Keeping the Promise of Patriarchy Alive: Some Reflections on the Promise Keepers Men’s Movement

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (July 1995)

A headline in the local Christian publication Something Better News reads “Promise Keepers: Christians 72,000; Lions Zero.” This strange but telling headline boasts of the rapidly growing numbers of a “new” men’s movement known as the Promise Keepers. 72,000 men gathered recently in the Pontiac Silverdome football stadium to “worship, pray, and commit themselves to God and their families.” I attended a smaller meeting here in Grand Rapids just prior to the larger gathering in Pontiac and I came away feeling frustrated and afraid for the future of relationships between opposite genders. This “new” men’s movement is fundamentally the OLD one, where male dominance is the order of the day, in the family, church, and society. I also recently read the Promise Keepers handbook, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, published by the ultra-conservative Focus on the Family of Colorado. In this article I will give some analysis of the movement based on their own writings and my observations at one of their meetings.

The first and most disappointing aspect of what I understand about the Promise Keepers is their failure to denounce violence against women. In the 207 pages of Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, not one word was mentioned about the need for men to stop raping, beating, and murdering women. Sure, at the meeting that I attended men were admonished to treat their wives with respect, but that advice within a male dominant context may have nothing to do, as we shall see, with the end of spousal abuse.

Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper is a collection of 18 essays by 17 different men who offer strong advice to men on how to keep women subordinate. Many of the book’s contributors have not only been faithfully anti-feminist, but also anti-gay, pro-military, and intolerant of other religious and spiritual traditions. A quick look at some of these men will help put in perspective their urgings to other men.

Dr. James Dobson is the founder and leader of one of the largest rightwing sectors of evangelical Christianity, known as Focus on the Family. Started in 1997g, this organization has grown to a $90 million a year operation, an operation that publishes books, 10 different magazines, and broadcasts its radio program on 1,400 radio stations daily. Dobson has been a big supporter of Operation Rescue, is opposed to sex education and evolutionary theories in the public schools, but is more recently known for his major influence in the passing of anti-gay legislation in Colorado.

Luis Palau, as was reported last fall in The Fundamentalist, advocates Christianizing the world, even through violent means. This has been demonstrated by his long standing relationships with numerous despots throughout Latin America, most notably the former General of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, who was responsible for the deaths of nearly 20,000 people in 18 months as president by coup.

Jack Hayford has been a longtime preacher on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the Network that produces the “praise the Lord” program that brought Jim and Tammy Baker to fame. Hayford has been the personal minister to Paul and Jan Crouch, the founders of TBN. The Crouchs, although less political in their programming, are very involve in the politics of Israel, especially since it fits into their Armageddon theology (the notion that the world is going to end soon with the return of Jesus).

Bill Bright is president of Campus Crusade for Christ, which began on the campus of UCLA in 1951g. Bright’s movement became well known during 1968g, when it entered berkely with the intention of “thwarting the efforts of the movement against the Vietnam War and supporting Governor Reagan in his attempt to contain massive campus disruption (Diamond, Spiritual Warfare, pg. 52). Bright also is active in setting up chapters of his ministry on military bases. Known as the Officers Christian Fellowship, this group of 7,000 officers ministers to active duty officers on United States military bases here and abroad. In 1987g, Bright was included on the exclusive guest list of Ronald Reagan at a dinner for then Salvadoran President Duarte.

One of the features of the Promise Keepers, as eluded to in the opening paragraph, is by way of making their events seem like a sporting event. One of the main proponents of this men’s movement is Bill McCartney who is the head football coach at the University of Colorado. The language and metaphors that he uses in his essay of the book Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper are exclusively sports related. McCartney talks about he gets men to relax before a game by watching boxing matches. This is similar to the military showing pornographic films to soldiers before going into battle, as was done during the United States war in the Persian Gulf. McCartney is also hailed as being a healer of racial tensions, specifically between Blacks and Whites. At one point he relates his experience of being at the funeral of a former Black football player. He says that this mostly Black-attended funeral changed his life, yet does not elaborate on it or give any specific examples of what it did for his future relations with Blacks. Sure he advocates that his Black and White players get along, but that is in part so they play better together, because, as I believe, with male unity women can be better kept in place. Many other contributors to the book echo this same sentiment.

Several of the contributors refer to men “who have let the women be heads of household” as “weak” and “sissies.” Dr. Tony Evans, who is a Chaplin for the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, says tthat the primary crisis for this country is the “feminization of the American male…a misunderstanding of manhood that has produced a nation of sissified men who abdicate their role as spiritually pure leaders, thus forcing women to fill the vacuum.” Evans’ essay on Spiritual Purity is by far the most blatant in its advocacy for female subordination, in a subsection entitled “Reclaiming your Manhood,” Evans says, “The first thing you must 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 this 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.” In many ways this sums up the fundamental principles behind this men’s movement: to subordinate women, because God says so. This is one of the differences between this movement and that of the Robert Bly version. This movement is exclusively supported by the perceived male godhead religion of Christianity. What is interesting is that even these men, like many other men’s movements, are trying to appropriate the language of women’s ability to give birth by saying that “Like a woman who is pregnant and nearing the end of her term, we Christian men are about to burst forth with the coming of the Lord in ways we have never experienced.”

While I can acknowledge that this movement may help men to stop drinking, cheating on their spouses, and spend more time with their children, it does not promote real equality where women are seen as equals and not as narrowly defined homemakers. In my opinion the Promise Keepers is a movement that, apart from being homophobic and supportive of the economic status quo, is a response to the influence of the feminist movements to challenge the old guard of male dominance. It is a pep rally-like movement that brings men together to primarily affirm their desire to control women. Like a football game, they are the stars that score the touchdowns, while the women stand on the sidelines in a non-participatory role to cheer them on. God is the coach and HE sends in the ideological plays that men zealously follow with other men to achieve their goals. The only promise that the Promise Keepers really keep is to continue to play this game.

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Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org