Ask a few average people what they know about Promise Keepers and they'll say, "those guys who get together in stadiums" or "they're the ones who hug and cry and pray." A savvy political observer might add, "part of the religious right, right?"
Most media coverage of Promise Keepers to date has focused on their upbeat stadium events. We read about men who attend Promise Keepers' events, and they sound like our families and neighbors. We hear of Promise Keepers vowing to spend more time with their families. So, what's the problem?
The problem is that this hottest religious right marketing tool since televangelism portrays women's equality as the source of society's ills. The Promise Keepers seem to think women will be so thrilled that men are promising to take "responsibility" in our families that we'll take a back seat in this and every other arena of our lives.
Certainly most women want men to do their fair share of childcare and housework. And, admittedly, some of the well-meaning men who fill football stadiums for men-only Promise Keepers events have little or no grasp of the group's political agenda. Stung by criticism, Promise Keepers leaders toned down their earlier rhetoric. And now they have the right-leaning Independent Women's Forum backpedaling for them on op ed pages and the talk show circuit.
Yet the religious right pantheon behind Promise Keepers consists of men who think the Republican party is too liberal. Founder Bill McCartney cut his political teeth speaking at rallies of the violent anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. In impassioned speeches — which are especially chilling when viewed on videotape — McCartney and company have said things like: men must be leaders and women "responders," lesbians and gays are "stark, raving mad," abortion is a "second Civil War" and participants must "take back the nation for Christ."
As Frederick Clarkson notes in "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press, 1997), Promise Keepers aims to create "men of integrity" while its leaders model opportunistic double-talk. Honor your wife, but take back your role as head and master of your household. Seek racial "reconciliation" with hugs and tears among the biblically correct, but ignore racial injustice when it comes to education, jobs and housing. March on Washington, but assert it's not a political thing.
It is reminiscent of the way Promise Keepers backer Jerry Falwell claims he doesn't condone anti-abortion violence but paid $10,000 toward Operation Rescue boss Randy Terry's fine on a felony stemming from O.R.'s violent seige of women's health clinics during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.
Taking a page from Falwell's play book, a radical activist like McCartney insists his group itself is not at all political. Yet Falwell and other religious right doyens — Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, James Dobson and Bill Bright — launched it financially, lent hundreds of staff members, continue to host and speak at Promise Keepers rallies, publish Promise Keepers books and sell their own politically packed treatises at Promise Keepers events.
Still not convinced? Try signing up as a Promise Keepers supporter, as an academic researcher did, and see if you, too, don't suddenly start getting mail from the Republican party that you never got before. Lurk online in a Promise Keepers chat group, as one journalist did, and see if you, too, don't note that abortion is the number one topic — not a woman's right to choose but an abortion opponent's right to kill women and doctors.
Mainstream religious leaders have cautioned their members to examine the Promise Keepers movement carefully. Many Christian pastors and activists think the gospel's message is that women and men are equal in the sight of God, that women should exercise God-given free will over our own lives, and that none of us needs the Promise Keepers high priests pressing their fundamentalist political agenda.
And press they will. "Whenever the truth is at risk, in the schools or legislatures, we will contend for it," McCartney roared to a packed stadium in 1993. The organizer of the Promise Keepers Oct. 4 march on Washington has said, "There is no way this group can restrain itself when it comes to public policy."
Promise Keepers generals have organized men into an estimated 10,000 small squads, some of them within the U.S. Armed Forces, for what they repeatedly refer to as "war." It's clearly more than just a figure of speech. McCartney's personal pastor and a founding director of Promise Keepers, Rev. Jim Ryle, told a reporter the group will fulfill the Bible's prophecy of a great force that will destroy sinners and infidels in the period preceding Armageddon.
So as the Promise Keepers get into formation, feminist activists are working to unmask the religious political extremists organizing the rank-and-file troops. We know, from our first-hand experience at fire-bombed clinics, the political Molotov cocktail the radical right can concoct out of fanaticism and intolerance.
The arch foes of women's rights and civil rights behind the Promise Keepers can't quit claiming they're all about Godly male bonding and not about political organizing. They had more than 450 staff and a budget of nearly $100 million last year; they're expected to double their income next year. That's one large self-help group.
But U.S. feminists will not be fooled by the many recent public disclaimers about this feel-good form of male supremacy with its dangerous political potential. We've seen them coming for some time.
A decade ago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote a novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," depicting a right-wing takeover in parts of the United States. One of the first ominous signs of women's loss of independence comes when a feminist finds she can no longer use her cash machine card. Barbed wire and barricades surround the new Republic of Gilead, which is in the hands of the religious right. Women there are forced into narrow roles as wives and baby-makers under the total control of their husbands and other male leaders.
A National Public Radio commentator noted a marked difference in how various English language readers reacted to Atwood's fictional scenario. Women in England said, "Jolly good tale." Women in Canada said, "A frightening prospect." Women in the U.S. said, "How long do we have?"
Return to October 1997 newspaper / Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW