Promise Keepers, Racism and the Militarization of God

As 4,000 men clapped and shouted approval, Rev. Larry Jackson stood on an enormous stage between two huge video screens at the Worcester Centrum in Massachusetts. His voice pounded through the microphone as men cried out, "Hallelujah!" and "Praise Jesus!" Rev. Jackson, a speaker for the Promise Keepers on July 26, shouted, "God sent me here with this message: today is your day for this region! Stand up as a mighty army and allow the winds of God to blow into your life!"The Promise Keepers, an evangelical Christian men's movement with a budget of about $90 million a year, say the winds of God are blowing and they have hundreds of thousands of men all over the country to prove it. Founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney, former University of Colorado football coach, and supported by Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, and James Dobson, founder and president of Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, or PK as they are commonly known, have grown exponentially in the last seven years. All over the US, crowds often numbering 50,000 to 60,000 pay $65 to $85 to fill enormous football stadiums to worship with the Promise Keepers. Pat Robertson, televangelist who ran for president in 1988, promoting the Oct. 4 Stand in the Gap rally on his "700 Club." Randy Phillips, president of the Promise Keepers, recently explained the choice of the nation's capital for the march: "D.C., the ground itself, represents a whole country. It's a place where we go to mourn and celebrate nationally, and so it's a place that we believe God's prepared for us collectively as men from every city in this country to come and kneel on one piece of ground that represents the whole nation."Militarism in God's NameThe Promise Keepers build on a long tradition of Christian evangelism in the United States Armed Forces. Campus Crusade for Christ was founded in 1951 by Bill Bright during the Cold War with a heavy emphasis on the "threat of communism" and an apocalyptic theology. Campus Crusade began its military ministry in the 1960's, while also breaking up anti-war demonstrations on college campuses. Campus Crusade sponsors the Christian Embassy in Washington DC, which provides Bible studies and prayer groups to military personnel, members of Congress, and perhaps most importantly, members of the Pentagon.Campus Crusade bankrolled Bill McCartney and PK in its early inception, and continues to provide speakers and endorsements for PK events; they are also footing some of the bill for accommodations at Stand in the Gap. Campus Crusade also provided PK with the resources built from its influential military ministry. Many former senior military officers act in an advisory capacity to PK. The PK organizational model is reminiscent of the military ranking system. In addition to the huge stadium events, PK provides special training for cells of Ambassadors and Key Men who organize the PK members on the local church level. So, a man attending Promise Keeper stadium event can then return to his local church where a Key Man, specially trained by PK provides guidance on accountability; the Key Man, in turn, reports to the Ambassador.Retired Army Special Forces Lieut. Col. Chuck Stecker, now a PK state official, praised the PK system: "I believe with all of my heart that the military structure that we know and love so well is perfect for the accountable relationships that God is calling us to in Promise Keepers. That same structure, whether it be at the squad level for the Army and right up or whether it be at the detachment level, squadron level and so forth, is exactly what we need.( ... ) Having served in a Ranger battalion, if a squad leader did not know where his soldiers were, his Rangers, he wasn't doing his job. And in order to be able to know those things he had to be in accountable relationships with them in order to develop that. We have to carry this a step further so that our lives, if you will, reflect Jesus Christ."In 1996, retired Col. Jim Pack led a PK event that was held at Fort Bragg, NC. A state manager for PK in Texas, Pack spent twenty years of his military career in the Special Forces specializing in psychological warfare.Fred Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, states that the Promise Keepers consider themselves "central players in an end-of-the-world scenario against the forces of Satan. They believe they are a Biblically prophesied end-times army." Pat Robertson, he points out, believes that he will see prophesied end-times armed combat in his lifetime. The title of the Stand in the Gap gathering comes from a passage from Ezekiel (22:30): "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none." This underlines the necessity for PK members to come to the nation's capital to stand between the wrath of God and America, and to "take the nation for Christ." Many are prepared to do so.The March/April 1997 issue of "New Man," then the official magazine of the Promise Keepers (it has since become an independent publication), ran an article called "The Dark Side of the Militia," which called on Christian men to avoid militias, despite whatever frustrations men may feel about "a godless political system." In the June 1997 issue, angry writers responded. A pastor wrote, "I