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Bonding in the Bleachers: A Visit to the Promise Keepers

by John D. Spalding

John D. Spalding is a frequent contributor to the Christian Century. This article appeared in The Christian Century March 6, l996, pp. 260-265. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Oakland Coliseum is packed with hooting, hollering, high-fiving men. Beside me in the rightfield bleachers, a half-dozen fathers in matching shirts and caps discuss their home improvement projects over coffee while their teenage sons crack jokes and shadowbox. In the third deck, a group bats around a beach ball, eventually knocking it to the cheering crowd below. Briefly, I almost forget I am not at a Raiders game -- that this flurry of high-testosterone activity is filling not a half-time break but a lull between speakers at a Christian men's rally.

Then, out of left field, a chant erupts: "We love Jesus, yes we do! We love Jesus, how 'bout you?" The chant sweeps the stadium, and when the men in my section jump to their feet, I join them. "We love Jesus, yes we do!" thousands of us reply, arms pumping the air. "We love Jesus, how 'bout you?" Amid the boisterous cheers that follow, someone behind gives me a brotherly whack on the shoulder and squeezes my neck. I glance back warily and return his smile, offering faint acknowledgment that we have, indeed, bonded as godly men.

The truth is I did not come to this Promise Keepers conference for male bonding. I came purely out of curiosity. Who would have guessed that a combination Monday Night Football and old-time tent revival meeting could galvanize men, whom pastors of all stripes have long struggled to interest in matters of God and the church, into one of the century's fastest-growing religious phenomena? Promise Keepers, an organization founded by a former college football coach, has done precisely that, packing more than 1 million men into stadiums nationwide since it started five years ago. These men come to share their feelings and failings with other men and renew their commitments, in the form of seven promises, to lead their, families as godly husbands and fathers. They pledge to develop sexual purity, strong churches and racial harmony. That women are forbidden to join the organization or attend its events -- "Their presence tends to inhibit men," one PK representative said -- merely adds to the mysterious air Promise Keepers has cultivated.

While some praise Promise Keepers as "a shining hope of male spiritual renewal," others criticize it as sexist and homophobic, an outburst of the Religious Right with an ulterior political agenda. The rest of us are uncertain. We read the newspaper reports and ask ourselves, "Who are these guys, and what are they doing in our football stadiums?" When I learned Promise Keepers was coming to a stadium near me, I bought a $55 ticket to experience this phenomenon firsthand. But nothing I'd read quite prepared me for the two-day event.

My first surprise was the conspicuous absence of protesters outside the stadium on Saturday morning. Not a poster or picketer in sight. Friday's San -Francisco Examiner had announced that 19 groups -- from the National Organization for Women and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice to the American Jewish Congress -- would be on hand to "condemn what they claim is a central Promise Keepers' tenet: 'That men and women are inherently unequal in their roles in the family and society.'"

I head to one of several massive tents erected in the parking lot. Verifying I have prepaid, the attendant -- a middle-aged woman -- cheerfully straps a yellow band around my wrist and gives me a program book. I tell her I find it ironic that the first person I meet at this "no-girls-allowed" event is a woman. "Most of the volunteers running the booths are women," she explains. "Many of us have husbands, fathers or sons in Promise Keepers, and we're glad to support anything that helps them grow in their walk with the Lord."

The first thing to catch my eye when I peer into one of the other tents is a series of cash registers and attendants busily racking up sales. Beyond are massive piles of tapes, shirts, caps, coffee mugs, lapel pins and key chains neatly displayed on wooden tables. Book titles include The Power of a Promise Kept, The Awesome Power of Shared Beliefs, What God Does When Men Pray, What Makes a Man?, Focusing Your Men's Ministry and The Promise Keepers New Testament. Purchasing a copy of Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, I ask the cashier, another woman, if there is more merchandise available at the conference. "Uhhuh," she says. "In the stadium. Follow the signs that say 'Ministry Booths."' I ask what a "ministry booth" is. "Where they sell more merchandise," she explains brightly.

The books, the tapes, the T-shirts -- suddenly it all makes sense, and I'm breathing a lot easier about this conference, no longer afraid I'm in danger of getting sucked into some strange new cult. Without hearing a single speaker, I realize that I am in a familiar evangelical world. Who but evangelicals would haul hundreds of retail tables and cash registers to a religious conference and call them "ministry booths"?

