ANSWERING THE CALL
October 6, 1997
Hundreds of thousands of Promise Keepers gathered on The National Mall in Washington Saturday to reaffirm their commitment to Christ and family, but critics say the all-male group is a backlash against feminism. After a background report, The NewsHour's regional commentators provide their perspectives on one of America's fasted-growing evangelical movements.
PHIL PONCE: They came from around the country and around the world for one of the largest gatherings ever in the nation's capital. Hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christian men streamed to the mall on Saturday for what they called a sacred assembly.
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October 3, 1997
Who are the Promise Keepers and what do they stand for?
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Since they were founded in 1990, the Promise Keepers have held religious revivals in stadiums across the country. The men who came to Washington were mostly white, married, conservative, and middle income.
PROMISE KEEPER: There is a spiritual theme where you go to the seat of power when you want to address the Lord and, you know, spiritual realm, so to speak; that this is right place to do it for America.
PHIL PONCE: The men sang and prayed and publicly confessed their sins, and there were free Bibles for everyone.
SPOKESMAN: Get your Bibles here. Come on. Everybody needs a Bible.
A movement to make better husbands, better fathers, better Christians.
PHIL PONCE: The thrust of the movement is to make men better Christians, husbands, and fathers. On the main stage more than 40 people spoke to the crowd. Promise Keepers President Randy Phillips talked about why they had gathered.
RANDY PHILLIPS: Is it to take back the nation by imposing our religious values on others? No. Is it to celebrate the fact that we as Christian men have been uncompromising models of integrity and purity? Tragically, no. We have not come to demonstrate our power to influence men. We have come to display our spiritual poverty that Almighty God might influence us.
PHIL PONCE: Nearby, about one hundred demonstrators from women's groups protested. They said the Promise Keepers want to dominate women and have a political agenda which includes opposition to abortion and homosexuality.
SPOKESPERSON: And we urge the Promise Keepers to change and to not urge the submission of women nor the submission of any group in our society.
PHIL PONCE: The group does ask men to reclaim spiritual leadership in their homes, and after the rally, questions remained about how the group views the role of women. Founder Bill McCartney appeared yesterday on "Meet the Press."
BILL McCARTNEY: If there needs to be a decision made where it can't be reconciled, then tenderly and gently the man needs to take authority.
PHIL PONCE: Promise Keepers say they now promise to take the movement abroad with the intention of making it global.
SPOKESMAN: We do pray that, Lord. We do pray that, Lord.
PHIL PONCE: Now, our regional commentators' views on the Promise Keepers: Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; and Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman.
A force for good?
Patrick, if I may begin with you, our Promise Keepers a force for the good, or do they make you nervous?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Oh, I definitely think they're a force for the good. Criticisms can be made and, in fact, have been made within the church broadly defined about some aspects of the Promise Keepers movement. One concern I have is that some people might come to view this movement--these large gatherings as a substitute for the local church. And I've been very glad to hear leaders specifically say that is not their objective. I think there's little doubt that what happened on the Mall was incredibly edifying and a very positive sign of growth and renewal in the church.
PHIL PONCE: Cynthia Tucker, did you see it as a sign of growth and renewal in the church?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, it can be. Certainly, Promise Keepers don't make me nearly as nervous as they seem to make the National Organization for Women, and while I certainly don't want to be married to a man who sees it as his God-given right to take authority in the household, tenderly, gently, or otherwise. If other women want to make that choice, that's fine with me. I have no problem with that. But if they say that they don't have a political agenda, I think that we have to take them at their word for now until we see something different. And I'm also very encouraged by the fact that according to Bill McCartney they're going to dedicate themselves to trying to wipe out racism in the church. If they do that, I think that they will have been a force for good, indeed.
Should men provide spiritual leadership?
PHIL PONCE: Bob Kittle, do you see anything radical in the notion of men taking spiritual leadership of their families?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: No. I don't think there's anything radical about it at all. It's a very, very traditional idea, of course, and not something that everyone agrees with. But I think the larger point is that the Promise Keepers really are part of the spiritual renewal that's going on in this country. And in that sense it's a very encouraging trend; particularly at a time when a third of the children in America are growing up in fatherless homes, it's excellent to see fathers taking responsibility for their children and responsibility for their wives and to be talking about racial reconciliation. It's also, I think, part of the growing recognition that government cannot solve all of our social ills, and that we as individuals have to take a role and that our values as individuals and as a society make a huge difference in our lives and the lives of our children.
