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Promise Keepers: Seven reasons to watch out

IFASFreedom WriterSeptember 1996 — promise.html

Promise Keepers:
Seven reasons to watch out

By Ami Neiberger

"There's coming a day when the strongest voice in America will be that of a Christian male," thundered former football coach Bill McCartney to a packed stadium in 1992. In male-only stadium events like that one, Promise Keepers, the Christian men's movement which McCartney co-founded, will attract 1.5 million men to its conferences in 1996.1

Promise Keepers (PK) blends the teachings of Robert Bly and Billy Sunday in a high-tech revival-style pep rally. Boisterous PK conferences feature well-known conservative evangelical speakers, upbeat music, and arm-linking camaraderie. In teary-eyed moments, men put their arms around each other and pray together in small huddles. They're encouraged to return home to form small-group cells that will meet together for Bible study and prayer, and hold each other accountable for the promises that they made at the stadium.

McCartney's vision of Christian men dominating the national stage could come true. PK has been hailed as "the largest and most important men's movement in the United States today," by David Blankenhorn, author of the best-selling Fatherless America.2

The PK movement is a patchwork of "family values," chest pounding, and Bible thumping congealed together and given a conservative spin. PK's only creed is the "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper." The promises encourage men to be committed to Christ, personal moral purity, their marriages, and their churches. They also encourage men to "break down the walls" of denominational and racial barriers and to influence the world.

Comments about shattering denominational barriers rankle many within the movement. PK has been condemned by feminist organizations for its stance on women, and by homosexual rights groups for its negative comments about gays. Religious Right-watchers see, cloaked in PK's "revive America" rhetoric, the very same euphemisms and phrases used by the politically active Religious Right.

Yet PK's leadership refuses to take political stands, and there has been some speculation about how PK can implement its goal of racial reconciliation without politics. By being deliberately ambiguous about their intentions, PK organizers leave open the door for right wing extremists with political agendas.

1 Explosive Growth

It has been nothing short of phenomenal. The movement began in 1990 when University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and a friend talked about filling up a football stadium with Christian men. Their first event drew 4,200 men to a basketball arena. In 1992 they attracted 22,000 to Boulder's Folsom Stadium, and the following year 50,000 men packed the same stadium. With seven stadium-sized events around the U.S. in 1994, 278,000 men attended, and more than 720,000 men filled thirteen stadiums in last year's events.3

PK's budget has swelled from $4 million at the end of 1993, to an estimated $115 million today. In an era when national evangelical Christian organizations are downsizing and laying off staff, PK's staff has swelled from 22 to 400.

PK's bimonthly magazine, New Man, published since 1994 by Strang Communications (which also publishes the pentecostal magazine Charisma), has been acclaimed as "one of the most successful launches in Christian publishing history" with well over a quarter of a million subscribers.4

Demonstrating an aggressive marketing style, PK has a catalog crammed with stylish products emblazoned with the PK logo. Truckloads of PK books, coffee mugs and T-shirts are available for purchase at every stadium event and over the Internet. PK's success has been so overwhelming that a thriving industry in copycat men's ministry materials is glutting the shelves of Christian bookstores.

Yet PK has also been criticized for encouraging materialism. At the Washington, DC conference at RFK Stadium, two men from a Christian ministry to the homeless protested that Christians are "called to help the poor" and "not spend $60 on stadium tickets." Apparently their message was not received too well — the protestors alleged that they were "physically threatened" by PK conference attendees and forced to move further from the stadium.

On the world wide web, there are so many home pages about PK that it has earned its own subject listing in the mammoth Yahoo! index.

There is some acknowledgement that PK is growing too fast, and that it could careen out of control and into the political arena. PK president Randy Phillips told the Los Angeles Times that "political involvement is possible...Our focus is changing men's hearts. When they're changed, they change a family, and a family can change a nation."

2 Leadership

Although PK officially avoids politics, its leaders are well-known for promoting right wing politics. Perhaps the most controversial figure within the PK movement is Bill McCartney himself.

He was launched into fame in 1985 after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged his practice of conducting team prayers. He vocally supported the radical antiabortion group, Operation Rescue, in 1989. In 1992 McCartney allowed his name and university affiliation to be used by Colorado for Family Values, the organization that promoted Colorado's Amendment 2, which denied civil rights protection to gay people. (It was later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

McCartney called homosexuality an "abomination against Almighty God" and said homosexuals don't deserve civil rights because they are "a group of people who don't reproduce." His blatant comingling of his university affiliation with his right wing politics earned him a public rebuke from the university president, and U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder called him a "self-appointed Ayatollah."5

In January 1995, he left his $350,000-per-year coaching job to work for PK and spend more time with his family.