found Richard Abanes' article ... to be very disturbing. Pardon me, but did he miss his high-school history class? Did he miss ÎGive me liberty or give me death?' That statement was made by Patrick Henry, a devout Christian and Founding Father of our nation ... Christians cannot ignore their biblically mandated responsibility to the society and world in which God has placed them, even if that means armed resistance -- as a last resort."Another reader responded, "He [Abanes] states that historically Christians have not Îtaken up arms' in the manner of today's militias. Abanes either forgot or does not know that the battle cry of the American Revolution was ÎNo King but King Jesus.'" Another letter states, "Did Jesus bow down to the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees or the Pharisees? Ask the moneychangers if Jesus was accepting of their authority in the temple."The July/August 1997 issue featured an article called "Miracle in the Desert," about four-star General Ron Griffith and the "miracle" of Desert Storm. The night before the ground war, Griffith was concerned about the possible American casualties, and prayed with his friend and chaplain, Col. Dan Davis, who told him, "This ... is a full assurance from God. I can tell you the attack will be hugely successful, more successful than anybody has envisioned. The war will be short, very short, and the causalities will be few, very, very few." The article goes on to say, "The Americans attacked Feb. 24, 1991. The war was over in four days. Thousands were not killed, nor were hundreds. Only four soldiers were killed. Was it a miracle? Griffith says yes."According to "New Man," then, militias are bad, but the US military is good. One can assume that Griffith and "New Man" magazine don't consider the one million Iraqis dead as a result of the Gulf War part of that miracle, or even as bodies to be counted, revealing the implicit militarism and racism of the movement.Political or Apolitical?Over and over, the PK leadership tells the mainstream media, "We're not political. This is not a political movement." They say that the Promise Keepers' goal is to help men be better husbands, better fathers, and better Christians. And for the average guy attending a stadium event, this is probably true. Some men tell stories about how PK helped them save their marriages or heal their relationships. Some PK wives talk about how their husbands have become better fathers since attending PK events. However, the leadership of the Promise Keepers has a different agenda, one that actively seeks to change public policy. In 1996, Raleigh Washington, a spokesperson for PK, told the Dallas Observer, "There's no way the group can restrict itself when it comes to public policy. We are producing leaders in this organization. They will enter the political sphere."Bill McCartney has had political projects of his own. He helped sponsor Amendment 2 in Colorado which would have amended the state constitution to deny civil rights to gays and lesbians, and he's called homosexuality "an abomination." The Promise Keepers encourage men to take back their authority in their homes. McCartney has said, "I believe we've sat idle too long in this country as men abdicated the role of leadership to their wives. And Ed Cole, at a PK stadium event in Oakland, said, "Act more like a man! Why? Because when a man acts like a child it forces his wife to act like his mother ... she makes decisions for him and she corrects him. Now there's a problem with that! ... you can't make love to your mother. If your wife no longer trusts your word, she can no longer respect you and she can no longer submit to you." However, as the PK stadium events have received more media attention, these types of statements have become conspicuously absent.Racial Reconciliation vs. Racial JusticeThe Promise Keepers have crafted a clever message of "racial reconciliation" which they enthusiastically deliver at their stadium events. Though the organization is 90-96 percent white, they have made racial reconciliation a top priority by including the concept in their "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper: "A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." Men at stadium events are exhorted to cleanse themselves of the sin of racism which prevents racial reconciliation. The mainstream media delights in images of African-American men and white men embracing. The hyper-visibility of men of color, positioned carefully near the press cameras, adds to the illusion that overwhelming numbers of African-American men are making friends with and taking care of their white brothers.Horace Seldon, retired founder of Community Change Inc., in Boston, doesn't see anything new in the phrase "racial reconciliation." He says, "Most of white America seems to think, if I have a friend who's a person of color, that takes care of it. The idea of racial reconciliation doesn't have much to do with institutional power arrangements. The characteristic view of white folks is that it's okay to bring people of color to the table, but not power differentials." The Promise Keepers' call to end racism is part of a carefully designed message delivered by Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition. In his book Active Faith, Reed writes, "When it came to racism, where were