Promises Made: The Promise Keepers

The men hugged each other at the door of the Independence Christian Center (ICC). Grateful to begin their week with other Christian men, all eight carried Bibles and notebooks. One man wore a Promise Keepers lapel pin he bought at a stadium conference Ñ bronze with "Men of Integrity" written below a stylized "PK."For me, a new face, they turned their good spirits into warm welcome. Each spoke about the importance of men discussing Christian values and biblical principles together. Just men.In the clean, well-lighted church classroom stood a large folding table surrounded with solid stacking chairs. The men formed a diverse group. Seven of the eight men were from the ICC congregation, three were retirees. The youngest of the group, a man of about 24, was single and from another congregation. An ex-Muslim, Jay Saleh, sat joking with the other married men, one of whom had been divorced and remarried.A recent National Enquirer article about the Promise Keepers went around the table. One man expressed relief typical of Pat Robertson when he says, "Well, it's about time we got good press." The National Enquirer had gained credibility above being just a piece of the amorphous mass called "media."Ralph Huffaker, a retired high school counselor, opened the meeting with a prayer. He expressed gratitude that such a meeting could occur, that the Promise Keepers existed, that men could gather to learn more about Christian principles. He asked that the men take those lessons into an unfriendly world, to their families, to their work places. He prayed for me and my career as a writer. "God," he prayed, "begin to do in us what we cannot do ourselves."These men wanted to maintain the feeling of belonging and usefulness they first felt with thousands of others like them. With crusading spirit, Promise Keepers have filled stadiums cross the country with male believers looking for reenforcement of traditional Christian values. Speakers for the stadium revivals, and for smaller, day-long leadership conferences have demonstrated dynamism and adherence to the Promise Keeper ideals. Surrounded with charismatic fervor, prayer and stadium waving spirituality, even skeptical Christian believers have been convinced to join the fold.The meeting at ICC was what Promise Keepers bring home from the mass revivals. Stadiums made headlines. Work on the front lines was more subdued, less flashy and tougher in the end.The men were friendly and sincere. They welcomed newcomers with open arms. All men are invited, says Huffaker, "as long as believe in Jesus Christ as Savior."FROM TWO TO THOUSANDSNo one knows how many local Promise Keeper groups there are like the one at the Independence Christian Center. The only thing for sure is that they are forming across the nation with astounding rapidity.The Promise Keepers is a modern day conundrum of huge proportions. Its membership and goals form a complex mix of sometimes contradictory beliefs and actions. Members are to be responsible, but to traditional gender roles and literal interpretations of the Bible. While seeking to bring together all Christian men, Promise Keepers' conservative bearing makes room for all matter of social and political discontents. There is no place for people who have sought answers to life struggles in places other than the Bible Ñ this is an organization for believers. While eschewing overt judgement, the prudence of Promise Keepers ends at nontraditional gender roles and families and homosexuality Ñ what many neo-Christians believe to be portents of civilization in decline.Based in Denver, the Promise Keepers nationally employs some 320 full and part-time employees. The 1994 income for the group was $64 million, raised mostly from private donations."We are a nonprofit organization," says Laura Swickard of the Promise Keepers Media and Public Relations Dept. "We have men based in Denver that look after 7 regions in the United States. These men work with 25 state offices, and task forces in states that don't have offices yet. The job of the state office is to work with Point Men and Ambassadors (volunteer representatives and recruiters), each of whom work within a church."The setup is simple. Literature and extensive training in recruiting give the Promise Keepers solid ground with which to maintain their remarkable growth. "There are numerous study guides and pamphlets," says Huffaker, "all available from the national organization."A book of essays from the main speakers for the group, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, outlines the group's tenets. Bible study guides, literature specific to Point Men and Ambassador recruiters, and worksheets, books and A New Man: For Men of Integrity, a national magazine, all carry the Promise Keepers' message.Promise Keepers grew out of a three-hour automobile trip in March 1990. Colorado University football Coach Bill McCartney and his friend Dave Wardell were travelling to a Pueblo, CO, meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They sang Christian songs and prayed together. The fellowship they enjoyed brought them to believe a Christian men's ministry should be their goal."As for the name, Promise Keepers," wrote McCartney in his autobiography From Ashes to Glory, "we had to have integrity as individuals and as a group...the simple truth (is) that a man of integrity is a man who keeps his promises."Later in 1990, 72 men attended the first revival of Promise Keepers. They prayed for the success of their effort. Since that first meeting, the group has become a phenomenon. In 1993, the group filled Colorado University's Folsom stadium with 50,000 men (the admission was $55 which included two meals for the two-day event). The organization boasted of 700,000 men