Promise Keepers' Outreach to Religious Minorities -- More Than a Cynical Ploy
As a Latino reporter covering America's evangelical movement for the past decade, I've been monitoring the mushrooming Promise Keepers' commitment to racial reconciliation.Recent articles in the liberal media have portrayed this outreach as a cynical ploy to recruit minorities into the Religious Right. My own interviews with Promise Keeper leaders and rank-and-file members suggest otherwise. As the single largest mass movement on the evangelical religious scene, the Promise Keepers reflect a shift in thinking about race going on in evangelicalism as a whole -- a shift all the more remarkable considering evangelicalism's own sorry record on racial justice.The Promise Keepers are a tribal gathering that seeks to restore a sense of communal identity to white males. Liberal critics are quick to seize on the PK sense of alienation to compare it to the militia movement. The key difference is that while the militias channel their insecurities into hatred of people of color, the Promise Keepers are seeking to learn from them. Unsure of what their purpose is as individuals or as a group, many PK members have begun to identify with the struggles of other marginalized groups.It is the egalitarian tone of their outreach -- the feeling that they have more to gain from the marginalized than they have to give -- that is attracting religious minorities. "They can pat me on the back and clap for me, but I think this is helping whites more than it is helping me right now," a Latino pastor confided at a PK pastors' racial reconciliation forum at the Georgia Dome last February.Nor are these religious minorities simply right-wing Uncle Toms as some news articles suggest. John Perkins, for example, is an African American PK speaker whose opposition to abortion and homosexual marriage and whose affiliation with a conservative think tank identifies him as a right-winger in the eyes of liberal critics. Yet Perkins, who was nearly beaten to death by white policemen in the South in the 1960s, has inspired several thousand middle class white couples to leave the suburbs and relocate in the inner cities in a program of Christian racial reconciliation that could only be defined as radical. Called the "three R's of development," these involve Relocation (middle class people of good faith moving back to the inner cities they abandoned); Redistribution (reinvesting their wealth into these communities) and Reconciliation (true partnership based on repentance of the sin of racism).Another PK speaker, Isaac Canales, pastor of Ebenezer Assembly of God Church in Carson, south of Los Angeles, has been a leading opponent of California's anti-immigrant campaigns. For its part the Promise Keepers' own official magazine, New Man, contains numerous articles by writers focusing on the plight of immigrants, advocating on behalf of poor people, editorializing against racial injustices in American courts.Religious minority leaders are not speaking at PK forums just to put a black or Latino face on a white event. They are preaching a theology drawn from their own reading of the Scriptures that speaks directly to the experience of oppression and marginalization their white audiences crave. Rather than turning their backs on white PK members as fascists in training -- one critic's term for PK members -- they view the PK platform as an opportunity to proselytize to those in need: millions of white men who have been deaf to the experiences of people of color for centuries.Over the last few years I have spoken with the wives of many PK members who say they cajoled their husbands to attend. They described their partners alternatively as rudderless TV football addicts, as workaholics continually sacrificing family for work demands, or as husbands and fathers incapable of intimate exchange. Today, they say these men are able to show love for them and their children for the first time -- a transformation that hardly fits the sinister description offered in some media accounts.As a Latino committed to racial justice, I don't believe the phenomenon of angry white men is going to disappear any time soon. I would much rather have those white males in a stadium trying to find a brother of color to hug than picking up a gun or being clueless about where and why racial conflicts exist.