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Whose Keepers, What Promises?

© 1995 by Kenneth Clatterbaugh

This article appeared in the October 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine


The evangelist, a former star athlete, shouts to thousands of praying, crying men,some of whom raise their arms in supplication. "A man will be a Christian if he is decent and if he is not a Christian, he forfeits any claim to decency. Do you believe it's right and manly to be a Christian? Then come on down. If you don't, stay where you are." The men, having promised to avoid infidelity and other social sins, to accept Jesus in their life, to rely on the literal infallibility of the Bible, are given cards making them children of God. The scene is repeated over and over for thousands of men in dozens of cities. The men are generally white and middle-aged. They are not wealthy, nor are they poor. They are insecure, caught in a changing world that threatens their beliefs. Racial tensions are high. Church attendance, especially by men, is down. Women are gaining the vote. Evolution is taught in the schools. Liberal Protestantism seems to be winning the day. They seek to defend their place in the family, the country, and the proper values. Yet they do not claim to be a political movement or a social reform movement, firmly believing instead that "there is no prejudice between man and man, between masses and classes, between capital and labor, which cannot be driven from the world by the principles of Jesus Christ in men." Finally, after the evangelist declares that "the manliest man is the man who will acknowledge Jesus Christ," the musicians strike up a favored song and the men sing loudly.

You may be surprised to learn that this is not an account of a Promise Keepers rally in the 1990s, but a description of a muscular Christianity rally in 1917 under the energetic leadership of former National League outfielder William (Billy) A. Sunday. Leaving the Kingdome in the afternoon of July 7, 1995, my butt numb from sitting through the long morning session, I thought of the millions of men who had heard Billy Sunday-they would have liked the rally.

As a student of the various men's movements, I had been following the Promise Keepers movement since the early 1990s, and I was not about to let a local gathering occur without attending. Besides, my publisher, who lives in Boulder, asked me to include the Promise Keepers in the second edition of Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity.

So I had dutifully subscribed to New Man, the official magazine of the Promise Keepers and the successor to Men of Action, an earlier publication, and I had read Bill McCartney's What Makes a Man? (1992), the first book by the Promise Keepers, and Robert Hicks' The Masculine Journey (1993). Also, before the July 7 gathering, I had pulled several stories from Nexus and read the articles on the Promise Keepers in Christianity Today (February 1995) and New Age Journal (April 1995). The best account I had found of earlier, evangelical men's movements is provided by William G. McLoughlin's Modern Revivalism, Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham. These are the major sources I use in this article.

But what kind of discussion would interest the readers of M.E.N. Magazine? There were many choices of topics-theology, politics, organization, the twelve step method they employ, critiques from within the Christian community, how they spend their money. However, given that this publication is read by men with some familiarity with different parts of the men's movement, I decided to focus on aspects of the Promise Keepers that speak to their relationship to the aggregate men's movement, specifically, its profeminist, men's rights, and mythopoetic components. But first, a little background on this movement.

Virtually every article about the Promise Keepers notes the rapid growth of this movement, along with suggestions that Wild Men, profeminist men, and men's rights advocates are about to be swept away by a tide of Christian men. The growth of the Promise Keepers is impressive. From an evangelical Christian men's fellowship begun in 1990 by University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, who collected 72 men together in the interests of prayer, fasting, and mutual encouragement, the first regional gathering in the University of Colorado Events Center attracted 4,200 men. In its first national gathering in 1992, 22,000 men gathered in the university's Folsom Stadium; in 1993, 50,000 filled the same stadium. 1994 saw 278,600 men at seven sites around the country, and the hope is that by the end of the summer of 1995, some 600,000 will have gathered at 13 sites across the nation. The goal for 1996 is to have one million men converge on Washington, D.C.

The growth of the Promise Keepers is less remarkable when certain factors are considered. For example, no other men's movement has had in place the number of national and local organizations made up of people who share in large part a common way of looking at the world. Such organizations include the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the 700 Club, not to mention local churches and councils. No other men's movement has had antecedent traditions of massive rallies for individuals of that perspective, whereas the Promise Keepers maintain a format that is commonly found in other evangelical gatherings, from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham to Bill McCartney (remember, 65,000 Graham crusaders have filled the Kingdome at its opening and at subsequent rallies).

Furthermore, this movement is not brand new; since the early 1970s, Christian crusaders such as Edwin Louis Cole have been organizing Christian men and holding retreats for men. His book, Maximized Manhood (1982), is clearly a forerunner of current Promise Keepers ideology. Indeed, Cole is a featured speaker at Promise Keepers rallies around the world and a frequent contributor to New Man.