conservative evangelicals? They were not only on the sidelines, but on the wrong side of the most central cause of social justice in this century. We quote Martin Luther King to great effect, but how many of us marched with him, and how many of us bear the scars of Bull Connor's billy clubs and police dogs? Sadly, the answer is few. For this reason, our repudiation of racism and bigotry in all its ugly forms must become one of our major tenets as a movement."The Stand in the Gap event, which will take place on the Washington Mall, brings these racial politics into clear view. PK literature says, "We expect anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 men to attend the Sacred Assembly." In the official Stand in the Gap registration booklet, PK encourages men to "reach across racial lines in faith" and to "Be One Who Brings One," presumably meaning white men should bring men of color to the event.The Promise Keepers seek to present an authentically multiracial event which stresses "racial reconciliation." Fred Clarkson notes that even if a small percentage of the participants are men of color, this will be viewed favorably in the mainstream media, in contrast to Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March.Appropriation of Martin Luther KingPK quotes Martin Luther King to promote their event: "It was in Washington DC that Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed the dream that Black and White, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic would one day hold hands in a spirit of reconciliation and unity, and see each other based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin...."PK uses the words and images of King in a way that might even be termed character assassination. Their use of King gives one the sense that he would agree with this program of racial reconciliation. However, in the "I Have a Dream" speech from the March on Washington that PK uses to advance their own cause, King said, "We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. Now is the time to make real the promises to democracy; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial justice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all God's children."Notice that King does not say "racial reconciliation." King does not once mention this term. Instead, he says, over and over, racial justice, which is something that the Promise Keepers do not endorse. In fact, Wellington Boone, an African-American PK spokesman has said, "Blacks have had more than two centuries of training in being a slave of man. It can be added as long-term qualification to prepare them to be a fine slave of God or to rule as a king." How convenient that these words should come from an African-American spokesperson.Loretta Williams, a community activist and former chair of the National Interreligious Commission on Civil Rights, notes Promise Keepers' racist strategy hidden in a message of reconciliation. In an editorial in Unity First on August 9, 1997, she refers to a statement made PK's President Randy Phillips: "The goal is not integration. The goal is reconciling through relationships." Williams responds, "The idea that personal relations govern race relations is delusional. It ignores structural racism in US society ... The carefully crafted media messages of the Promise Keepers represent a diversionary political strategy at this time when governmental programs and policies improving quality of life for people of color are being defunded and dismantled ... Talk of racial reconciliation muddles, not clarifies, racial relations. Racial justice must be our collective demand."What Can We Do?It is important that the community of people of faith and people who work for social justice and peace respond to this fast-growing mass movement, which claims to be apolitical while endorsing and maintaining close ties to the Armed Forces and the Pentagon.Equal Partners in Faith, a coalition of faith-based denominational and community activists, is organizing a response to the October 4 event as well as educating nationally on the Promise Keepers. The group will meet in a DC-area church for a mult-faith, multi-racial celebration. Mandy Carter, of Equal Partners, says she hopes the day will be "inspirational and informational," and that people will come away from the event and workshops with tangible ways to challenge PK. The Promise Keepers represents another step towards the complete militarization of our society, even as PK leadership appropriates the language of non-violent resistance. The peace and justice movement must respond by vigorously questioning the images and stories presented by the media. Do not be lulled into complacency by men hugging and speaking of responsibility. The responsibility here is ours, and it is to follow the mandate of Martin Luther King, to work without ceasing to end racial injustice and overwhelming militarization.Special thanks in the writing of this article to Loretta Williams and Fred Clarkson and to Al Ross, Joe Conason, and Lee Cokorinos for the information in their article "The Promise Keepers are Coming: The Third Wave of the Religious Right."Erin Miller is Information Specialist at Political Research Associates, a non-profit research center devoted to democracy and diversity.

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