The proclamations of "We love Jesus!" become steady hosannas of "Ed! Ed! Ed!" when Ed Cole, the stout, 70ish president of the Christian Men's Network in Dallas, takes to the enormous stage in center field to address us on "Raising the Standards in Our Marriages." It is shortly after 1:30 P.M., and Cole has before him what lesser preachers might consider a formidable task. He has to speak to an assemblage of 50,000 that has already worshiped ardently for five hours.

Lead-off speaker Jack Hayford's address, "Becoming a Man of Worship and Prayer," alone involved more spiritual exercises than I do in a year. At his instruction we had to sing a song about seeing God's face, shout lots of "Hallelujahs" and repeatedly tell the man next to us things like "God is a very secure guy." To "become like a child" and consider our spiritual condition, we removed our shoes (Exod. 3:5) and examined their treaded soles where, as with our own beleaguered souls, "everyday all sorts of stuff gets stuck." In our socks we sang "At Your Feet We Fall,"' during which Hayford asked us to stand, sit and stand again, raising our arms heavenward in exultation. Finally we broke off into groups of three to five to join hands and confess aloud in prayer those things we've let come between us and God (I blamed my workload).

If Ed Cole is at all nervous about his position this deep in the line-up, you'd never guess it by the unflappable, stone-faced way he glares at the cheering crowd, rather like General Patton preparing to address his troops.

"One truth can change your life," he intones, his measured, slightly quavering preacher's voice booming from the wall of speakers. "One truth can change your life! Change is not change-until it's change. The common problem we all have is that we always judge others by what they do, but ourselves by our intentions. Turn to the guy next to you and say, 'He's talkin' a you already!"'

"This is an interactive ministry," he continues, pacing the stage. "Every time I say, 'And when I became a man,' you shout -- what? -- 'I put away childish things!' Let's try it. 'AND WHEN I BECAME A MAN..."'

"I put away childish things," we mumble.

"Not bad for wimps," Cole chides. "Now let's try it like men! 'AND WHEN I BECAME A MAN..."'

"I put away childish things!" we reply, louder this time, eliciting from Cole a sardonic 'That's more like it."

'Act more like a man!" he exhorts. His stern face is visible on the jumbotron screen high above the gridiron. "Act more like a man! Why? Because when a man acts like a child it forces his wife to act like his mother. And when a man forces his wife to act like his mother, she does two things for him. She makes decisions for him and she corrects him. Now there's a problem with that!" Cole pronounces, pacing again. "When a MAN acts like a CHILD and forces his WIFE to become his MOTHER, the problem is -- you can't make love to your MOTHER!" Pausing to let that message register, Cole adds, "Turn to the guy next to you and say, 'I think he's talkin' ta you again."'

Drawing frequently from scripture -- Malachi 2, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 Peter 3, Acts 4 -- Cole drives home one of the conference's underlying themes: Today's male is pathetic. Men have become so weak, so insensitive, uncommunicative, irresponsible and unreliable that women -- "the weaker vessel," in Cole's words -- have had to assume men's God-given roles as leaders of the family. And it is the husband's lack of strength, decisiveness and integrity that is the primary cause of, among other things, divorce. "If your wife no longer trusts your word," he says, "She can no longer respect you and she can no longer submit to you. And if she can no longer respect you and submit to you, then she no longer wants to bear your name."

Like the other speeches, Cole's talk is hokey, a bit loopy, narrow-minded and vehement -- geared more to incite emotions and prompt an immediate response than to spur sober reflection. Nevertheless, Cole and his fellow speakers strike a real nerve at these events, evident not only in the huge turnouts but in the pained earnestness of the people in the crowd. The men I spoke with, even in the contrived atmosphere of the small-group discussions we form after each talk, were sincere, at times distraught, in relating how they've been abusive, negligent or selfish as husbands and fathers.

The Promise Keepers' message is hardly all dark and dour. "'Manhood and Christlikenesss are synonymous," Cole announces in an incomprehensible riff that draws a round of cheers and amens. "The first Adam blew it. That's the bad news . The good news is there came another Adam. And when that Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ, came he not only accepted responsibility for his own action, he accepted responsibility for the action of the whole world!" Promise Keepers are sinners in the hands of a loving, macho God who is eager to forgive their transgressions, restore their manhood and fix their broken lives and families.

I For God to heal, however, men must take charge. In Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, popular Promise Keepers speaker Tony Evans offers a strategy for accomplishing this : "The first thing you do is 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 the family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.' Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. I'm not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back. If you simply ask for it back, your wife is likely to simply [refuse].... Be sensitive. Listen. Treat the lady gently but lovingly. But lead!" And to women he says, "Give it back! ... God never meant for you to bear the load you're carrying."

