SERMONS ON THE MALL
October 3, 1997
The Promise Keepers are gathering on The Mall in Washington, D.C., for their annual meeting. The all-male evangelical movement has come under fire for being anti-women, anti-gay and anti-abortion. But the Promise Keepers say their Christian organization is simply pro-family, and pro-community. After a background report, Promise Keeper Vice President Paul Edwards discusses the movement's mission with critic Rev. Alice Anderson, and religious historian Randall Balmer. You can continue the debate in an online Forum with Mr. Edwards and Rev. Anderson.
RICHARD OSTLING: It was as loud and raucous as a religious meeting ever gets.
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SPOKESMAN: We love you guys; we need you!
RICHARD OSTLING: In the Seattle Kingdome 63,000 men in the Christian revival movement known as Promise Keepers cheered to show their support for local pastors. Leading the cheers was Bill McCartney, founder Promise Keepers. This evangelical Christian organization for men only seeks to bring participants into a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and more responsible involvement with their families. McCartney was formerly a top ranking football coach at the University of Colorado. He says it was partly his own failures that gave him the idea to use men kindled with the spirit of God to restore the family.
Founder and leader Bill McCartney.
BILL McCARTNEY: I'd been a selfish guy. I'd been a guy who has been career oriented and drive oriented and goal seeking, ambitious, and I regret a lot of that because while we were living out of my dreams--sometimes at the expenses of those that were closest to me.
SPOKESMAN: And I'm going to ask you men to walk down here right now; give your life to Jesus Christ right now.
RICHARD OSTLING: For the men who come to these rallies the first step to becoming a Promise Keeper is to commit to Jesus Christ.
SPOKESMAN: Promise No. 1: a Promise Keeper is committed to honor--
Promise Makers make seven promises.
RICHARD OSTLING: But that's only the start. The movement asks men to make seven promises on such matters as moral and sexual purity, racial reconciliation, and renewed involvement as responsible husbands, fathers, and church members.
SPOKESMAN: And we'd be mindful that of the families represented here in our group--
RICHARD OSTLING: Though big rallies get the publicity, Promise Keepers tells men to form small prayer groups and help each other keep their promises. Twenty thousand groups now meet across the country.
JACK McMILLAN: I guess my prayer--I'd like you guys to join me in--is for us to be reconciled as a family and, of course, to be able to forgive each other.
RICHARD OSTLING: Jack McMillan, a Catholic and a top retail executive, is in a small group in Seattle.
JACK McMILLAN: Being in the word together the Bible, praying together and sharing our lives with each other, that's a tremendous combination that will bring you closer to other men and get you away from the isolation that so many American men experience in their homes and in their careers.
RICHARD OSTLING: Starting in 1991, Promise Keepers held annual meetings in Colorado. Attendance grew from 4200 the first year to 50,000 three years later. In 1994, the rallies went nationwide, with attendance reaching more than 1 million last year. So far the attendance is down by nearly half this year. Tomorrow the Promise Keepers are staging their biggest spectacular to date, a prayer meeting on the Mall in Washington that they hope will draw hundreds of thousands of Christian men.
But the group has roused opposition. Some women object to the teaching that a man should be the spiritual head of the household, and some worry that founder McCartney's stand against abortion and gay liberation will eventually turn the movement into a political force as part of the religious right.
PHIL PONCE: Joining us now, Paul Edwards is Vice President of Promise Keepers and coordinator of tomorrow's rally, known as Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly for Men. Rev. Alice Anderson is associate minister at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. She's a member of Equal Partners in Faith, an interfaith coalition formed in response to Promise Keepers; Randall Balmer has written widely on the evangelical movement and teaches American religious history at Columbia University's Barnard College. Welcome all. Let's start first with our guest here in Washington. Mr. Edwards, first of all, why are you holding this rally?
"When in times of crisis...."
PAUL EDWARDS, Promise Keepers: It's really not a rally. It's a sacred assembly, which was patterned after the Old Testament gathering of the men, the families of Israel, when in times of crisis they needed to be called out and to renew their commitment to God, that He might heal them. II Chronicle 7:14: "If my people call by My name will humble themselves and pray, seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear, I will forgive the sin, and I'll heal their land."
PHIL PONCE: So you see this as a time of crisis, the Promise Keepers do?
PAUL EDWARDS: Well, we see it for men. I mean, if you look in the last 30 or 35 years, men have abdicated responsibilities in families to their wives, to their communities, to their culture. Divorce rates among Christians are near those of the local community. Men are absent in the cities. The crime rate in this country is mostly by men. The prisons are filled with almost all men. It's the fourth largest army in the world, if you were to make it an army. And they're behind the pornography industry, which is owned by men, for the benefit of men, and exploiting women and children. And that's over the last 30 or 35 years. I'd say we have a pandemic in terms of men out of control.