PHIL PONCE: Lee Cullum, spiritual renewal going on?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Yes. I do think we see a lot of religious energy in the land, Phil. And this is a manifestation of it. You know, I don't agree with the Promise Keepers about everything, but you certainly can't fault them for trying to encourage men to be faithful husbands and loyal fathers. That's a good thing. I think that the reason some women are concerned can be understood. If you remember something an Episcopal priest said to me a few years ago--and it is this--that the women's liberation movement is going to take 500 years. And we're about 250 years along, so at such a precarious moment women worry that any shifting ground might cause them to lose ground. Now, I don't think they're going to lose ground if men return wholeheartedly to hearth and home. I think that women have been earning their own living and with income comes the inclination to decide things for yourself, so I hope that Bill McCartney will be careful how he leads the Promise Keepers to think that if they deliver for their families, they're automatically going to be the boss. I don't think it's going to happen that way, and we can have men feeling angry and disillusioned, and that would not help at all.
Barnicle: "Worse things can happen than a group of guys gathering on the Mall on a Saturday afternoon..."
PHIL PONCE: Mike Barnicle, what do you think the Promise Keepers are tapping into?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, I think they're tapping into just a void of feeling that's in this country, a need to connect with something, a church, a neighbor. I also--at the risk of being terribly unsophisticated sounding--think worse things can happen than a group of guys gathering on the Mall on a Saturday afternoon, promising to be better husbands, fathers, and human beings. And I think another element of this that bothers a lot of people, I think, is the near hysterical reaction among many in the media and many special interest groups like NOW who give the public the impression that they are more afraid of people who pray in public than criminals who prey upon the public every single day. It's a weird thing that we're doing.
PHIL PONCE: Cynthia Tucker, do you think the reaction has been hysterical?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I think that the National Organization for Women has sent some unfortunate signals with its very, very vigorous disagreement and not just now but some other women's organizations, with its very vigorous disagreement to what seems to be a genuine effort by men to atone for their mistakes and to dedicate themselves to being better fathers and husbands. Now, if later on they come forth with a radical agenda that seems aimed at oppressing women, then I think that that would be the right time to go forward and say, no, I don't think they should force their beliefs on the rest of the nation, and I don't think they should. But I do think it's unfortunate not to give them the benefit of the doubt. And I also think it's unfortunate that we haven't focused more on their efforts at racial reconciliation, which I think could be a wonderful thing for this country.
PHIL PONCE: Patrick McGuigan, do you see--do you take them at face value when they talk about racial reconciliation?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Oh, I think it's fabulous. I think what these guys are doing is probably doing more to actually bring that about than all the sermons, if you will, that we get in the press, but that we also get from a lot of our pulpits. I remember Wellington Boone, from back in the 1980's, who spoke up at the time of Robert Bork's nomination--and Boone was a black preacher who supported Bork--and he was absolutely electrifying in his ability to reach people on all sides of issues. I think we're seeing that in the Promise Keepers movement. And, interestingly enough, he's a participant in it. I remember in 1991 interviewing Jesse Jackson and describing these kinds of positions. And I said, now, Jesse, isn't that a conservative agenda that you can agree with, and his reply was magnificent. He said, "Well, it's conservative in a certain sense of the word, but it's really a Mt. Sinai agenda." This is as fundamental as monotheistic religious belief itself. And I just applaud them for their efforts.
How should women respond?
PHIL PONCE: Lee Cullum, are words like "conservative" maybe not quite so useful when we look at what the Promise Keepers are talking about, larger issues there?
LEE CULLUM: Yes. I agree with you, Phil. You know, any time groups get together it causes distress. I think that's because the culture is so fragile and so pliable that people fear influence from any new quarter. You remember the masculine anguish that greeted the Sophia meeting among Christian women not so long ago, a few years ago. Actually. I think it will be a good idea for those women to gather again and maybe women from other faiths as well and try to develop an appropriate response to the Promise Keepers, so that we can elevate the debate a bit. I think that real spiritual gains can come from this.
PHIL PONCE: Bob Kittle, are you totally comfortable with the male-only aspect of these--of the revivals, of the events at the stadiums and so forth?
ROBERT KITTLE: It doesn't trouble me. I mean, the reality is that a lot of people don't subscribe to this male-only approach, but, you know, when men feel that there are things that they need to discuss; that they're uncomfortable discussing in front of women, it doesn't offend me a lot because this group really is not an exclusive kind of group. We saw at the rally on Saturday that it's reaching out to all Americans, all male Americans at least, because of the role that men play in their families primarily. So I don't think there's a lot to be concerned about there. It's something that many women wouldn't share; many women wouldn't want their husbands to feel that they inherently are the head of the household. But, let's face it; throughout history nearly every society was based on the notion that the man was the head of the household. There's nothing radical about it. And I don't think we have to be concerned that these rallies are for men only.
PHIL PONCE: Mike Barnicle, should the country be concerned or nervous about anything that the Promise Keepers are talking about?
MIKE BARNICLE: No. You know, this is a single gathering, a first-time gathering, and here we're trying to figure out whether they're conservative or they're fundamentalists. This is 750,000 individuals who gathered on a specific pleasant Saturday in Washington, and we in the media are already slapping labels on them. Let's see what happens.
PHIL PONCE: And with that, I thank you all for joining us tonight.