gathering in stadiums around the nation in 1995. This year, hopes are that stadium conference attendance will top 1 million. A stated goal of the organization is to hold stadium conferences in 50 states by the turn of the century. Membership costs nothing. There is even a scholarship for those who cannot afford the $55 conference ticket.CULTIVATING A MYSTIQUEMcCartney, himself, has become something of an enigma. He's also had problems pursuing Christian fatherhood. In 1989 McCartney's daughter Kristen had a son by McCartney's star quarterback, Sal Aunese, who only admitted paternity after a blood test and who died of cancer when the child was five months old. Kristen had a later tryst with CU defensive back Shannon Clavelle that produced another son.The car ride with Wardell seemed to give McCartney room to throw stones. While Kristen may have been the impetus for him to form Promise Keepers, she remains an embarrassment to McCartney, who supports her and her children. McCartney left his job as Colorado's football coach to pursue a full-time voluntary position with Promise Keepers. He admittedly consulted his wife after making his decision, a point not missed by writers in Ms., Utne Reader,,. and Denver's Westword.Members staunchly believe God gave McCartney the vision for the group, creating the aura of a personality cult. His autobiography, an essay in Seven Promises, and editorship of What Makes a Man: 12 Promises that Will Change Your Life suggest his influence on the organization.With help from ministers and neo-Christian thinkers, McCartney devised the seven concise promises that form the basic principles for the group. The first establishes Christianity and God's word in the Bible as the foundation for the organization. Promise Keepers seeks to bring men home and to have them take responsibility for their actions. Part of membership is finding other men to support and be supported by, helping the church pastor and praying for him in his daily struggles.A Promise Keeper in the Sixth Promise commits "to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity" (upwards of 25 percent of Promise Keeper membership is minority). In practical terms, the seventh promise asks men to take what they have learned from each other into the world and practice these lessons in daily living.The Promise Keepers as a men's organization cultivates a mystique. Accordingly, a Christian man's problems stem from a hostile and temptation-ridden world. Promise Keepers demands a member be a "man of integrity" and follow principle despite the worldly forces working on him. Members believe that the Christian man is a warrior in the struggle of good and evil. Only reliance on a Christian God and His word will enable the believer to conquer the evil lurking in his life.TRADITIONAL MALE ROLEA traditional gender role prescribed by Scripture is the Promise Keeper's first defense. "Promise Keepers are trying to bring back what works and what God has in his work," Huffaker maintains. "It encourages a man to make a stand for what's right, to raise his family in a godly manner. Many men aren't teaching godly principles and trust others to do that. But men need to have the confidence to do that. Promise Keepers gives them what they need to build strong families.""For men who are associated with Promise Keepers and the church," says Troy van Gundy, a local hotel worker, "it builds confidence and allows men to face the future with clear conscience. The promises are commitments. Unlike New Year's resolutions that are gone in a few weeks when people are lead back to temptations, the promises work on. The devil works overtime. But Christ and God will warm you, lead you to do good in business, church, community."Many modern day Christians believe our world is in shambles (Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts and other televangelists sell their ministries by pointing out how bad things are). They cite lack of example as the reason for problems. Promise Keepers do no less. The December 1994 New Man calls the '90s the "post-heroic age," when celebrities and national leaders make poor role models."I believe," writes McCartney in From Ashes to Glory, "we've sat idle in this country as men have abdicated the role of leadership to their wives...I've seen an appalling lack of paternal influence in many of the young men I've coached over the years."van Gundy believes "what is happening now is a speed train of distorted priorities with drugs, crime, abortion and divorce."Moral backbone, according to Promise Keepers, should be provided by fathers. Promise Keepers seeks to unite men of faith and direct their energies toward the good they can accomplish in everyday living. This avenue of action instead of bemoaning the sinfulness of man gives the organization an extra draw."The Promise Keepers is about truth in life," van Gundy says. "I try to work truths. They point out the problems with sleeping around or drinking. But I know I am a sinner."We (Promise Keepers) are making a commitment to something bigger, like showing up for work on time or for a date. We can fall, but once we make a commitment and can work toward it, we can build on that. We put the armor of God to protect us from anything the devil throws at us."Promise Keepers helps Christian men in the workplace. Don Sweeney, a sales representative, says that the group helps him to deal with ethics and morals at work. "I am in sales. Sales is an effort to differentiate yourself from the rest of the competition. One is in the gray area where one is not lying, but shading things and positioning for better sales. We also deal with the ethics of our supervisors. Politics in the work place seem out of line with Christian ethics. Sometimes we don't fit in well with work place protocol."Personal