Evans repeats this message at each rally, and the press loves to cite him as an example of the Promise Keepers' bald sexism. Quote for quote, he is the most sexist speaker among the Promise Keepers, though he is hardly without competition. Invariably, the men I questioned about Evans defended him, insisting that he's not urging men to become tyrannical leaders at home -- that his point is for men to become responsible, loving and compassionate fathers and husbands. But if Promise Keepers attendees don't leave the rally intending to mold their spouses into Stepford wives, the message they take with them remains essentially patriarchal -- that men belong in positions of power over women. As long as men are good stewards and don't misuse their authority, everyone -- including God -- will be happy.

The problem for men eager to change, it seems, is that they have few nonpatriarchal models. "Historically, we've had so much literature, from every side of the aisle, describing what it means to be a godly woman," says Margaret Bendroth, adjunct professor at Andover Newton Theological Seminary and author of Fundamentalism and Gender. "But there's been almost nothing that speaks to Christian men. And unfortunately, there is a lot of negative, antifeminist material they can tap into as they search for their identity."

Like many religious movements, Promise Keepers started with a vision. In 1990 Bill McCartney was driving with a friend to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting when he had an epiphany. "I envision men coming together in huge numbers in the name of Jesus," he told his friend, "worshiping and celebrating their faith together." Back home, McCartney formed a group of 70 men who shared his dream, and he started to recruit other men. "There was an unmistakable missionary zeal to it all," McCartney writes in his autobiography, From Ashes to Glory. "Each time we met, every time we talked by telephone, we had a very real sense that the idea was not only catching on, but exploding."

After firing up increasingly larger crowds at conferences in Boulder, McCartney, who coached football at Colorado for 13 seasons (he resigned late in 1994) and led his team to its first national championship in 1990, finally packed his university's football field to capacity with 50,000 men in 1993. Last year Promise Keepers drew more than 720,000 men to 13 stadium events nationwide. They now have more than 300 employees, 65,000 organizers, offices in 28 states and an annual budget of $65 million. They publish a quarterly newsletter and a slick monthly called New Man. Some 26 gatherings are planned for 1996, in addition to a clergy conference expected to draw 80,000 pastors. In 1997 they're planning a million man march on the Capitol Mall.

McCartney provided the inspiration behind Promise Keepers, but he's also been its biggest source of controversy. In 1992 he campaigned for a Colorado anti-gay-rights amendment, calling homosexuality "an abomination against almighty God" (Promise Keepers' official position is that homosexuality is a sin which "violates God's design".). Campus protests followed, and Representative Pat Schroeder (D., Colo.) called him a "self-anointed ayatollah." The Anti-Defamation League reprimanded him for using his position at a state school to air his religious views. It took the threat of a suit from the ACLU to make him stop holding mandatory prayer meetings for his players. He was a featured speaker at Operation Rescue events and publicly defended two players accused of date rape by saying, "Rape by definition is a violent act, and I don't think that's what we're talking about here."

Perhaps it's McCartney's personal battles, however, rather than his political ones that offer the most insight into Promise Keepers. In From Ashes to Glory, McCartney speaks frankly about his failures as a husband and father, his struggles with alcohol, his temper and his daughter's two illegitimate children sired by two different players on his football team. "I've caused a lot of undue pain and suffering," he writes. "When my daughter needed a father who would really invest himself in her life, I was off instead chasing another bowl game. While my sons were looking for a role model, I was busy playing father to a bunch of college ballplayers. While my wife sat at home reading books, wishing for a husband who would be there for her, I was at the stadium bragging to the press about our latest victory." Beneath the all-American success story of a football coach lies a saga of pain and regret that clearly resonates with the hundreds of thousands of men who've become Promise Keepers.

Who are these men? According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Fathering and cited in U. S. News & World Report, the median age of Promise Keepers attendees is 38. Though 88 percent are married, 21 percent have been divorced. Fifty percent report that their own fathers were "largely absent" when they grew up (65.7 said this absence was because of work). Fifty-three percent said they knew what their father felt toward them, and only 25 percent are satisfied with themselves as fathers. Thirty-four percent attend Baptist churches. Eighty-four percent are white.

I do not know which Promise Keepers rallies those 16 percent nonwhite men attended, but it wasn't Oakland. I spent part of one session scanning the crowd for blacks, Asians and Hispanics. By my estimate the white-to-nonwhite ratio was something like 150 to five. This surprised me, because it was reported that roughly 25 percent of the audience at the St. Petersburg ThunderDome was black.