McCartney's pastor, Rev. James Ryle of the Vineyard Church, is a major influence in his life. According to researcher Russ Bellant, Ryle "believes Promise Keepers, of which he is a board member, is the fulfillment of the biblically prophesied end-time army described in the Book of Joel, 'a terrifying army from which there is no escape.'"

McCartney has admitted that PK could motivate men to political action. In a 1993 speech to a stadium crammed with PKers, McCartney roared, "We will not compromise. Wherever the truth is at risk, in the schools or legislature, we are going to contend for it. We will win."

McCartney isn't the only one making political connections. PK co-founder Dave Wardell commented to the Denver Post, "We're drawing a line in the sand here...There has already been controversy about abortion and homosexuality. I hope there won't be physical confrontation but look at Amendment 2 and the ACT-UP people and the foreign religions coming in here."6

PK's events are beginning to edge closer to political involvement. To pray for the nation, PK is organizing a million-man march on Washington, DC for November 7, 1997. The march was originally planned for the fall of 1996, but it was postponed to quiet allegations of political hijinks in a presidential election year.

3 Supporters

PK is promoted by some of the most politically well-organized and active groups within the Religious Right. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, often speaks at PK events, and he has unabashedly promoted the group on his radio program for years.

Focus helped keep PK afloat in its early years with donations. It was a financial gamble Focus probably didn't regret; PK's banner book, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, was published by Focus, and the book spent over a year at the top of the Christian bestseller list.

Campus Crusade for Christ's Bill Bright and the Rev. D. James Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale's Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church also support PK. Kennedy is known for his opposition to the separation of church and state, and for his right wing political advocacy. Jerry Falwell, of the former Moral Majority, is another avid PK supporter; he spoke at a PK rally at Liberty University in March 1996.

The Christian Coalition is also on the PK bandwagon. Their magazine, Christian American, profiled PK in April 1995 with an article titled "Real Men Are Back," and the same month, Pat Robertson's "700 Club" profiled PK in a lengthy segment. Dobson, Bright, Kennedy and Robertson are all members of the secretive right wing Council for National Policy.

When Gentlemen's Quarterly published a "scathing profile" of PK in January 1996, the Christian Coalition accused the magazine of "bigotry," and retaliated with a volley of press releases demanding a "sincere apology for this offensive assault."7

GQ's article did go overboard, comparing McCartney to Adolf Hitler and labeling him a "raving lunatic." But the Christian Coalition failed to note the irony that McCartney had years ago called homosexuals "stark raving mad."

4 Structure and Discipling

There are those who fear that PK is detracting from the work of local churches. "Some of our guys come home wearing [PK] shirts and [PK] hats, and they want to start PK groups rather than work as a member of their local church," observed Southern Baptist Jim Burton in a Christianity Today article.8 Echoing similar concerns, a report by the Missouri-Lutheran Synod praised PK for encouraging men to pursue spirituality, but at the same time cautioned its members not to lose the distinctiveness of their denomination.

Even a few fundamentalist Christians have expressed similar concerns. On one website on the Internet, Miguel A. Betancourt II described how his church decided not to endorse PK because of concerns about PK's structure and doctrine. A member of his congregation then became a PK ambassador and began actively recruiting men against the congregation's wishes.

At the local level, PK encourages men to start small groups which meet weekly, often use official PK study materials, and "hold each other accountable" to their Christian commitments. They are encouraged to find "mentors," an idea based on the controversial shepherding/discipling model.

Many fear that PK's encouragement of accountability and mentoring is opening the door for abuse. Co-founder McCartney was heavily influenced by the Word of God (WOG) community, a "select" group of people who believed that they were specially chosen by God to fight the Antichrist. WOG members practiced an invasive form of shepherding/discipling which forced members to submit even mundane choices to "heads" for approval, and which subjected its members to "exorcisms" if they questioned authority. Writer Russ Bellant observed that men joining PK "may be deeply offended if they experience the degree of manipulation and control that has occurred in many shepherding/discipling situations."9

In every church, PK's small-group efforts are coordinated by a "key man" who operates with the blessings of his pastor, but who also disseminates information from PK's regional representatives and its national office. These "ambassadors" spread the word to new congregations and recruit from them. Bimonthly newsletters keep them informed of new PK policies. There were almost 14,000 ambassadors and key men active last year.

