Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Religion and the Post-Welfare State

Charitable Choice

McCaughey Babies

Islam in Virginia

The Pope in Cuba

Patriarch's Visit

Religion in a Cold Climate

Clinton Scandal

Promise Keepers and the Culture Wars
by David G. Hackett

The first stories about Promise Keepers were enthusiastic. Newspapers in the West pointed excitedly to what the Dallas Morning News called the "spirited success" of this new "Christian men’s movement," focusing on the novelty and strangeness of 50,000 white, middle-aged men gathering in a Colorado football stadium to find their way back to God and their responsibilities as husbands and fathers.

The earliest commentators discussed the significance of the organizers’ choice of a football environment as the best vehicle for engaging and raising men’s consciousness. Surrounded by thousands of like-minded souls in the comfort of a familiar sports arena, men could open up emotionally to their failings and promise to atone. They noted how the movement tapped the athletic and military metaphors of Christian spirituality. Saint Paul in his letters talks about running the race, fighting the good fight, and putting on the armor of God.

As the Promise Keepers’ membership swelled (from 4,200 in 1991 to 230,000 in 1994), journalists waxed optimistic. "Men’s religious organization has a promising future" ran the headline on a column by Houston Chronicle religion writer Richard Vara. "Men across the nation flock to McCartney’s evangelical banner" declared Rocky Mountain News staff writer Michael Romano. An editorial in the Dallas Morning News described a Dallas rally as "an impressive commitment to rebuilding American families in these socially complex times."

But by 1996 (an election year) commentators began to worry that Promise Keepers was a Trojan horse for the religious right. Steve Rabey in The Christian Century reported that Protestant denominations were concerned over competition from what appeared to be a new "para-church" organization. Some Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Catholics, Rabey found, criticized the movement for failing to come to grips with hard theological differences.

Time reported that 59 religious liberals, including the dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the president of New York Theological Seminary, had issued a warning about the potential dangers of Promise Keepers to the nation’s churches. For their part, members of Promise Keepers stated repeatedly that their primary concern was returning men to their own-mostly Baptist-churches to take up their family responsibilities.

When East Coast publications and national broadcasts took up the story, a chorus of criticism centering on right-wing domination of the movement all but drowned out the positive note struck by the Western media. Thomas B. Edsall in the Washington Post described the Promise Keepers as opposed to all the "major aspects of liberal society." In an October, 1996 Nation cover story, Joe Conason, Alfred Ross, and Lee Cokorinos pronounced the movement "one of the most sophisticated creations of the religious right" and asserted that it represented a "third wave" of politically active religious conservatism "following the demise of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the compromises of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition with secular Republicanism."

Full-fledged culture war had been declared by the time National Organization of Women (NOW) president Patricia Ireland, joined by other less ubiquitous feminist critics, spent one television news show after another linking the movement’s founder, Bill McCartney, with the "same old pantheon of political extremists." Evidence offered was the early support of James Dobson’s "Focus on the Family" and Bill Bright’s "Campus Crusade for Christ," as well as McCartney’s known opposition to abortion and gay-rights legislation in Colorado. Also cited were McCartney’s talk of returning the country to Christ and rally speaker Tony Evans’s demand that men "take back" their leadership role in the family. Writing in The Progressive, Suzanne Pharr claimed that it "does not matter that a right wing agenda is not overt in the formative stages of this movement; when the leaders are ready to move their men in response to their agenda, they will have thousands disciplined to obey and command."

Significantly, this "here come the lunatics" coverage moderated and became increasingly sympathetic as time progressed and reporters met Promise Keepers and observed the movement’s rallies. Donna Minkowitz, a Jewish lesbian who infiltrated a rally dressed as a man to write an article for Ms. magazine, found herself being genuinely moved by the sincerity of the men she encountered. As the men poured into Washington for the October 4-5, 1997 rally, they conducted themselves so well, said one CNN correspondent, "You can’t help but be moved." Interviews of career-oriented and supportive Promise Keepers’ wives suggested that their relationships were far more egalitarian in practice than the rhetoric of men "taking charge" implied.

The absence of politics in the Washington rally speeches reinforced the shift in attitude, as did the rally’s emphasis on racial reconciliation-palpably present in scenes of black and white men hugging each other. Had any of the speakers ridiculed liberals or presented fundamentalists’ nonnegotiable principles of faith, this positive perspective would likely not have lasted long. But by the end of the Washington weekend both national and regional coverage had begun to defuse the "Unwarranted Anxiety Over Promise Keepers’ Moral Reawakening," as the Chicago Tribune headlined a column by former Reagan administration official Linda Chavez.

