I first heard about Promise Keepers in the summer of 1996 from the enthusiastic young man who handled my move from South Bend to Nashville. When he realized that I was a minister, he seemed to assume that I would understand and share in the joy heíd experienced at a Promise Keeper rally the previous weekend - the joy of Christian men bonding; the renewed zeal to commit themselves to their families and to God.
I knew nothing about the organization at that time - a time which predated NOWís campaign to expose the groupís dubious political agenda. And yet I felt uneasy - as Unitarians have traditionally felt uneasy about mass revival movements. One hundred and fifty years ago we kept our distance from the religious hucksterism which, night after night in revival tents, brought thousands to their knees in repentance. The dynamics of mob mentality - of mass hysteria,. A type of religious addiction or co-dependency. The questionable agendas of charismatic leaders. The emphasis on personal salvation rather than social justice for all.
For almost a year I heard nothing further about Promise Keepers. In Nashville the interfaith clergy group had their hands full just trying to neutralize the overtly political efforts of the Christian Coalition to influence state legislation, especially concerning school curricula and practices. So the Promise Keeper issue did not surface again until we hosted the Mid-South District meeting last May, with the Rev. Meg Riley as our keynote speaker. Meg heads the UUA Office for Social Justice in Washington, DC. My previous contact with her had centered around a proposed Constitutional amendment which would essentially eliminate the separation of church and state in this country.
But this trip Meg had a different mission: she came to warn us about Promise Keepers. Itís a personal issue with her. Megís an open lesbian, and the PK founder, coach Bill McCartney, is well known for his fight to undermine gay rights in Colorado, as well as his strong anti-abortion position. In July the National Organization for Women (NOW) came out with all guns blazing, believing that Promise Keepersí emphasis on male-dominated family life would set back the womenís movement by fifty years. Black groups protested that PK speaks to warm fuzzies: racial reconciliation rather than racial justice. They want more than hugs; more than broken promises.
And yet, as the time neared for the Promise Keeper rally in Washington this fall, the media reported interviews with scores of women who claimed that their marriages were greatly improved thanks to their husbandsí involvement in Promise Keepers. Even Bill McCartney seems finally to be practicing what he preaches.
So where is the truth in all this? Is it merely a clash in social and religious agendas, or does this movement really give cause for serious concern? On different levels, both views are true. Promise Keepers has been a phenomenal success. In just four years it has grown from a rally of 50,000 men and a budget of $4 million, to well over one million adherents and a budget of $87 million. Obviously, the movement meets a deep need among young working-class men - one created as a backlash to the womenís movement, leaving many men feeling alienated, unsure of their identity. Of their roles. Leaving them afraid that a casual remark or off-color story around the water cooler could cost them their jobs on grounds of sexual harassment.
Promise Keepers didnít invent male bonding - even UUs now have male support groups. The poet Robert Bly - son of an emotionally-distant alcoholic father - can take credit for that with his drumming and his call to reclaim the myth of the warrior hero. Bill McCartney builds on this metaphor - many of the Promise Keeper organizers are retired military - while incorporating his own sports metaphor: rallies are held in football stadiums. Nothing overtly illegal, immoral or subversive about that. Just a Christian good ole boy network, one could say.
And what is it that a Promise Keeper promises? (I should note that this is a copyrighted quote.) 1. A Promise Keeper is committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to Godís Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. 2. A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises. 3. A Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity. 4. A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values. 5. A Promise Keeper is committed to supporting the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources. 6. A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity. 7. A Promise Keeper is committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. God and apple pie, topped by the All-American twelve step buddy system.
So whatís the problem? When interviewed prior to a major rally in Buffalo last year, Coach McCartney declared that his organization had no political agenda ďat the present time.Ē Yet the leading players, including Pat Robertson, include some of the most pernicious political proponents of the religious right. McCartney not only deplores the feminization of the home and work place, but the feminization of religion, as well. Last year scholarships were granted to 50,000 Protestant clergy attending an orientation program in Atlanta. No women clergy were invited; no women are allowed within the confines of the rallies, as well.
What happens at a Promise Keeper rally was reported by John Higgins, a UU minister. Before the rally, attendees are encouraged to buy PK literature, T-shirts and caps and other paraphernalia. The rally itself is carefully paced: videos, music and sing-alongs, speeches and altar calls. The emphasis is on sin, guilt and salvation - becoming a brother with Christ. It seemed taken for granted that all men there were unfaithful husbands. The root cause of the breakdown in family values was attributed to abortion and homosexual influence, rather than to drugs and other complex social and economic problems. Men were enjoined to go home and take charge of their families; take charge of their churches.