However, the control that the local church has over PK is tenous at best, and already crumbling. The Mississippi PK website is setting up small PK groups over the Internet, which may be a problem for PK, since these groups are not being coordinated by a key man operating with the blessings of a pastor in a local church. Whether these virtual PK groups are a success or a public relations nightmare for PK's national office remains to be seen.

5 Masculine Spirituality

"Jesus can help a man understand his masculinity," according to PK President Randy Phillips. PK encourages men to discover a "Christian" masculinity, replete with warrior imagery, protectionism, and chest pounding. PK's definition of Christian masculinity posits that men mediate the spiritual lives of families and churches because they are men.

PK offers men a clearly defined gender role and that fills a need. In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, religious sociologist Nancy Ammerman observed that, "The culture at large doesn't give men much in the way of incentives or training or role models for how to be a good husband and father. What Promise Keepers does is say what that means."10

But this has not always worked out as PK intended. Until recently, PK marketed a book about masculinity by psychologist Robert Hicks called The Masculine Journey: Understanding the Six Stages of Manhood. 50,000 copies were distributed at its 1993 conference alone. An official PK study guide is also available to guide small groups through the book.

Men should "worship God as phallic kinds of guys," not like "the feminized males so popular in many feminist-enlightened churches," according to Hicks. Hicks characterizes Jesus Christ as having "all the inherent phallic passions," and blames feminists for neutering Christ and downplaying the penis that made Christ "very much masculine."11

Hicks says that the church needs to establish masculine initiation rites because men experience more gender role conflict than women do. He urges church elders to congratulate young men on passing milestones of masculinity, and to wink at behavior (such as premarital sex) that the church typically condemns.12 Exactly what happens to the young women confessing similar indiscretions is not spelled out.

PK's endorsement of Hicks' book became a scandal. Some Christian fundamentalists, who already had a bone to pick with PK over its ecumenicism, raised an outcry over the book and effectively used the book to bash PK all over the Internet. In the June 1996 issue of the PK Times, PK announced that it would stop marketing the book, "because it has proven to be a distraction from the focus of our ministry."

Because it included only male clergy, the PK Atlanta clergy conference, which gathered over 39,000 Christian ministers together in February 1996 has been criticized. When questioned by a Freedom Writer reporter, PK president Randy Phillips said that no exclusion of women pastors was intended by the Atlanta conference, and that PK was not going to make a statement about the ordination of women.

But critics say that women were excluded. In an interview with Christianity Today, Susie Stanley, a professor of historical theology at Messiah College commented, "I think the fact that the conference was only for clergymen makes a very large statement. That, to me, is the major issue — kind of a denial that there are women clergy."13

Even some clergy who attended the conference dislike PK's emphasis on identification with Christ's maleness, and they fear it hurts the Christian message. Minister Edward Dobson told Christianity Today that he "was bothered by the emphasis on the masculine context. I believe in accountability with other men. But Jesus did not come to promote a masculine context. He came to reconcile us to God and to each other across racial, ethnic, and gender divisions."14

6 Women

The only women you'll see at a PK stadium event are those hawking hot dogs or selling T-shirts, or those carefully cloistered away from public view in the VIP box or the baseball dugout. PK says that the absence of women allows men to open up more and discuss male issues in a male context.

This male exclusivity is problematic because of what PK says about women: that they are weak and incapable of shouldering responsibility. Speaker Gary Smalley told PKers to view their wives as "weaker vessel[s]" at RFK stadium in May 1996. In his book, PK speaker Tony Evans says that women were intended by God to be "helpers" for men and that they were "never meant to bear the burden of responsibility for home and family."15

In a chapter entitled "No More Sissified Males," Evans says that men's leadership roles have been taken away by "society and feminists." He thinks that "feminists of the more aggressive persuasion are frustrated women unable to find the proper male leadership."16 Many PKers agree with PK's assessment of women and view the women's movement in derogatory terms. PK attendee Victor Demaio commented that "a woman's role is as a mother" and added that feminists "have their heads screwed on crooked."

PK says that women should submit to their husbands. In Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper Tony Evans admonishes men to "take back" the leadership of their homes from their wives, saying that "there can be no compromise" on this issue. Women are instructed to submit to their husbands, "for the sake of your family and the survival of our culture."17

PKers are told that women want to be dominated by men in an affectionate paternalism. In 1993, when Dobson addressed a PK rally, he hailed his audience as "50,000 hairy-chested testosterone-driven males," and told them, "Nothing matters more to a godly woman than that a man accept spiritual leadership for her and her children."18

His sentiments are echoed in PK-endorsed publications, which tell women that they were created by God for male enjoyment. The book Promises, Promises: Understanding and Encouraging Your Husband, is sold at PK stadium events and contains essays by wives of twelve prominent Christian leaders, many of them PK supporters. It characterizes Eve and all women since as "gift[s]" from God "designed especially" for men.