PHIL PONCE: So very briefly, what is the group's goals?
PAUL EDWARDS: Well, at our sacred assembly we're calling men to confess their sins, recognize that they personally have failed; they've failed their wives; failed their families; ask God to heal them and then to return to their churches that they might--that they might be men who will make a difference, be godly men.
A right wing political agenda?
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Anderson, what are the concerns that your group has about Promise Keepers?
REV. ALICE ANDERSON: Well, as people of faith we in many ways support many of the goals that Promise Keepers have. We're welcome for men to be responsible in family relationships and all their other relationships, but we have concerns about some of the leadership of the Promise Keepers and the fact that there are leaders involved in Promise Keepers who are members of the right wing, the right political wing, and that people like Jerry Falwell , people like Pat Robertson, people like Gary Bauer and people like Randall Terry, and we're concerned with their relationship with this group, the fact that the group might get off message onto another message and we know that when men come together in sacred assembly, as you're saying, our experience is Christian--in my experience as a Christian--Presbyterian--I've known that when these men have gathered together, men like the men I just listed, they've had other motives, as well as just religious motives of gathering to praise God.
PHIL PONCE: So you're talking about a possible political agenda, is that what you're referring to?
REV. ALICE ANDERSON: Yes, I am.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Edwards, how do you respond to concerns about a political agenda on the part of Promise Keepers?
PAUL EDWARDS: Well, certainly history would show that large gatherings of men are a thing to maybe have some fear about if God isn't at the center of it. If you look at our leadership, though, if you look at our board, none of those individuals that Rev. Anderson's mentioned are on our board. It is true that in the early years of our organization we received help, but we are a revival movement. And we are different from a reform movement that does draw a lot of its energy and its focus from topics, you know, the issues of the day.
Promise Keepers is in the history or the tradition of going after the heart, and because it's a revival movement, not a reform movement, its length of time is kind of suspect. It may not be around for a long time, like the Billy Sundays and the First Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening and the Third Great Awakening. They have an uncertain time duration, and we are more of that line.
PHIL PONCE: So in the time that you do have do you foresee a political agenda for Promise Keepers?
PAUL EDWARDS: Absolutely not.
Defining the role of women.
PHIL PONCE: How about your group's concerns regarding the role of women as defined by Promise Keepers?
REV. ALICE ANDERSON: Well, I think we have a concern about the way that the Bible is interpreted and what that says for the role of women. One example of a concern I have is that not only are the gatherings of women not present, except as helpers, and I understand that women are involved as helpers and that many wives are present there in helping things happen, but before the gatherings pastors are called together in order to plan for them, and women pastors are not welcome there. As a woman pastor that's a different issue for me than the issue of men coming together and meeting to support women--things together.
PAUL EDWARDS: This is a really important issue for us to wake up on, that there are many men in churches under the leadership and authority of a female pastor, an announcement will be made--about pastors' gatherings that have taken place--after the first of the year we're going to look to remediate that because so many of our men our in churches where--that authority and they don't want to be--you know, we don't have a divided council.
PHIL PONCE: So you're saying there may be a change regarding the status of women pastors in the Promise Keepers movement?
PAUL EDWARDS: Well, what we're saying is while our primary mission is to men and while we're trying to help men live out godly lives, we recognize that a large number of those men are in churches that are led by women pastors and we've sensed the frustration of the women pastors who said hello, you know, we're trying to serve our men too, and we understand the "men's only" thing may have some benefit, but we sure don't feel that it's helpful to have us relegated out of the conversation. And we've heard that.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Balmer, what is this movement tapping in to? As a historian, what--what do you see as the appeal of Promise Keepers?
An historical tradition of "muscular Christianity".
RANDALL BALMER, Religion Historian: --throughout American history there has been a tradition of so-called muscular Christianity, trying to lure men back into the churches because ever since at least as far back as the late 17th century women have far outnumbered men in the churches, and so the various movements trying to lure men to the churches, the Businessman's Awakening right here in New York City, for example, in the late 1850's, Billy Sunday, that Mr. Edwards mentioned, the Men in Religion--movement--all of these are attempts to try to re-spiritualize and in a sense to domesticate the American male.
PHIL PONCE: Are you surprised by the success of the program?