Such positive appraisals were followed by a backlash against the earlier liberal perspective, but this only reinforced the media-generated theme of culture war. Liberals were now accused of a double standard that kept them from recognizing the positive aspects of the movement. "By any normal expectation," wrote John Leo in U.S. News and World Report, "NOW would express at least some guarded praise" for programs that urged men to be emotionally vulnerable, honest, and respectful of their wives and families. (NOW didn’t budge.) Similarly, Jim Sleeper on All Things Considered argued that white liberals were unwilling to face the possibility that "the civil rights movement’s beloved community of black and white together has found a new, more conservative home." What Sleeper called the "biggest demonstration of racial reconciliation" since the sixties was not applauded but dismissed by liberals because, as Jesse Jackson said on CNN, these actions were "not really affecting public policy."

Not all the media attention to the Washington rally was so overly politicized. The Washington Post performed a signal service by surveying 882 randomly selected participants. Most turned out to be white middle-class Baptists who didn’t like Bill Clinton or feminism, but were neither politically active nor interested in having Promise Keepers form a political action committee and contribute money to candidates who support Christian values. In a New York Times op-ed piece, University of Chicago professor Martin Marty pleaded for readers to pay attention to the movement’s religious motivations. A Chicago Tribune reporter, citing a hot-off-the-press study by Marie Griffith of Northwestern University, suggested that secular feminists habitually misrepresent conservative women as fearful dupes of male oppressors by neglecting the real world of evangelical women and children.

But by and large, a failure to understand Promise Keepers in its evangelical Protestant context led the news media to miss the movement’s real significance and prospects. In the evangelical Protestant world, Promise Keepers stands apart in its commitment to racial reconciliation-something reporters barely noticed. Though the membership is 80 percent white, the leadership is 35 percent African, Hispanic, and Asian American. The Promise Keepers’ "Sixth Promise" is to reach "beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." This is closer to the spirit of true ecumenism than many evangelicals have been prepared to come.

Promise Keepers is best understood within the long tradition of American revivalism. Appearing on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, movement leader Paul Edwards asserted that theirs was a "revival movement," part of "the history of a tradition of going after the heart...rather than a reform movement." This statement squares with historians’ judgments that America’s great revival leaders, from George Whitefield in the 1740s First Great Awakening to Charles Finney in the early 1800s Second Great Awakening to Billy Graham today, have all been devoted to personal, spiritual transformation rather than political change.

Not that revivals have lacked for unintended political consequences. To evangelicals, nineteenth-century abolitionism and women’s rights as well as the more recent efforts of the "born again" to address concerns regarding family, gender, and sexuality are finally not political but religious crusades to save souls. The overt movement of religion into politics has always been controversial, and evangelical leaders have, like Billy Graham, for the most part steered clear of organized politics. Certainly, Promise Keepers has political implications. But that is not the same as saying that its efforts are generated by a political agenda.

An awareness of the history of revivalism would likewise have allowed journalists to anticipate the possibility that Promise Keepers will be short lived-with the result that the organization’s recent funding crisis would have come as less of a surprise. Efforts to lure men back into churches by emphasizing the masculinity of Christianity have been going on with indifferent success ever since the early nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution. Like the "Muscular Christian" movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Promise Keepers relies on Saint Paul’s masculine rhetoric, but softens it with a dose of latter-day emotional sensitivity. The movement’s literature emphasizes relationships between team members rather than winning; partners rather than dominant "heads" in marriage; the principled and concerned board member vs. the hard-driving executive. All of this suggests a conscious seeking for images and relationships that portray strength as a nonviolent, noncompetitive value. Possible long-term consequences of the movement could be dissemination of these messages through small groups and church curriculums.

Analyzing Promise Keepers primarily through a politicized culture-wars lens has, in short, given the news media a constricted and inaccurate view of the men’s movement in today’s evangelical churches. Within the Pauline tradition of male leadership, which is embedded in the basic vocabulary and mental framework of the evangelical churches, conservative Protestant women are not men’s obedient servants. They are complementary partners with men in a common effort to follow Christ. As for the Promise Keepers’ commitment to racial reconciliation, it has not been shown to be a political ploy. On the contrary, all indications are that it is a sincere effort to create a world where there is neither black nor white in Christ Jesus. To date, Promise Keepers remains a largely non-political effort of evangelical churchmen to change their ways and keep their promises to their wives and family. It may become a political organization, but anyone who seeks to make it such-and there are those who would love to do so-stands to undermine the deepest commitments that bring these men together.