Since the Promise Keepers are a form of religious conservatism, the theological foundations of this perspective-set out in their statement of faith-can be summarized as follows. Evangelical Christians are a Trinitarian form of Protestantism that takes the Bible, in its original manuscript, to be literally true, takes Holy Spirit to be active in believers and in the new birth of an unbeliever, and regards each human as a sinner whose redemption can be achieved only through faith and Christ's death. Evangelicals believe in present-day miracles, as well as the miracles of the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus will return to earth bringing power and glory.

The Seven Promises, down from twelve in an earlier version, include honoring Jesus, creating vital relationships with other men, sexual purity, building strong marriages, supporting the church, working toward racial and denominational harmony, and obedience to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. The Great Commandment and Great Commission, referred to in Promise Seven, are: to acknowledge that there is only one God and one truth and to spread the word of that truth.

These promises are deliberately vague. What they mean can only be gathered from reading the literature and listening to the speakers. Even then, it takes some careful reading to pick up specific messages. The actual content of most fliers, talks, and mass-media coverage is filled with generalities, parables, and athletic clichés that mean almost anything by meaning nothing.

Many in the Promise Keepers, including the leadership, have little knowledge of the different elements of the contemporary men's movement. Those who do are not well-informed; Hicks is the most knowledgeable and he, for example, believes that "Iron John" is a story by Hans Christian Andersen (Hicks 1993: 17). Could Robert Bly have made a living from "Iron John and his Silver Skates"? But when the contemporary men's movement is discussed, it is in terms of its demise, its end, its failure to find answers to the questions it raises. For the Promise Keepers, the contemporary men's movement is waning and they are the heir apparent. Godless movements will only leave their followers bitter and empty, according to Cole. Of course, the Promise Keepers are unlikely to supplant any component of the contemporary men's movement. It is true that it is waning, but the alternative for men in the various parts is unlikely to be evangelical Christianity.

But for all their derision of the contemporary men's movements, they owe much of their success to those movements. To profeminists, they owe the foundational idea that men have not been good, safe partners. Men have been adversely affected by pornography and sexual fantasies. Men have not been trustworthy, and men spend too much time at work and not enough time with their families. Even though the movement is founded by a sports figure and relies upon sports metaphors, there is also a theme that men put too much stock in athletics and athletic competition.

From men's rights advocates, they take the message that fatherless homes are bad and that good fathering is the single most important cure for the contemporary cultural crisis. They also draw on the men's rights suspicion of the feminist agenda; sometimes they quote Farrell directly. I have found nothing positive about feminism in all the Promise Keepers writings I have examined.

From mythopoetics, the Promise Keepers take the theme that men have a spiritual deficit that needs to be filled, and that men are deeply wounded in the course of becoming a man. They borrow the theme that men are best able to help men to become men and that warrior men are what we need. The Promise Keepers gatherings are for men only precisely on such grounds.

Had these ideas not been put forth by the various components of the men's movement, it is unlikely that such an immediate appeal to men would have been possible.

But no one in the profeminist, men's rights, or mythopoetic camps should think that their agreements with the Promise Keepers are sufficient to build an alliance. The Promise Keepers is a religiously conservative organization that believes in the literal truth of the Bible and that accepting Jesus is the one true way. They have no time for feminism, which they regard as just another Godless movement and which denies that a man should be head of the family. Indeed, the hope of the Promise Keepers is that if men are good providers and protectors, feminism will be swallowed up by a sea of contented women. (The feminist drive toward equality and autonomy is not in their vocabulary.) Men's rights movements, like profeminist movements, generally come from a liberal base. Men's rights advocates want to end the provider role-it damages men-and end the role of man as initiator-for the same reasons. Many men's rights advocates want an escape from the dangers of being cannon fodder or they want to be equal cannon fodder with women. None of these ideas play well with the Promise Keepers, who see only men as suited to the dangerous and dirty job of being protectors and see a man's central contribution to the family as being a good provider and spiritual leader. And, like all absolutist movements, there is no willingness to be spiritually inclusive, as are Bly and other mythopoetic men. Indeed, the New Age openness of Bly and Meade is clearly the devil's work, as is any hint of Wicca.

