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What’s the Problem With the Promises?

This is a question for all you women out there.

Let’s say there is this guy. He’s a deeply ethical and spiritual guy. He has a small group of close male friends you respect. He is honest. He loves women, but he is sexually faithful. He loves kids and he enjoys being a present and involved parent. And he is fiercely committed to leaving the world a better place than he found it.

Would you date him?

Hell, I would.

Would it matter if he was good-looking or had a high-powered job or a lot of money? I mean, those things are nice, right? But they are no substitute for character.

So why is it that when a lot of women read about the men who become involved in Promise Keepers they want to turn and run the other way?

The truth is, I haven’t spent much time in the last few years thinking about Promise Keepers. As a para-church men’s spirituality movement, it peaked in 1997 with a budget of $117,000,000 and a staff of 450.

Way back then it was the bane of the National Organization of Women, prompting then-NOW President, Patricia Ireland, to write in the Washington Post:

“The problem is that this hottest-religious-right marketing tool since televangelism has portrayed women’s equality as the source of society’s ills. . . . 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 have seen them coming for some time.”

Jesse Jackson kept an eye on Promise Keepers, too:

“Of course, the millions of participants in the Promise Keeper rallies are nice people, but they are also largely politically naive and innocent. The same cannot necessarily be said of their leadership. Coach McCartney [Promise Keeper’s founder and former director] has been politically active in anti-gay and anti-choice campaigns. Many others in their leadership have similar records of conservative activism and political action. This is really the third wave of the religiously-based conservative political movement.”

At the height of its popularity, Promise Keepers came under fire for using militaristic language at its conferences, for promoting racial equity while opposing social programs to help create economic equity and for targeting minority men for inclusion as part of a strategy for strengthening its opposition to women in power roles.

Since 1997 Promise Keepers has aged, downsized and softened. Maybe that’s not the most flattering way to describe a men’s movement, but it’s true:

Beset with financial problems, the organization now has a budget of $27,000,000 and a staff of 100. Its founder, Bill McCartney, retired to take care of his ailing wife and was replaced by Tom Fortson, a 50-something African-American businessman.

And it has radically curtailed its rhetoric about the leadership role of men in marriages. In fact, its current national tour is called “UPRISING: The Revolution of a Man’s Soul.”

The promotional material says “Find your true purpose and destiny in the pursuit of the passion and character of God. Be a part of a revolution that changes a life of imitation and mediocrity into one of passion and character—a radical revolt that will forever change the world!”

Almost sounds as if it could be a course offering at the Omega Institute.

So what’s the problem with Promise Keepers?

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the Promise Keepers phenomenon is that in so many ways it doesn’t seem very problematic at all.

After all, women—and I’m guessing gay men, too—do want men of integrity, honesty, sexual fidelity. A lot of women are tired of little boys who have loud voices and wear grown-up-sized clothes but who aren’t, well, real men. It doesn’t really matter where you source the problem—feminism, capitalism, male chauvinism, utter laziness—many women welcome the idea of men re-embracing healthy masculinity.

And it can be tempting to dismiss Promise Keepers as sputtering relic of late 1990s conservative evangelical Christianity—though the critique of many mainstream and progressive Christians is that evangelicalism perverts the teachings of the very Christ it seeks to glorify so profusely.

But we’re a country committed to religious pluralism. So could it be the religious orientation of Promise Keepers that is the problem with it? Not entirely, but we’re getting closer. Because wrapped inside the feel-good, male-bonding, character-building message is a political agenda consistent with that advanced by the religious right.

Back in the 1990s, many women had strong, negative responses to Promise Keepers’ exhortation for men to take back their role as leaders in marriage. The emphasis now is less on the home and more on the public square.

Now it is seeking to become a force in the world outside of the domestic sphere. But what does that really mean? In an April 29 issue of The Denver Post, Fortson says that Promise Keepers will seek greater influence in the public debates over abortion and gay marriage, stressing that one of the Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper is to make a difference in the world.

“In the past,” Fortson says, “we’ve encouraged men to deal with the home front. . . . Now we’re saying ‘OK, guys, this is just part of the battle.’”

The plan, Fortson went on, is to seek to unleash armies of men to change the culture and to fulfill “the Christian obligation to shepherd the flock and point out the way.”

Finally—at last—we come to the problem: Who’s way?

By what norm does Promise Keepers insist that “the way” must include male headship in the home, restricted abortion rights and no civil protection for gay and lesbian persons?

Certainly not all Christians would agree that it is the Christian norm. And imposing any kind of religious norm on a political movement comes frighteningly near what we see in countries where we so fervently seek to plant democracy.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Promise Keepers. It may be tempting to dismiss criticism of the Promise Keepers as paranoia.

But the Promise Keepers are coming. And making no secret of the fact that they want to impose their promises on you.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at

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