relations in all aspects of life are at the heart of the Promise Keeper agenda. While Promise Keepers emphasize the importance of men being sensitive to their wives, it is an organization for the traditional male."Promise Keepers clearly promotes leadership for the male," a premise with which Sweeney clearly agrees. "There must be leader, as in any organization. Man's role is not superior, but God's design for the most productive unit."Huffaker believes similarly that Promise Keepers does not ask women to return to home. "But it does strive to help them deal with their families. It seeks to move men and their wives into trusting God to help meet our needs. A family that walks close with God will make good decisions, and will prosper in all ways. They will feel good about relationships with family and with God."This paternalism extends to the individual. The organization invites men to be more sensitive, to express with emotions considered feminine. But macho imagery fills literature and symbols. Sports and military jargon flow freely in literature and from members. Constantly reinforced are the ideas of struggle and strength, on the male role in family and society as one of leadership, and on the idea that men can only express themselves fully in the absence of women."Men and women are different," Huffaker says. "Women more verbal. Men like space and women like togetherness. When they are together, men shut up and begin to wander away. Promise Keepers give men a base to put things together in their families. Women seem to love it. They get treated differently at home. This is because the traditional family has been pushed aside, and there has been some damage from that. Men have let down their role."But Promise Keepers changes that. We like to do things (as a group) and put women in our activities. But basic is to treat wives like God wants us to."Sweeney believes his small group in Crofton meets as "an accounting for commitments. One of our men is married and he discusses issues he has with marriage and relationships. Men and women are different creatures for a reason. Sometimes this creates situations in which they aren't on the same page."TRADITIONAL FEMALE ROLEThe Promise Keeper message appeals to men seeking to return traditional gender roles in family and society. "The first premise is to honor Jesus Christ," says Sweeney, "to be a better husband and father." Promise Keepers stresses that they do not seek to remove women from the work place. But one Promise Keeper stadium speaker insists that men "demand" back from women the traditional male role in the family."When it comes to women," says Sweeney, "they are direct beneficiaries. The feminist viewpoint grieves me. Women are not officially invited because Promise Keepers is a men's ministry. We learn how better to serve women and Jesus Christ."From the outside looking in, I can understand how women would feel excluded, initially. They make a huge presumption that because it's men-only, it is anti-woman. But I know a dozen women who are envious. They already see some of the positive fruits of the Promise Keeper commitment."Huffaker says the Promise Keepers want "to get men to come back to responsibility. Women have been the traditional stronghold in the church. Men have wandered to the outskirts of church life. They work for a living and have become workaholics where the job is everything. Women want security, but they want time. Men need to make decisions that will make a difference in the family, and that means making family important."Jane, Huffaker's wife of 43 years, agrees. "I wanted him to get involved with other men in a Christian organization. It's been great for us. We have always been together and decided things together. I enjoy him being the head of household. I never hear of Promise Keepers causing problems in other families. I always hear positive things," she says."I have seen Promise Keepers at our church (ICC). I see a real love and see them grow. They come together to reach out and help one another. There have been wonderful changes in marriages. In our women's group, we hear the testimony from them."Ralph has always been a super husband, father and friend. But he has changed in the way he sees, and meets challenges according to the word of God. Before he was a workaholic. Now he takes time with family."I think Promise Keepers is wonderful organization that more ought to be involved with. It teaches them (men) to take stand for families, to take responsibility for guidance of the family, and to stand for children Ñ be more a part of family according to what God says they should be."It is neat for men to get together and talk about their problems. After all, we women do it all the time, and always have. They can gain from the experiences of others and take that into life."LIKE MIND, COMMON BELIEFThe idea of manly fellowship in Christ is a theme often repeated in Promise Keeper literature and by members themselves. Coming together to share experience is an age-old way of dealing with problems, and one central to Promise Keepers. "The idea is to lay a foundation for commitment after the stadium gathering," Sweeney says. "We are encouraged to take that experience home and to keep growing." "I think the appeal would be to men who are looking for answers to some of life's questions. You can find it with others who can identify and stand with you in a situation. Maybe you have been wrong and need to work with each other. It is men working together to be better fathers and friends," says Huffaker.The group's literature encourages the use of neo-Christian morality at work. But this raises questions of its own. With affirmative action and equal opportunity legislation under fire, there is nothing to stand in the way of the Promise