Promises downplays the historical contributions made by women to society, and encourages women to stay home. One author notes that being a man's helper must be a woman's lot in life since, "men were chosen [by God] to accomplish all the major events of history." The book says that women should not lead independent lives from their husbands and that homes should be their first priority. The book tells women to submit to their husbands, to yield the final word in family decision-making to their husbands, and to remember to "look good for your man."

There is no official PK organization for women, although several "unofficial" ones do exist. Heritage Keepers is a new PK spinoff which is planning its first conference in Wichita, Kansas for this fall. Another "unofficial" organization for PK wives, Women of the Promise, publishes a newsletter called "Adam's Rib." In one "Adam's Rib" article Debbie Johnson blamed unsubmissive women for homewrecking, and argued that women should submit to their husbands and not "men bash," so that a husband "can be the Promise Keeper he really wants to be."

However, many Christian women do not buy into PK's anti-woman conservativism and see PK as a reactionary movement. Beth Baldwin of Dallas, Texas said that she was "horrified" by "Adam's Rib" which she views as "degrading." "PK thinks that to revert back to the ideas and structure of a previous generation is the answer. They say that everything will be OK if we only live within the guidelines of a male-led family. They want to bury the dialogue that has occurred over the last thirty years. If women allow that to happen, then we will in fifty years be fighting for the same rights that we currently enjoy today, because we will have lost them."

According to the National Organization for Women (NOW), PK "uses its narrow interpretation of the Bible to promote homophobia, patriarchy and misogyny."19 But Jerry Falwell has commented that "it appears that America's anti-Biblical feminist movement is at last dying, thank God, and is possibly being replaced by a Christ-centered men's movement."

PK gives men a spiritual justification for regaining their power over society, and that message appeals especially to certain men. Sociologist Jay Coakly said in The New York Times that PK "gives moral legitimacy to men who wish to regain power. Men in general, and white men, in particular, feel they haven't been treated fairly, and that they need to get together and make sure that that won't happen in the future."

Even PK's laudable overtures at racial reconciliation are tainted by the same paternalistic themes that underlie its views about women. At a PK rally of 50,000 in Los Angeles, Randy Phillips' message about racial reconciliation was received less than enthusiastically. Tearfully, Phillips confessed to his own "flight" to suburbia. Phillips associated "peacefulness" with white suburbia and "the enemy [Satan]" with urbanism. "The enemy" was allowed to enter and take over the inner city because Phillips and other [white] men, had left, leaving "no hope anymore for my brothers of color." Author Ed Leibowitz concluded that in Phillips' view, white men bear the burden of power and responsbility and that they do not share the load equally with their Christian brothers of other races. 20

7 Politics

Many men attending PK events find support for conservative political activism. PK attendee Randy Wightman likes PK's emphasis on changing things, and noted that change happens when you change "your voting policies." He believes that PK is promoting "stronger families, stronger churches and a stronger nation."

In an interesting case study allowing a candid look at the thoughts of PKers, a Freedom Writer reporter tapped into an e-mail discussion group to which more than 400 PK men subscribe.

The purpose of the list was to "discuss the principles of the Christian men's organization Promise Keepers. It is for those who have attended, would like to attend, or are curious about Promise Keepers." Most of the members are male. Women are discouraged from joining the group.

The members of the group nominated 22 congressional representatives who they felt were "Godly" politicians. Without exception, all of them were Republicans. Even though he is not a politician, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was nominated also.

Nominations were justified for various reasons, including whether politicians were against abortion rights, or if they had been mentioned positively by conservative right wing groups like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, or the American Family Association. In Thomas' case, the nomination was justified by an e-mail "wink" ;-).

One participant suggested the "Godly politicians" be notified that "we are praying for them and that they are welcome to drop in any time [to the discussion group] with a personal or public policy prayer request." After the nominations were collected, a letterwriting campaign was organized. The purpose was to "say we're praying for them and thank them for keeping the faith and standing up for Christian values."

One member observed, "On this list, we often comment on the demoralization of American society and the ungodly actions of our government. Supporting our elected representatives ... is a simple way that we can encourage them to keep fighting our battles."

