[ Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]

the Body Politic
Vol. 8, No. 01 - Jan/Feb 1998, Page 17
Copyright © 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.
Copyright © 1998 by Kathryn Cornell

Race and Videotape:

Critics Respond to Promise Keepers

By Kathryn Cornell

In the wake of the boosterism by mainstream media coverage of the Promise Keepers, the fast-growing evangelical men's movement, there is a need for some clear, thoughtful and authoritative analysis. To provide just that, the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts presented a panel of experts, last November, who are not afraid to enter the minefield of tough and often taboo subjects: Race, religion, sex and politics. What Are They Promising? Critics Respond to the Promise Keepers, was co-sponsored by local religious leaders, educators, the Northampton-based organization RightWatch; it turned out a standing room only crowd of concerned students, faculty, activists and clergy.

Led by ex-University of Colorado football coach, Bill McCartney, Promise Keepers, or "PK" has launched a wildly successful public relations campaign for the worldview of Christian fundamentalism. The claim is that through service to Jesus, and only to Jesus, a man can best serve his family, cross racial divides, and make all sorts of decisions, including political decisions, based only on the word of God -- as defined, of course, by PK approved ministers. As the Hampshire panelists pointed out, PK is a complex phenomenon that requires some rigorous thinking about how and why the Christian Right functions.

More and Less Than Meets the Eye

There is both less and more than meets the eye to the Promise Keepers says author, Frederick Clarkson. Not only does PK routinely inflate attendance figures at their events, but PK's official figure of 2 million men over seven years counts groupies who attend multiple rallies. Thus, Clarkson stresses that it's important to distinguish between attendance and membership when trying to establish the organization's significance; which he believes resides in the 20,000 cell groups operating primarily in local churches. The half-million attendees at PK's Stand in the Gap rally on the mall in Washington, DC -- as well as those attending stadium events -- Clarkson notes, are overwhelmingly already some variety of fundamentalist or evangelical Christian, and that PK, so far, has attracted few beyond its base constituency.

In an era of "trophy wives" as spoils for the economic victors, men of color are being treated as "trophy friends." People of color are there to be hugged; to be there for the white male who is afraid of being labeled racist.

Although they proclaim themselves to be apolitical, Clarkson described PK as "joined at the hip and the head" with the Christian Right through financial backing, joint business deals, and inter-locking board members: notably with James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ.

PK deploys a system of "ambassadors" to supervise groups of "keymen" who lead the cell groups within existing congregations. While PK presents itself as merely the partner of pastors, leading racial justice activist Loretta Williams described these structures as "Trojan horses" in the churches. Jean Hardisty, founder of Political Research Associates, noted that the Christian Right needs to "grow beyond its natural, rather small base... And the Promise Keepers is a major recruitment tool, reaching out to people who might not otherwise be brought in by organizations like the Christian Coalition." Meanwhile, the Christian Right, she observed, is institutionalizing itself much the same way the New Right institution-alized itself during the Reagan years, with large, lasting structures that will outlive the current fashions in religious revivalism.

The Dicey Debate About Domination

Much of the debate about PK has centered on PK's stated goal of having men "reclaim" their supposedly God-given role as heads of the household, and the ultimate authorities in all matters. Hardisty notes that when faced with a barrage of criticism from feminists, PK modified the language of dominion and submission to soften the tone by using the less-explicit command "to serve". However, in the intense and emotionally charged atmosphere at their events, where "thousands and thousands of men press together praying and crying", the semantic line between "dominate" and "serve" may not hold when the "new man" returns home "on fire" and eager to put into practice the admonition "go home and prophesy" the Lord of the Lords to his wife and children. This has an edge to it that Hardisty, (who heard it first-hand at a PK rally in Worcester, Massachusetts) finds "a little bit frightening," when she imagines the life of an evangelical woman trying to live out her role in the triad of submission: wife to husband, husband to Christ.