Keeper, and neo-Christian ideals, shaping employment policy where Promise Keepers hold supervisory positions. The careers of many women, homosexuals and nonbelievers may ultimately be in question.While the Promise Keepers claim no political affiliations, the group's members can hardly help but be involved on a civic level. Promise Keeper literature often counsels members on political involvement.In the Bible study guide Promise Builders, "The Devil Made Me Do It" highlights the temptation a member faces in school board elections and suggests a no-compromise Christian stance toward sex education in schools. The study questions in "The State of the Union" asks members to discuss "God's game plan for ultimate world rule," a plan for a national blessing and how today's leaders could better respond to "God's warnings." Whole chapters of Promise Keeper books are devoted to the Christian man's involvement in a community hostile to God's plan. With faith, Bible study and no compromises in opinion, good Christians can overcome what they perceive as the devil's work.Devil's work is everywhere, but most worrisome to many Promise Keepers is homosexuality. McCartney said in a 1992 interview that homosexuality is "an abomination of almighty God." He apologized for his public statements but not his beliefs. The Promise Keeper mission statement repeats the conviction that homosexuality "is a sin." While a strident supporter of civil rights for minorities, McCartney has been active in Colorado's Amendment 2 that seeks to bar homosexuals from legal protection against discrimination.Other Promise Keepers agree with McCartney on the wrongness of homosexuality. "It confronts a huge misunderstanding of Christians in general," says Sweeney. "People pointing fingers at homosexuals are not true representations of Christians or the Christian ideal. But Scripture is very clear that homosexuality is a sin. Just as committing adultery is going to get you disqualified from leadership of a church, it is the same with homosexuality."As far as homosexuals feeling judged, I can understand where they would get that. But I don't see it as the case. The act they see as their right is not. No good Christian will condemn a homosexual person, but certainly their acts. If you were to ask me if I thought they had to turn from homosexuality, I would have to say yes."Judgment laces this tolerance. "I don't avoid gays," van Gundy says, "but they try to make excuses. There is no medical proof it is genetic and hereditary. I did not make the choice to be gay. Thousands of gays go to church, find God and walk away changed."We should love them for who they are, and help them. Their upbringing, lifestyle choices, and drugs have lead them into not knowing the difference from male and female. No one should bad-mouth them. They need Christian counseling. Through Promise Keepers they will see fellowship and love, and what it means to be loved, and they will change."Bill McCartney believes homosexuality is an abomination of God. Look at AIDS. Look at their lifestyle Ñ- all these young men in pain Ñ- what else can it be?"OLD BELIEF GOING TOO FARViews of the Promise Keepers and individual members, encouraged by fundamentalist interpretation of scripture, oppose much of the women's and homosexual rights agendas. "We have a long way to go with women's rights and gay and lesbian rights," says Val, a lesbian, women's rights activist and mother of two who wishes to remain anonymous. "We have already taken steps backwards. This group reaffirms the old idea of relationships between men and women."Rev. John Barbone, co-pastor of Metropolitan Community Christian Church in Kansas City, ministers to many in the homosexual community. Like Val, he sees traditional focus in the Promise Keepers. "I do not believe their view of women reflects a reality for the Christian ethic today. The abilities and talents of people are not bound by gender. To believe so is a throwback to the idea that man was made in God's image, but woman was not. People were made in God's image and likeness. The Bible is an old document written by men. The way of story telling reflects this. What we see now is history repeating itself."They are evoking good things," he maintains. "I concur with them that men need to take responsibility for their actions. They ought to be sensitive."The concept of affirming sensitivity, individual spirituality, strength in gentleness and emotional Ñ- anything to thwart all the testosterone perpetrated on the male gender Ñ- is good. I would not speak against that. We do that at this church with all-male support groups. But when the group inculcates a philosophy against others, then it causes damage to self-esteem, to society."While Promise Keepers base their proscription of homosexuality on scripture, Val points out "there are millions of ways to interpret the Bible if you choose to." A document with the breadth of authorship and sources like the Bible leaves itself open to whatever the interpreter wants to read into it. Fundamentalists, liturgists, dogmatists, ideologues have been able to prove opposing points reading the same piece of scripture. The Bible is the cornerstone for the white supremacist and anti-homosexual beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. Local extremists Fred Phelps and the Rev. Birmingham use the Bible to pursue vehement hatred of homosexuals.Barbone concurs with Val. "The reality for me is the inner word of God. I believe in the Bible as truth. But interpretations are based on the literal word or the figurative meaning. Mistranslations and misinterpretations happen all the time. Not once in the Bible is there a direct proscription of homosexuality. There are condemnations of homosexual lust, homosexual rape, homosexual idolatry