In fact, Promise Keepers' ethnic diversity and its efforts to bridge racial chasms set the organization apart from many other evangelical movements. Promise Number Six is the pledge to reach "beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." Twenty-five percent of PK's 300-plus paid staff are men of color, and of the top 14 managers three are African-American and one is Asian-American. At the Oakland Coliseum two of the eight speakers, Wellington Boone and Tony Evans, were African-American. Another speaker, Paul Ries, was Latino. In a recent Time article William Martin, a Rice University sociologist who studies modern revival movements, says that PK's multiracialism is the one part of its program "that would be moving participants to a new position, rather than reinforcing beliefs they already hold."

At Oakland the Saturday-night talks are devoted to racial reconciliation, beginning with Boone, a thin, young pastor and president of New Generation Campus Ministries in Richmond, Virginia. His address is titled "Raising the Standard in the Brotherhood of Believers," and he begins by asking, "Why am I preaching about racism? Because there are so few blacks in Promise Keepers!"

The basis of his talk is I Peter 2, and much of it is delivered in what guys at the conference described as "word pictures," which I figured out are epigrams that tend to rhyme and elicit lots of hoots and cheers. "Who have you given yourself to -- Christ or culture?" Boone asks us. "You can please your race, and miss your faith! You can please your friends, and miss grace! ... The issue of racism is the issue of carnality. Your present stewardship will determine your future responsibility.

"If you were the example Jesus used as the model for the world," Boone asks, "would there be racism? When I'm with the brothers and I talk condescendingly about white people, talk about 'em in a way I wouldn't in front of them, then I'm not a slave to Jesus. I'm a slave to my culture. It's the same for a white person.... As blacks were slaves in history, we are to be slaves to God!"

Citing Revelation 7:9, Boone announces that "we are called to be together. If we don't like being together now, then we won't like heaven!" He points to Matthew 5:44: "Love your enemies! Do good unto -those that hate you! Rednecks belong in my church. Some of you know what I'm talkin' about 'cuz you is it -- t'bacca spittin', Confederate-flag-wavin' rednecks! ... I love 'em, 'cuz until I love 'em I can't drive the hate out of 'em!"

As Boone winds up his talk, using phrases like "reaching out tonight," I see where he is heading, and I get nervous. "There is some brothers here tonight, not many but. . ." He asks us each to approach a black man in the audience, ask his forgiveness and give him a hug. As guys around me swarm on the only three African-Americans in our section, I wonder what is running through the black men's minds, particularly since they had listened impassively to Boone's rousing, feel-good address.

It's just after 9 P.M., some 13 hours since we began this morning, when the emcee introduces the conference's final act. "It's really not strange that God would use a football coach to reach people like this," he says, "because he's always used laypeople. He used a carpenter. He used a group of fishermen. That's the way he works. This man is a visionary, this man is a dreamer, this man is a Promise Keeper, and this man is Coach Bill McCartney!" The 55year-old bespectacled McCartney waits for the applause to die down, beaming a big, goofy smile at the audience. After a few football anecdotes and a story about how he recently got his wife to forgive him for ignoring her needs for 32 years, McCartney describes the moment God spoke to him about racial reconciliation. It was in 1991, as McCartney waited to address PK's first large gathering in the basketball arena at Colorado.

"It was a supercharged environment," he recalls, speaking with a thick-tongued, Midwest accent that makes him sound like Luther on Coach. "We were slappin' high-fives in the back sayin' "God is movin' here!' And as I stood there, I felt the Lord speak to me and he said, 'Look at the audience here and what do you see?' And I said, 'Lord, I see the spirit of the livin' God comin' alive in these men.' He said, 'What else do you see?' I said, 'They're almost all white guys!' And here's what the Lord asked me to say, 'You can put 50,000 guys in that stadium. But if you don't have a full and fair representation of my people -- if the men of color are not here -- you guys can all be there, but I'm not comin'!"

After a brief account of the resistance he's encountered trying to sell his message about racism at Promise Keepers events (angry letters, eerily silent responses from largely white audiences), McCartney's talk suddenly becomes a breathless, nearly incomprehensible rant that prompts the guy next to me to observe that he's "never seen anyone so filled with the spirit as Coach Mac."

"Men!" McCartney bellows, his open hands pleading with the audience. "Do you understand that earth moves heaven? That heaven waits on earth? Are you in touch with the fact that Almighty God surely does in fact have a perfect holy will and that his will is set? However, there is a real problem here because Almighty God has given man a free will! Man makes his own choices! So what we're dealin' with here is that God will not force his will upon man. And prayer is when we ask God to do somethin' that he already wills to do!"

