famous. But it was also an urgent effort to recruit men from the Northeast corridor for an October march on Washington -- on which the future of the movement may depend. The publicity and pace of the recruiting drive will escalate dramaticlly in the coming weeks. But despite the media-friendly spectacle of beefy guys hugging, weeping and promising to be good husbands and fathers, there is both less and more to the Promise Keepers than meets the eye. The Colorado-based organization which routinely refers to itself as "PK", invokes New England as the precedent for its DC march called "Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men." They look to Northampton, Massachusetts where the where the Jonathan Edwards led the first Great Awakening the continent's first mass religious movement 250 years ago. Unsurprisingly, the Promise Keepers' views on gender roles, homosexuality and even government are about as modern as Edwards' famous fire-and-brimstone sermons. But their grand plans for a 20th-century Great Awakening come at a time when the organization's popularity may be waning. Attendance at the rallies -- well-paced hybrids of arena sports, tent revivals and rock concerts, which intersperse chants and speeches with jazzy evangelical songs, gospel tunes and updated mainstream hymns -- has dropped dramatically this year. The 1996 PK rally in Los Angeles sold out 75,000 seats six months before the event. This year, they filled less than half of that and many other stadiums around the country. More than 1 million men attended 22 events last year; this year, organizers optimistically predict attendance of about 700,000 at 19 gatherings, a lower per-event average as well as a lower overall draw. In Worcester, the arena was only half-full. Organizers herded participants into their seats row by row, leaving the higher balconies empty, to create the feel if not the fact of unity. Still, the gathering lacked the festive mood of PK rallies past. During the music and speakers, there was a lot of standing in line for expensive hot dogs and super-size Cokes. Ticket sales and point-of-sale merchandising are the Promise Keepers' major source of revenue. So the drop in attendance has created a cash crunch. That was evident at the bare-bones Worcester event, which featured no nationally known speakers, no book or merchandise tables, not even a printed program. As its 1997 season winds down a bit ahead of major-league baseball, PK is preparing for its own October classic on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4. Organizers claim their regional rallies are competing against attendance at the D.C. march and that this explains the low turnouts. But they present no evidence to support this explanation. More likely, the Promise Keepers have saturated their market, which has apparently never grown much beyond the Pentecostal and charismatic Christian communities. Nonetheless, given PK's experience in staging dynamic events with music, lights, sets and stage presentations, "Stand in the Gap" may be the best-produced, most spectacular march on Washington in American history. And while the popularity of the PK stadium rallies may have peaked, a successful Washington gathering could give them an big boost. The financial crunch comes at a time when they are facing mounting public opposition, as well as a scandal involving cash paid to founder, former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. PK has claimed that McCartney receives no salary from the organization. However the Associated Press now reports that he received over $40,000 last year for speaking at PK rallies. This despite his claim to The New York Times that he had abandoned a $350,000 annual salary package "for a job that does not pay," and is "more rewarding than coaching football." McCartney said. "I believe I have a calling.'" The Promise Keepers current difficulties come after several years of phenomenal growth. Since "Coach" McCartney convened the original gathering of 72 men in 1990 with financial and organizational support from two major Christian Right organizations -- the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family and the Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ -- PK drew as many as 72,000 men to major stadiums in the U.S by 1994. Last year's budget rose to more than $100 million. PK events have been the slickest religious consumer product since televangelism. Attendees are overwhelmingly white and PK reports that the median income of attendees is $78,000. At last year's easternmost rally in Syracuse, N.Y. some men came stadium in buses from as far away as Pennsylvania, Canada and New England. Many men came with their sons. Promise Keepers is also a slick nonprofit business. Tickets run about $60. The PK Apparel & Gifts summer catalogue offers a kind of a Lands End look, emblazoned with "PK" logos and this season featuring seven styles of PK headgear. The PK product line also includes mugs, pens, books, videos, CDs and cassettes of the greatest hits of PK rallies past. The PK edition of the New Testament, Promise Keeper: Man of His Word, makes the Good Book look like a cross between a product catalog and Sports Illustrated. Interspersed between