Promise Keepers on the March

Col. George Selden works in the Pentagon, doing strategic planning for the U.S. secretary of defence. He has served as an adviser in the White House, and was on Gen. Colin Powell’s staff in 1991 when the United States threw Iraq out of Kuwait.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 6, 1997

Col. George Selden works in the Pentagon, doing strategic planning for the U.S. secretary of defence. He has served as an adviser in the White House, and was on Gen. Colin Powell’s staff in 1991 when the United States threw Iraq out of Kuwait.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 6, 1997

Promise Keepers on the March

Col. George Selden works in the Pentagon, doing strategic planning for the U.S. secretary of defence. He has served as an adviser in the White House, and was on Gen. Colin Powell's staff in 1991 when the United States threw Iraq out of Kuwait. None of it, he says, is as important as what he will do this Saturday in Washington: join hundreds of thousands of other men in what may be the biggest religious gathering ever in the United States. Drawn together by Promise Keepers - a Colorado-based men-only movement that has packed stadiums across the continent with an emotive blend of Christian fundamentalism and family values - they will gather on the Mall and pledge to honor Jesus and take firmer leadership of their families. Selden, 50, has participated in other Promise Keeper rallies, and it is, he says, a powerful and mysterious thing. "I've experienced success beyond my wildest dreams," he says. "But compared to this, it was hollow as it could possibly be."

Since it began seven years ago as the brainchild of a college football coach named Bill McCartney, Promise Keepers has become the largest and most controversial men's movement in the United States. Its leaders say its phenomenal growth - from a handful of men in 1990 to 2.6 million by early this year, with a separate branch in Canada - demonstrates a yearning among men for spiritual values. Its critics reply that Promise Keepers is something more sinister: a nostalgic throwback to the days of unchallenged male supremacy, or even another bid by the religious right to impose a fundamentalist agenda on American life. Those claims will be tested on Oct. 4, when the group holds its first national rally on the Mall, a six-hour marathon of music, prayer and mass signings of its list of seven promises - including pledges to honor Christ, maintain "sexual purity," and strive for racial harmony. When it announced the plan two years ago, Promise Keepers spoke of bringing a million men to Washington, but it was quickly upstaged by Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March of black men that fall. Organizers will not say how many they now expect, but police are planning for 500,000.

In many ways, Promise Keepers fits right into the peculiarly American tradition of religious revivals that spring up outside established churches - from the Great Awakenings of the 19th century to Billy Graham's mass crusades. It started when McCartney, then coach of the University of Colorado Buffalos in Boulder and already a born-again Christian, conceived the idea of bringing men together in huge numbers "worshipping and celebrating their faith together." In 1991, McCartney's creation drew just 4,200 men to rallies. That swelled to 727,000 in 1995 and 1.1 million last year. This year, says spokesman Mark DeMoss, it has 368 staff members and expects revenues of $120 million from selling $83 tickets to events, as well as from books, videos and souvenirs. In 1994, McCartney quit his $480,000-a-year coaching job to lead Promise Keepers full time (for which, he says, he takes no salary).

In Canada, a separate and smaller Promise Keepers group has operated since 1995 out of headquarters in Burlington, Ont., as well as offices in Kitchener, Ont., Winnipeg and Langley, B.C. It has a mailing list of 70,000 and has held rallies across the country, drawing as many as 11,500 men in Vancouver and Hamilton. Buses and two chartered planes will take several hundred Canadians to the Washington rally, says Ken McGeorge, a onetime hospital administrator who is the Canadian operation's national co-ordinator. Canada may not share the American tradition of robust fundamentalism, he adds, but "the message rings true wherever you go."

It is a message that inspires hundreds of thousands of men at the same time that it unsettles some mainstream clergy and drives feminist groups to distraction. The U.S. National Organization of Women says that Promise Keepers' real message is "women taking a backseat." A coalition of liberal clergy called Equal Partners in Faith condemns it as "divisive and potentially dangerous." And a New York City-based group called the Center for Democracy Studies warns that Promise Keepers is nothing less than the "third wave" of the religious right - after Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. Alfred Ross, the centre's executive director, points to close ties between Promise Keepers and such luminaries of the American religious right as Robertson and James Dobson of Focus on the Family as proof that McCartney's movement is no spontaneous eruption. DeMoss, its main spokesman, was an adviser to Pat Buchanan's right-wing presidential campaign. "Promise Keepers is steeped in political ideology," argues Ross.

There is no question that McCartney's fundamentalist message reinforces the conservative, so-called family values that are so dear to the religious right. In 1992, he campaigned in favor of an anti-gay-rights law in Colorado, at one point describing homosexuality as "an abomination against Almighty God." But McCartney has not used Promise Keeper rallies to endorse any candidate or law. Instead, Promise Keepers draws tens of thousands of men to stadium rallies that are part revival meeting, part pep rally, part exercise in mass male bonding. Using stadiums is no coincidence: McCartney (known as "Coach" in Promise Keeper circles) uses a blend of sports metaphors and military language to reach his overwhelmingly white and all-male audience. Men, he says, have dropped the ball; they have to get back on Christ's team. "He speaks like a coach at halftime - and men respond," says Rev. Paul Hansen, pastor of an evangelical church near Washington. The only women present are volunteers who sell souvenirs.

The reason, say Promise Keepers, has nothing to do with chauvinism. "Most men are in pain but are too proud to admit it," says Ken McGeorge of Promise Keepers Canada. "They need to get beyond the pride thing and the ego thing." And, the group says, many social ills - fatherless families, drugs, infidelity, even putting work ahead of family and God - stem from the failures of men. Bringing men together allows them to be more open in admitting their failings, goes the argument, and by the end of Promise Keepers' rallies, men who have just met end up embracing with tears streaming down their cheeks. "It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life," recalls Hansen, who attended two mass rallies.

But the main reason for the men-only rule goes to the heart of Promise Keepers' most controversial belief: that men must reclaim leadership of their families, and wives should submit to their husbands. McCartney says that is not debatable - the Bible says the man is head of the family, and that is that. Some of his associates have interpreted this in ways that ring alarm bells among many women. Tony Evans, a frequent Promise Keeper speaker, wrote in the movement's book Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper that men should sit down with their wives, "and say something like this: 'Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family. Now I must reclaim that role.' "

Many men who plan to attend Saturday's rally take a more nuanced view. "It's not about going home and trying to subjugate your wife," says Selden, the Pentagon colonel. "It's about husbands and wives serving each other and the Lord." McCartney himself speaks openly about putting his career ahead of his family, and the troubles this caused (his daughter had two illegitimate children with members of his football team). And William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston who studies conservative religious movements, says women whose husbands become involved in Promise Keepers usually benefit from their renewed commitment to family: "Most women I know say it's improved their lives."

Although the Promise Keepers are still predominantly white, McCartney has put special emphasis on reaching out to black men - what the movement calls racial reconciliation. That is in line with recent moves by other leaders of the religious right to distance themselves from the sins of a movement that once claimed biblical authority for racial segregation. Mickel Gibson, 36, a member of a mainly black Baptist church near Washington who has attended two rallies, recalls being moved when white men he did not know spontaneously embraced him. "We were like brothers who hadn't seen each other for a long time," he says. "It's a blessing."

However many men Promise Keepers draws to Washington this week, it will face the dilemma of any revival meeting: what to do for an encore. Attendance at rallies has been down this year compared with 1996, and sociologist Martin says the leaders will have to figure out how to keep up enthusiasm. "There are signs," he says, "that Promise Keepers has already peaked." But its astonishing growth bears witness that the American tradition of bringing religion into public life is as powerful as ever.

Maclean's October 6, 1997