RANDALL BALMER: No. I'm not really not in some ways. I think it's brilliant. I think Promise Keepers is a brilliant idea because what McCartney has done so very effectively is that he's tapped into the two metaphors of Christian spirituality dating back to the New Testament: that is athleticism and militarism. Paul talks about running the race. He talks about fighting the good fight, putting on the full armor of God, and this sort of rhetoric, these metaphors are used by Promise Keepers, I think, to great effect. The other thing we're tapping into, I think, very clearly is, as Mr. Edwards said, a sense that men are in trouble in the culture right now. And I think there's not any question about that. There's an identity crisis with the American male, especially the white American male. And they are trying to address that, trying to provide that kind of formula for how we as men here in America in the 1990's are to live our lives, especially our domestic ones.
PHIL PONCE: How do you react to the concerns about the status of women and the possibility of a political link?
RANDALL BALMER: Well, I think with Promise Keepers, as with, for example, a good book, you have to read at two levels. You have the text, itself, and then you have the text behind the text, a kind of subtext, if you will. The text of Promise Keepers, as I understand it, is encouraging men to be better husbands, fathers, and church goers, church members. And I don't have any problem with that. And I'm sure that Rev. Anderson doesn't have any problem with that. There is a subtext as well that Rev. Anderson I think did point out, and that is, is this movement for--or perhaps this movement is a kind of stocking horse for the religious right. And I think it's fair to judge the leadership of the movement by the friends it keeps. Mr. McCartney is very good friends apparently with some leaders of the religious right--Joyce Dobson and others--and I take Mr. Edwards at his word--he's a man of integrity--that this is not a political movement. But I think the rest of us have to hold him to that.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Edwards, how do you respond to people who might have those lingering questions?
"Women are not the enemy."
PAUL EDWARDS: I think Dr. Balmer hits very clearly and I think accurately so on the athleticism and also the warfare. I think the misunderstanding also on the warfare metaphors is that it's a spiritual battle--the Ephesians passes the armor of God--is against--is warring not against human enemies--so when people oppose this movement there isn't a desire on Promise Keepers' part to say you're wrong. The National Organization of Women has been very strident in its decrying of what Promise Keepers is doing and our response has been we have no fight with you. We believe that men have really serious problems but you're not the enemy. There is a spiritual enemy that we all need to face commonly.
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Anderson, you alluded to this earlier, but you make a distinction between the leadership of the movement and the people who attend their rallies, themselves. Could you amplify on that?
REV. ALICE ANDERSON: Well, I think that there are a lot of men who are seeking the very things you're seeing, support for their relationships and to be better family men. But I think that there is this subtext that the professor was speaking to. And I'm concerned about the war metaphor. I've heard talk about a war to take the nation back from Jesus. I have real concern about that. It's a pluralistic nation, a democratic nation, not a theocratic nation, where we have not only Protestants and Catholics but also Jews and Muslims, and Hindus. We want to be a country where there's religious pluralism and where there's a separation between church and state. I'm worried by that language--even though I can understand its basis in the New Testament and I can understand the appeal of militarism in a broad sense to men.
PHIL PONCE: What's your response to that?
PAUL EDWARDS: Again, I think there's a potential for a misunderstanding that Promise Keepers is out to subvert a culture and to do it through political means. I would say that we are about transforming the lives of men. We're unambiguous about that, and that men, as they come into a relationship with Jesus Christ, when they return to their families and their churches, will probably act according to the dictates of their conscience. They should come under the authority of their local pastor and say, Pastor, how can we turn to face the troubles that we're facing in our community, and we stop short of prescribing what that agenda should be because it's beyond our competence. We don't have the ability to say, well, it should be this issue or that issue. "We're saying we've got enough work just fixing the human heart.
The Promise Keepers try to build momentum for the future.
PHIL PONCE: And very quickly, last question. Randall Balmer, in the life of a religious movement like this, how important is tomorrow's rally?
RANDALL BALMER: I think it's very important, as the clip indicated. The attendance at the stadium rallies has been declining over the past year, and I'm not terribly surprised by that because I think it's very difficult, as Mr. Edwards suggested, to sustain a religious fervor over a long period of time. In some ways this may be a last gasp, at least publicly, of the Promise Keepers movement. What I would look for in the next coming--in the next few years--is a kind of--shall we say--a domestication of the movement in that you would see much more emphasis on small groups, perhaps the publication of curricular guides for churches, about how to sustain a men's group, and that sort of thing.
PHIL PONCE: Randall Balmer, thank you very much. Paul Edwards, Rev. Anderson, thank you for being here.
REV. ALICE ANDERSON: You're welcome.
PAUL EDWARDS: Thank you.
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