Religious scholar Andrea Smith reports that there is often a "disjuncture between rhetoric and practice", when the reality of dominion can turn into domestic abuse. Consequently, she sees opportunities for progressive intervention. "In the past," Smith notes, "evangelical movements did not feel accountable" however, in response to criticism from feminists, PK is now "speaking out of both sides of their mouth," and claiming to be both egalitarian and hierarchical in regard to family structure. Since the PK rank and file is more diverse than the leadership, Smith sees opportunities for "strategic dialog" on such issues as civil rights for gays and lesbians, economics, as well as racism and affirmative action.

Reconciliation, But No Justice

Loretta Williams is concerned about the direction of the PK leadership and sees the popular confusion over PK's approach to "racial-reconciliation" as a "very dangerous phenomenon." In an era of economic downsizing and the avid search for scapegoats -- often women and especially women of color -- the advent of an "authoritarian," and possibly "neo-fascist" organization does not bode well. In an era of "trophy wives" as spoils for the economic victors, men of color are being treated as "trophy friends." "People of color are there to be hugged; to be there for the white male who is afraid of being labeled racist. The black male is there to serve, once again." Williams observes that some men seem to be attracted to PK because it seems to offer some hope for reducing racial tensions. "Finally someone is talking about race," she notes, "but they are not talking about racial justice." Tough questions are being "sidestepped," she observed. "They are not talking about changing systems. They are not talking about sharing power."

The Media and the Message

Panel moderator Marlene Gerber Fried, of Hampshire College, observed that "most of the media coverage... including media coverage by progressive organizations" has focussed on the "warmth", "emotionalism" and "positive aspects of the Promise Keepers." Under the cover of such feel-good coverage, Clarkson said, PK is "successfully challenging historic paradigms on feminism, civil rights, religious freedom, and male identity -- and on only a hundred million bucks a year."

Why has the media continued to soft-pedal a hard-core, aggressive, and growing movement like PK? "In journalism, there's such a desperate need for a smoking gun," said Jean Hardisty, "if you don't have a smoking gun, you have to tell a feel-good story." Additionally, Hardisty points out, the basic racism in media coverage holds true here. While Louis Farrakhan's "dreaded" Million Man March was excoriated by the media as "exclusionary," some media then contrasted it with PK's "joyful event"in D.C., even though PK excluded women and non-Christians.

Aggressive recruitment is not a sexy media peg; absent the "smoking gun" of candidate endorsement, much of the media are unable or unwilling to discern a deeper political mobilization underway. But PK doesn't endorse candidates. It doesn't have to. Andrea Smith explained that with the"coding" of a certain set of political beliefs from the Bible to current political issues, "all that needs be said is to just follow the Bible."

The PK critics' forum at Hampshire College is a benchmark in the development of a progressive response to the mediagenic successes of the Promise Keepers. The audio and videotapes of the conference are now in wide circulation, making the event a necessary point of reference for serious activists, scholars and reporters.

Kathryn Cornell is a writer and activist based in Northampton, Massachusetts.


Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, which includes a chapter on the Promise Keepers, (Common Courage Press, 1997). He was named one of the "media heroes" of 1992 by the Institute for Alternative Journalism for co-authoring Challenging the Christian Right: The Activists Handbook.

Dr. Jean Hardisty is the Executive Director of Political Research Associates, a Somerville, MA-based think tank which analyzes right-wing, authoritarian & anti-democratic trends. She is the author of Treacherous Politics: The Resurgence of the Right, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

Andrea Smith is the co-founder of the Chicago chapter of Women of All Red Nations. She is a Masters of Divinity graduate of Union Theological Seminary; is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Dr. Loretta Williams, is a sociologist who teaches at the Boston University School of Social Work. She is the formerly the chair of the National Interreligious Commission on Civil Rights, and currently is President of the Racial Justice Connection, a consulting service.

Audio and Videotapes:

Both video and audio tapes of What Are They Promising? Critics Respond to the Promise Keepers are available, for $5.00 and $3.00 respectively. Make checks payable to: Trustees of Hampshire College, and mail to
Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program,
Hampshire College, Amherst, MA 01002-5001

[ Top of article | Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]