While some of the discussion covered topics like Bible study guides, racial reconciliation, personal prayer requests, and swapping tickets to PK meetings, groupmembers were inundated with conservative right wing political propaganda.

Members were subjected to an endless litany of conservative promotion with information about almost every politically active conservative group surfacing. Eagle Forum alerts featuring essays by Phyllis Schlafly, and American Family Association alert messages (containing updates about current AFA boycotts) were frequently posted to the list. Even a download from the Christian Coalition website was sent to all of the listmembers.

Subscribers got slanted press from the Family Research Council (FRC) about the "Stand for the Children" rally organized by the Children's Defense Fund, which the Heritage Foundation dubbed the "March of Social Service Administrators."

Using special commands, any member of the PK discussion group could order special files on a variety of topics. One file contained the text from Dobson's Focus on the Family newsletter slamming the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China last year because of its "liberal feminist" slant.

The letter counseled its readers to "remember that this assault on traditional values originated with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who adopted and promoted the feminist and homosexual agenda." It also told conservative activists to not give up badgering candidates for political office with questions about "abortion, homosexuality, safe-sex ideology, radical feminism and the family."

The biggest discussion on the list about abortion did not concern a woman's right to choose, but a pro-lifer's right to kill. One listmember said, "I am not saying that all [of us] today, or anyone for that matter, should get a rifle and pull a Paul Hill. I am exploring the limits of moral permissibility and contend that Hill and others stayed within the limits." About trespassing he wrote, "I have absolutely no problem with those who violate trespassing laws or vandalism laws in order to try to stop the killing of unborn children."

A gutsy fundamentalist bombarded the list with disquieting questions about PK for its listmembers, infuriating them by stealing their e-mail addresses and concealing his own identity. This electronic marauder was known as "the prophet." He stole the e-mail identity of a woman who had quietly subscribed to the PK list and listmembers mistakenly collared her as being "the prophet." She was denounced in blatantly sexist terms and her name, mailing address and e-mail address were posted for everyone in the listserve. "The prophet" was never caught, but the incident does not speak well for how PKers handle women who they think are questioning their authority.

Some men have credited PK with getting them involved in conservative politics. One conservative activist on the PK list credited PK with his political activity, noting, "Before I got involved with PK, I would look at an issue and say that's not so bad, but now I realize that I was setting my standards by the world's standards and not the word of God." Another listmember observed that "I am now more focused on the political aspects of my denomination."

In discussing the boycott of Walt Disney World by the American Family Association and the Southern Baptist Convention, some listmembers argued that all Christians were obligated to boycott Disney. One man warned, "remember brother satan also controls the media and apparently quite a bit of Disney as well." They justified the boycott on the grounds that Disney was deceiving America about "family values" and "Disney's agenda is to promote non-Christian activities."

Others took a different tack, saying that they found the boycott unjustified. These dissenters were berated by fellow listmembers who said, "Even if you only purchase what is good wholesome products [sic] all the money goes into one pot and gives Disney more to spend on their trash" and informed that they were practically advocating taking their children "to the local strip club." They were further warned that because their Christian faith was "lukewarm," Christ himself would "vomit" them out.

After the contention over the Disney boycott, some of the PK listmembers talked about leaving the forum because they didn't like the conservative politics. If it drives them away from a discussion group, could political conservativism drive men away from PK's national movement as well?

While many believe that PK is doing a great deal of good in the lives of individuals because men are spending more time with their families, the possibility exists that PK will drive men away from itself and from its churches.


1Christianity Today, April 29, 1996.
2USA Today, October 2, 1995, p68.
3Promise Keepers fact sheet, press packet, RFK Stadium.
4Christianity Today, April 29, 1996.
5Dirk Johnson, "Coach's Anti-Gay Stand Ignites Rage," New York Times, March 15, 1992, p10N.
6Church and State, May 1995, p11.
7"Gentlemen's Quarterly Smears Christians," Christian Coalition press release, January 15, 1996.
8Christianity Today, April 29, 1996.
9Russ Bellant, "Promise Keepers: Christian Soliders for Theocracy," Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, p82, 84.
10Christian Science Monitor, July 5, 1995.
11Robert Hicks, Understanding the Masculine Journey, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993), p181.
12Ibid., p176.
13Christianity Today, April 8, 1996.
15Tony Evans, No More Excuses: Be the Man God Made You to Be, p153.
16Ibid., p185.
17Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, p79-81.
18Church & State, October 1993, p20.
19Jena Recer, "Whose Promise are they Keeping?," NOW Times, August 1995.
20L.A. Weekly, May 31-June 6, 1996.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.

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