Promise Keepers: A Real Challenge from the Right

A.R. Bernard and Bill McCartneyA.R. Bernard, left, formerly with the Nation of Islam, joins Promise Keepers Founder Bill McCartney, giving a false veneer of multiracial tolerance to the group's male dominance mission.

by Guest Writers Alfred Ross and Lee Cokorinos

Promise Keepers is a product of the leadership of well-financed religious, conservative organizations designed to create a men-only movement to promote their ultra-conservative social and political agenda. Topping its list of priorities: women must "submit" to men.

Tony Evans, one of the most dynamic Promise Keepers speakers, wrote in his contribution to the official Promise Keepers treatise, "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper," under the heading "Reclaiming Your Manhood": ". . . sit down with your wife and say something like this, `Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.' . . . I'm not suggesting you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back. . . .there can be no compromise here. If you're going to lead, you must lead. . . .Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead!"

Elsewhere Evans has written, "Over the last thirty years, this role reversal has given rise to a feminist movement specifically designed to assert the role of women. Now a lot of women don't like to hear me say this, but I believe that feminists of the more aggressive persuasion are frustrated women unable to find the proper male leadership."

While the leadership of other conservative organizations may well share this agenda, this is the first time an organization of this size has dared make this one of their declared pre-eminent goals and been accorded such acceptance from the mainstream media.

Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 and is led by a controversial former Colorado football coach, Bill McCartney. McCartney has spoken at meetings of the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue and served on the board of the equally homophobic Colorado for Family Values.

The zeal with which Promise Keepers' leadership pushes its agenda was evident when McCartney addressed a rally of 39,000 clergy in Atlanta, Ga., in 1996. At the meeting he screamed from the podium, "Many of you feel like you have been in a war for a long time, yet the fiercest fighting is just ahead. God has brought us here to prepare us. Let's proceed. It's wartime!"

Promise Keepers emerged as the cutting edge of the religious right and is representative of the "third wave" of the religious right's political development since World War II. The first was Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist-led Moral Majority. The second was Pat Robertson's charismatic-led Christian Coalition with its grassroots structures.

What distinguishes Promise Keepers from prior waves of religious revivals in this country is its organizational prowess, theological extremism, and the extent to which it wants comprehensively to restructure this country's social order. With backing from Focus on the Family's James Dobson and The Family Research Council's Gary Bauer, who have criticized Ralph Reed for selling out their principles, the so-called third wave is positioning itself to the political right of the Christian Coalition.

Promise Keepers is attempting to re-segregate U.S. politics, this time along gender rather than race lines, calling for active male Christian leadership to set things right.

In 1996, Promise Keepers organized nearly two dozen stadium recruitment rallies (each with an average of 40,000-60,000 overwhelmingly white Christian-only men) and scores of smaller "Wake-up Calls." It plans to pack 18 football stadiums this spring and summer.

Never before in the United States have so many political mass events been staged on such a scale. Promise Keepers receives support from virtually all of the leadership of the religious right, as well as from such secular institutions as the Heritage Foundation.

While the spectacular stadium rallies have attracted most of the attention, the strategic focus is the establishment of nearly 10,000 small groups across the nation. These small groups meet weekly or bi-weekly under the supervision of a Promise Keeper leader and are responsible for inculcating its values within the members.

Promise Keepers is planning to bring a million men to Washington, D.C., Oct. 4.

Editor's Note: The authors are, respectively, Executive Director and Senior Research Associate of The Center for Democracy Studies in New York. The Center's Promise Keepers Watch Project is working with NOW on a nationwide monitoring and education campaign to contain the threat of Promise Keepers. The Center can be reached at 212-423-9237. A video and in-depth report are available.

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