the books of the Bible are personality profiles of Christian athletes. In the back are ads and tear-out cards for PK products. The organizations public-relations people insist that it's all about personal commitment to family and Jesus. Men pledge to lead their families, to be "sexually pure," abstain from alcohol and drug abuse, spread the message of evangelical Christianity; and be "men of integrity." But the image of masses of men forswearing their wicked ways is misleading. Most attendees are already evangelicals. The vast majority (88 percent, according to one survey) are married. Only 21 percent have been divorced, well below the national average. Meanwhile, PKs highly publicized goal of strengthening marriages happens strictly in the context of a theological patriarchy: God the Father, Jesus the son; male pastors; women "in submission." PK spokesmen deny that the organization encourages male domination. But again and again, the words of PK's own leaders and supporters make clear their views on male-female relations. Reflecting on a PK rally at his Liberty University, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said: "It appears that America's anti-Biblical feminist movement is at last dying, thank God, and it is possibly being replaced by a Christ-centered men's movement." Here's how to begin "Reclaiming Your Manhood," according to the Rev. Tony Evans in the group's founding text, The Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper: "The first thing you do is sit down with our 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 what I'm saying here. I'm not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back." The organizations public-relations people also deny that PK promotes a right-wing political agenda. Again, the leaders' own words belie the PR. Coach McCartney himself told a PK clergy rally in 1995 that "whoever stands with the Messiah will rule with him," and urged them to "take this nation for Jesus Christ!" Campus Crusade for Christ head Bill Bright says in his book The Coming Revival which is sold at PK events, that personal religious "revival" is insufficient. Christians must "[b]ecome actively in involved in restoring every facet of society, including government, to the biblical values of our Founding Fathers," Bright writes. "Unless our nation returns to God from the top down, where our laws are made permanent change will be extremely difficult." Bright believes the U.S. was founded as a "Christian Nation." It is true that the original 13 colonies were largely Christian theocracies for 150 years. But the framers of the Constitution rejected the bitter history of religious warfare in Europe and religious persecution in the Colonies. Unanimously and with little debate, they adopted Article VI of the Constitution, which bars "religious tests" for public office. The U.S. was thus the first nation in the history of the world founded without an official God, and premised on religious equality. But Christian nationalism remains a driving myths of the Christian Right, including PK leaders. And there is an even more disturbing vision beyond, or perhaps a logical extension of Christian nationalism. The Rev. James Ryle -- who is Bill McCartney's personal pastor and a PK board member -- believes Promise Keepers is the fulfillment of a Biblically prophesied army which will destroy sinners and unbelievers in the end-times. "Never have 300,000 men come together throughout human history," he told journalist Russ Bellant, "except for the purposes of war." PK leaders at all levels use military metaphors to describe their activities. This is particularly disturbing because a number of the organization's senior staff are former military officers. The apocalyptic war imagery is additionally troubling because there is also a certain desperation in PK land. They believe that the men of the church have failed to be in charge in the home, the church and society, and that their failure explains abortion, homosexuality, crime, drugs and natural disasters which they take to be warning signs of God's displeasure. In D.C., they plan to repent their failures and raise up what rally speakers describe as an "army" to stay God's hand, lest America go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed. The name of the rally derives from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel in which God, angry at a society that had fallen away from his laws, looked for a man who would "stand before me in the in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not destroy it., but I found none." Promise Keepers itself is not yet an overtly political organization. But like Pat Robertsons Christian Coalition, it might fill men with a spiritual passion for the mundane political work they previously viewed as dirty and ungodly. If that happens, politics and the process of government could take on some of the urgency that PK staffer Doc Reed ascribes to the Washington rally. The gathering, he says, was not "our idea." Attendance is "a matter of obedience."Frederick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997, from which this article is partly adapted. 1-800-497-3207.

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