the Problem With the
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:
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:
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
But the Promise Keepers are coming. And making no secret of
the fact that they want to impose their promises on you.
contact Jo Page at email@example.com