and other aberrations. I believe these extremes are wrong. But there is the same condemnation against heterosexual lust, rape, and idolatry," he says."What it comes down to is this: There is no such thing as gay or straight morality. There is but one morality for all. God has given us the gift of sexuality to use in a responsible, loving and creative manner."Promise Keepers and their churches organized on the national level, and backed by a huge national organization could influence political agenda very quickly, if they haven't already. McCartney's efforts on Colorado Amendment 2 have many wary of his Promise Keepers. "In some churches," says Val, "there are elements of racism and homophobia. Churchgoers may accept me (but) there is a lot more to their friendships."I work with a woman whose husband is involved in Promise Keepers. He is nice man and will do everything for me. But I feel that every day he prays I will find the true way. The true way, they say, is God's way according to their interpretation of the Bible. They tell me that homosexuality is wrong. They throw the Sodom and Gomorrah thing around. They quote a lot. The true way is what the Bible and God's word says it is. But it seems anything can be the true way as long as it is not homosexuality."I do not believe the Promise Keepers will remain pure and true to its cause," Val adds. "To the Promise Keepers, being a real man is being a good provider, a good family man and a good Christian. I have no problem with these goals. But I fear the political motivations. I see it as a religious group a political purpose."When Barbone first heard of the Promise Keepers, "I perceived it as new front for human rights violations. But I have approached it as I have the Million Man March. I sat glued to speeches given at the March. There was much about reclaiming identity and taking responsibility. If the Promise Keepers are the same, then there may be something to it. But we always have to ask ourselves when does a thing like this go too far?"I respect the right of individual belief. But when the believers impose their beliefs on others, that's when I have to draw the line. I respect that certain persons may be persona non grata due to their beliefs, but when actions impose that on others, then it is a violation of human rights, governmentally and spiritually."SELLING THE PROMISETheir marketing is clever and reflects the fundamentalism of the board of directors, many of whom are involved with the ultra-conservative Vineyard Fellowships. Promise Keepers sells a slick, high-tech God-loving product with high quality bound literature and on-line conferencing. But the message is decidedly righteous and reactionary.Promise Keepers abuse language to this end. Literature constantly redefines father, male, sensitivity and family in neo-Christian terms. Family is one parent of each sex under the same roof, performing roles invented in the Beaver Cleaver age Ñ- to the faithful there is no family other than this. The often repeated "Godly values" can mean anything the righteous prefer them to be. Promise Keepers are to be sensitive to women while demanding traditional roles that diminish a woman's role in the family Ñ- and ultimately society.Binding Christian men emotionally gathers together like-minded people. This may increase paranoia and harden political and ethical stances against society's perceived evils. The group's use of New Age politically correct semantics appropriates language from the civil and women's rights movement."Sincere people in leadership positions in groups like this do not have a sense of the amount of power or abuse of power they are involved in," cautions Barbone."We must apply the truth but must not scandalize others. We believe in love and reconciliation, the need to understand. They do not know what seeds they are sowing. But in the end, God will judge. If women's lives are destroyed, they will be held responsible. If lesbians and gays or any minorities are oppressed, they will be held accountable.Rev. Jan Cross, co-pastor with at Metropolitan Community Christian asks simply, "Is their god God, or is their god their truth? If it is their truth, then they are involved in idolatry. The word of God is subject to God; the Bible is not God. But it is His word to us to help us find Him. This word is manifest in Jesus Christ. He treated women, and all people, with respect and gave them positions of respect. This is the greater lesson."The meeting at ICC in Independence, MO, was on anxiety. The men read the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells a crowd not to worry but to trust in God as the birds of the air and beasts of the forest. Huffaker called for other translations of some passages. Eight different Bibles from eight different publishers lay on the table Ñ drawn from at least three different interpretations of original texts.The Promise Keepers, there, were nice men. But to them the Christian man is different, special, besieged. Promise Keepers encouraged no true tolerance or complete reconciliation and understanding. In calling themselves responsible, they pointed fingers at those they considered irresponsible. The Promise Keepers family meant a mother and father with a couple of kids living under the same roof Ñ anything else was not a family. Women's rights had no place in it. One had the sense that women should always be ready to return home at the onset of economic prosperity.We clasped hands around the table at the end of the meeting. They prayed around the table, each in turn, for the members of their church, for their congregation in general, for each other, for me. They prayed for the Promise Keepers, and above all, the arrival of the Christian society.##


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