The Promise Keepers are not political. So they say. But behind the promises and in the fine print is a vision of the society that they would build. Beside the Kingdome is a large building, and certain groups are allowed in that large space to promote their messages. These messages are clearly reactionary. I picked up materials attacking the "corporate filth" of Time Warner and advocating the "Star Wars" anti-missle system, voucher programs in the schools, teaching creationism, ending homosexuality through finding Jesus, abolishing all forms of family that are not traditional, ending abortion, praising B-1 Bob Dornan (a "Catholic evangelist"?), praising Clarence Thomas as the leader of the Supreme Court, favoring Rush, Newt, et al. over Bill and Hillary, controlling immigration, ending welfare, ending gun control, and calling for a God-centered Christian government. It is typical of religious conservative movements to begin with a "moral crisis" rather than, for example, an economic or leadership crisis. Of the last two moral crises faced in the United States, conservatives have predicted a thousand of them. The family, for example, has been viewed as in crisis for conservatives since the early 1800s (see Stephanie Coontz' The Way We Never Were).

To further track political inclinations, I followed some petition gatherers around the parking lot during lunch. One was collecting signatures on Initiative 166 to petition the legislature to pass a law denying protected status to gays and lesbians. The gatherer would approach a group of men eating lunch and tell them that if gay men achieved protected status, their minister could not get up in church and say that homosexuality was a sin. Such a claim is ridiculous. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion secure the right to denounce whatever practice you want. Protected-class status only protects people against proven discriminations in housing, employment, and the like. Still, not one group challenged the petitioner's line-until I told the signature gatherer that it was b.s.-and he avoided me thereafter. I saw the same thing going on with other petitions to end affirmative action and to establish a voucher system in place of the public schools. Is this group political? Absolutely!

Will this movement last? Will they achieve their stated goals of winning the war against culture? Judging from past evangelical movements, the answer is "no." Judging from other parts of their program, the answer again is "no." Evangelical movements often emerge just as the battle is lost; they are not a beginning, but an end. The average age of men at the Promise Keepers gathering was probably in the low 40s. They want to recapture a bygone day that maybe never was. Women's equality may be differently interpreted, but it is here to stay. Homophobia has a lot of life left in it, but it, too, is dying. Creationism is not science and will not achieve a lasting place in science curricula. Even the current Supreme Court is unwilling to deny all choice on abortion. Young Christians, notably absent from the gathering, have found their own accommodation as men and women without "masculine leadership" (a favorite Promise Keepers expression). Furthermore, the economic system, which they enthusiastically endorse, is working against them. Loss of family-wage jobs, declining real income, job insecurity, and long-term unemployment and underemployment, all of which are characteristic of our advanced capitalist economy, are the very things that force parents, children and grandparents to work long hours, to suffer depression, and to be alienated from each other.

Prescriptions to be better fathers will work only if the material conditions that allow them time, energy, and encouragement exist. The idealized 1950s family, for example, was probably the most heavily subsidized family in U.S. history, with its GI loans, preferential hiring for veterans, home loans, insurance, medical coverage, and disability payments. Furthermore, it was a period of unprecedented economic growth. In contrast to government support in the 1950s, cutting resources to families throughout the 1980s was a recipe for family dissolution, child poverty, and increased teen pregnancy. The present right-wing political agenda seeks more of the 1980s and less of the 1950s. The point is that men and families need all the help they can get to maintain themselves-high wages, reasonable working weeks, vacation and family leave time, paternity and maternity leave, universal health care-none of the things currently being offered. In short, the very political agenda that the Promise Keepers embrace is destroying the social values that they would promote.

Ultimately, what will bring about the demise of the Promise Keepers movement, like other evangelical movements, is that people get tired of the same thing over and over. I overheard a good bit of grousing about the repetitiousness of the gathering from the men in every corner of the Kingdome. My own prediction is to look for a rally in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1996 and then a fading away of the Promise Keepers. Since evangelical surges often get caught up in the sheer numbers that come through the door, there will probably be a brief upswing in church attendance by men where rallies have been held, as there was after the Billy Sunday campaigns, followed by a drop back to pre-rally attendance. And do not expect any significant changes in fathering or the statistics on single-parent families (in any case, the percentage of single-parent families has changed very little since the late 1800s-see Jones, Tepperman, Wilson, The Futures of the Family). The economic conditions that nurture stable relationships are not in our future; the promises of the Promise Keepers will not keep the family safe. Men and women who are economically scrambling for a livelihood will generally do the best they can, but without the kind of help noted above, that may not be good enough.

Kenneth Clatterbaugh is a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington and the author of Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity, a second edition of which is forthcoming.

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