In retrospect, Rev. Higgins was most concerned with the total lack of democratic process. Thousands of men playing follow the leader, blindly accepting their marching orders. Even Paul Edwards, a Promise Keeper vice president, admits that the Washington rally reminded him of those in Nazi Germany, noting that ďmajor movements among men tend to sour. And they can also be very destructive.Ē Promise Keepers has allocated large sums to train so-called ambassadors and follow-up key men: ultimately one within each of Americaís Christian churches to ďtake this nation for JesusĒ and prepare for the Second Coming. And it doesnít stop there. Promise Keepers is organizing in over thirty foreign countries.
The voice I take most seriously in this matter is a group calling itself Equal Partners in Faith. Organized out of a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, NY, adherents included noted UUs, mainline Protestant clergy, Reformed Rabbis, Catholic nuns and feminist theologians. In addition to all other concerns raised, this group sees Promise Keepers as being doctrinally unsound, seeking to undermine interfaith coalitions, and working to advance the agenda of the religious right for a theocratic state.
These are the issues which most concern me, also. While NOW is to be credited with bringing this movement to public attention, it does not and cannot represent all women, many of whom choose to stay in traditional roles and who support traditional Christian values. Freedom is about choice. On the other side of the coin, I was dismayed at the number of women who vilified the mother of Matthew Eappen for her choice in having a career. Women should be supporting women in all their choices; in all their diversity.
Choice - freedom of choice - is what itís all about in this country. Itís what itís all about in our non-dogmatic UU faith. And itís precisely because we cherish the right to religious pluralism in this country that we must support the right of any religious group - even Promise Keepers - to exist. To organize. To hold rallies. After all, itís hardly the only authoritarian religious organization in this country. What we should not support is its political agenda - one which is beginning to influence this nationís laws and its courts and its classrooms to an alarming degree.
A few years ago I astounded some people in Florida by saying that Disney World was against my religion. I was serious, and it had nothing to do with preferring real nature to motorized plastic replicas. Disney is a totalitarian structure which was permitted to exist outside the sovereign rule of the State of Florida. Not subject to taxation; its proposed schools exempt from state standards. Employees had to waive their right of collective bargaining; their right to refuse overtime work at straight time pay. Employees could be fired for drinking a can of beer before lunch, even on days off. Walt Disney had originally envisioned Epcot as a model city; an exact eleven percent of the population to be hand-picked African Americans. All homes had to be equipped with Monsanto carpeting and Whirlpool appliances., No choice. It didnít stay that way. It couldnít. And itís somewhat ironical that Disney World is now being officially boycotted by Southern Baptists because it does not exclude open homosexuals.
I am concerned about any institution or individual who would undermine our democratic freedoms - our right of choice. And thereís something else that frightens me about some of the Promise Keeper leaders and other extreme fundamentalists: their Armageddon mindset. The mindset that, rather than work to cure the ills of the world, actually wants to hasten the end of the world so that Christ may come again. The most fanatic adherents would secretly hope for nuclear or biological or chemical destruction to further their own religious ends. A few years ago my daughter gave me a book by Tom Robbins titled ďSkinny Legs and All.Ē ďThereís a sermon in it, Mom,Ē she noted. Unfortunately, Iíve let this gem get away from me, but Iíve ordered another copy. Itís the hysterical misadventures of a bowl, a spoon and a can of baked beans. But underneath the humor is the frightening scenario of fanatical Messianic Jews and Christian fundamentalists who conspire to hasten the end of the world. These folks are serious, and they believe that the end justifies any means. They are truly to be feared, and Bill McCartney seems to be at one with them. As a mass movement, Promise Keepers may be just another fad - already this year both attendance and financial support have dropped. But in its many guises religious fundamentalism is here to stay - have no doubt about it.
As for the young rank and file men of Promise Keepers, let them enjoy male bonding. Let them even keep their promises to be better family men - a lot of their wives will genuinely appreciate that. But let them not minimize the cause of racial justice or the rights of homosexuals. Let them also not seek to undermine the gains that women have finally made to have real choices in their lives. For I, too, have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep. Amen