Neck bulging, arms flailing, spit flying, McCartney builds to his point. "What Almighty God is doin' is waitin' for the church to come together in harmony! He's got a whole backload of things up there he wants to do. He's got so much on his heart he's wanted to do for so long but the church is divided.... And as a result heaven is held back by earth refusing to admit before God, 'Lord, we have no agenda! Lord, it's only your will that we want! Lord, we forfeit whatever is on our hearts and we surrender. And we. ask you, Lord, What is on your heart?' I share with you that a spirit of prayer is when we can look into God's heart and pray his will back to him! Almighty God is offerin' us intimacy. You know what he's sayin' to us? Inta-me, see-my-heart!"

Whether mesmerized, confused or simply exhausted, the audience is still during this speech. People break into no cheers, exchange no high-fives, shed no tears. Then McCartney invites all the pastors to gather at the foot of the stage to be acknowledged for their efforts. "Many of these guys are beleaguered," McCartney yells hoarsely. "They're frustrated and disappointed! They don't feel appreciated. Many of them are overworked. They're unloved and they're stressed out!" McCartney closes every conference with this focus on pastors -- a shrewd gesture, considering that many pastors have complained that PK has disrupted their ministries.

"Men, we're in a war!" he announces as the pastors stream down the aisles. "We need great leadership! We need a unity of command. We need all our leaders to come together with one heartbeat. Let's bless our brothers!" The crowd erupts into a frenzy of shouts, whistles and applause -- a standing ovation that lasts almost 15 minutes. "Let's infuse them with our heartfelt love!" he continues, waving his arms to increase the applause. "Let's rally 'em! Let's ignite 'em! Let's propel 'em! ... Bring' em forward, men! Keep cheerin'! Let 'em know we love 'em!" The pastors crossing the field look stunned by the reception; many are hugging, dozens are in tears.

"Guys are in trouble these days," Garrison Keillor writes in The Book of Guys. "Years ago, manhood was an opportunity for achievement and now it's just a problem to overcome." For thousands of Christian men, Promise Keepers seems to offer a clear path to authentic masculinity. And it directs them to this goal in a language they understand: a language that, however quirky and questionable at times, does emphasize honesty, respect, friendship and sharing -- rare qualities, indeed.

In a time of crisis, a massive, charismatic movement such as PK can all too easily manipulate those desperate for assurances, and for the experience of being part of something large and more important than themselves. Does Promise Keepers have a hidden political agenda? The organization denies this, although it has sponsored talks by Jerry Falwell, its leaders have appeared on the 700 Club, and James Dobson's ultraright Focus on the Family is a major PK supporter and publisher of several of the group's books. Highly organized, PK certainly has tremendous political potential and, as one critic noted, "When push comes to shove,[Promise Keepers followers] are likely to pull voting-booth levers to abolish abortion or curtail gay rights. Ultimately, these men are a voting bloc -- an evangelical Christian voting bloc."

What of Promise Keepers' insistence that men reclaim the upper hand in their families? What demands can housewife Sally expect from husband Bob when he comes roaring home from the coliseum? Probably few. From my conversations with men at Oakland, I suspect that most Promise Keepers' relationships with their wives are far more egalitarian in practice than the rhetoric of taking charge suggests. They seem already to have learned how to make decisions with their wives, and in an age when the dual-income family is the norm, a return to the old patriarchal structure seems impossible.

Watching the men at Oakland Coliseum stomp, cheer and celebrate their manhood I can't help thinking of the catchy title of Mariah B. Nelson's recent book about sports and sexism, The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. Clearly, Promise Keepers represents a reaction to the progress of women. But it is too large and complex a movement to be merely that. Perhaps in their eagerness to right the wrongs they feel they have done their wives, families and people of other color, these men are already revising their less-progressive ideals.

Still, I found it frustrating to listen to speaker after speaker blame men for their failure to act as the leaders "God equipped them to be." Why must a secure sense of manhood depend on men being in control? Isn't it possible that the notion that "men must run things" is in part to blame for the breakdown of marriages, families and the notion of what it means to be a man?

I'll admit there's much about the Promise Keepers I'll never fully understand. In his closing remarks at Oakland, the emcee announces that "every gathering at a sports arena concludes with a score, and tonight is no different." And then, high above the field, the scoreboard lights up to deafening applause: "Jesus: 48,832. Satan: O."


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