Christian Soldiers for Theocracy

By Russ Bellant

Promise Keepers is a rapidly growing Christian men's movement that in 1994 rallied about 300,000 men, filling six football stadia in colorful displays of male "spiritual renewal." The group's plan to double the number of participants and stadium events in 1995 seems realistic. Promise Keepers events in Detroit and Los Angeles in the early part of 1995 drew over 72,000 each. While projecting an image of spirituality, leaders of Promise Keepers seem to be bent on gaining social and political power. In the world of Promise Keepers, men are to submit to a cell group that in turn is closely controlled by a national hierarchy. Most important, women are to submit absolutely to their husbands or fathers.

Promise Keepers may be the strongest, most organized effort to capitalize on male backlash in the country during the 1990s. Conceived by University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney in 1990, Promise Keepers says men should "reclaim" authority from their wives--to whom they have supposedly ceded too much. Bill McCartney's goal in 1990 was to fill a sports stadium with Christian men to exhort them into his philosophy. The following year, he attracted 4,200 men to a basketball arena; 22,000 men came to Boulder's Folsom Stadium in 1992, followed by 50,000 men in 1993. Promoted by powerful elements of the Religious Right, Promise Keepers filled six stadia in 1994; the largest event was in the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, which drew 62,000 men. The only women present were custodians and concession stand workers.

Don't Ask, Take

The manifesto of the movement is Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, a book published for the group by James Dobson's organization, Focus on the Family. Evangelist Tony Evans, in his contributing essay, explains how to deal with women.

"I can hear you saying, `I want to be a spiritually pure man. Where do I start?' The first thing you do," Brown explains, "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." [Emphasis in the original.]

While insisting to male readers that there is to be "no compromise" on authority, he suggests that women readers submit for the "survival of our culture."

Total Submission

While serving as an assistant football coach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Bill McCartney encountered and was deeply influenced by the Word of God (WOG) community. McCartney has said that

WOG leader Jim Berlucci is one of the two men who most influenced his life. WOG, a select and insular group of about 1,600 adults, practiced "shepherding/discipleship," which required total submission to a person called the "head." Members were required to submit their schedules in advance and account for every hour of every day. Marriage partner, movie choices, jobs, and other decisions also had to be approved by this leader.

Members who questioned authority, or women who questioned their extreme submission to men, were subject to often traumatic "exorcisms." WOG members were trained to see the world with suspicion and contempt--as an enemy. They believed that they were specially chosen by God to fight the Antichrist. When McCartney was hired by the University of Colorado, WOG introduced him to the WOG-linked "Vineyard" church, which has a parish in Boulder. Vineyard churches emphasize "signs and wonders" and "prophecy." Vineyard leader John Wimber calls their work "power evangelism" and describes his followers as "self-conscious members of God's army, sent to do battle against the forces of the kingdom of darkness." "One is either in God's Kingdom," Wimber insists, "or Satan's."

The Purpose of War

McCartney's pastor at the Boulder Valley Vineyard, Rev. James Ryle, whom McCartney says is the other major influence in his life, conducts a "prophetic" ministry and participates in conferences with men who claim to be prophets in the first-century sense of the term. Ryle believes Promise Keepers, of which he is a board member, is the fulfillment of the Biblically prophesied end-time army described in the Book of Joel--a terrifying army from which there is no escape. "Never have 300,000 men come together throughout human history," he declared, "except for the purpose of war." He says he has a vision of Promise Keepers purging America of secularism, which he considers "an abortion" of godliness.

Ryle spoke in 1994 at a secret Colorado conclave to plan anti-gay/lesbian electoral strategies. He said, "America is in the midst of a cultural revolution, which has poised our nation precariously on the brink of moral chaos, which is caused by what I am referring to as the crisis of homosexuality."

While Promise Keepers is not a political force in its own right in 1995, McCartney leads by example. He has repeatedly attacked reproductive rights, and he campaigned for the 1992 anti-gay Amendment 2 ballot initiative as a member of the board of Colorado for Family Values, the sponsor of the initiative. His rally addresses have been uncompromising. "Take the nation for Jesus Christ," he directed in 1992. The following year he said, "What you are about to hear is God's word to the men of this nation. We are going to war as of tonight. We have divine power; that is our weapon. We will not compromise. Wherever truth is at risk, in the schools or legislature, we are going to contend for it. We will win."

No less militant is Promise Keepers co-founder Dave Wardell, who told The Denver Post, "We want our nation to return to God. We're drawing a line in the sand here. . . . There has already been controversy about abortion and homosexuality. I hope there won't be any physical confrontations. . . . "

Something Like Punching Your Lights Out

Promise Keepers' national staff has grown rapidly from a handful in 1990 to 150, with a $22 million budget in 1995. But its significance is primarily at the local and church levels.

Promise Keepers urges men to form "accountability" groups of no more than five members, within which they are expected to submit all aspects of their lives to review and rebuke. Each member must answer any probes concerning his marriage, family, finances, sexuality, or business activity.

Such cells, usually operating within a church or para-church group, are led by a "Point Man" who answers to an "Ambassador" who reports to headquarters in Boulder. Decisions about local or state activity are ultimately made in Boulder.

"All of our success here is contingent upon men taking part in small groups when they return home," Promise Keepers spokesman Steve Chavis told Christianity Today. Less elegantly, Dave Wardell, the national coordinator for local leaders, explains, "I can go home and maybe still be the same guy after a conference. But if I have another guy calling up, holding me accountable, asking, `How are you treating your wife? Are you still cheating on your income taxes? Are you looking at your secretaries with lust?' it makes a difference. I don't think a woman would get in my face, go toe to toe with a guy, whereas a guy could tell me, `I don't like it. And if you don't listen to me, I'll punch your lights out.' Something like that."

These principles and structure, which are similar to the shepherding/discipleship model of the Word of God, would take years to implement and introduce a highly disciplined group. Most men drawn to Promise Keepers have probably never heard of shepherding/discipleship (which, in 1995, was still not widely known even within the evangelical community) and may be deeply offended if they experience the degree of manipulation and control (to which they may be "submitting" themselves and their families) that has occurred in many shepherding/disciple situations.

Trojan Horses?

Top Christian Right leaders in 1994 joined Dobson in promoting Promise Keepers. These have notably included Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition and 700 Club, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ.

Dobson, who along with Robertson, Kennedy, and Bright, is a member of the secretive, reactionary-right Council for National Policy, is a central figure in Promise Keepers. Not only is he the publisher of the main text of the movement, he is a featured speaker at Promise Keeper events, which in turn sell tapes of his speeches.

Focus on the Family's network of political action groups, called Community Impact Committees, function much like Promise Keepers' cell groups within conservative churches. Largely invisible to individuals outside these churches, these committees are organized at the state and regional levels and controlled from Colorado.

Both Dobson's Community Impact Committees and the Promise Keepers cells are potential Trojan horses within churches and denominations, creating conflicting loyalties and lines of authority.

Leaders of Promise Keepers, in particular, come out of a movement that sees denominations as inhibiting evangelism and revivalism. Indicative of this is its use of Strang Communications to publish New Man magazine. Strang's Charisma magazine is contemptuous of traditional denominations. The senior editor of Strang's New Ministries magazine, Jack Hayford, is also on the board of Promise Keepers.

Promise Keepers scheduled more than a dozen rallies for purity, fidelity, and possibly social and political dominion in 1995. Promise Keepers had planned for over a year to draw one million men to a march in Washington, DC, just prior to the November 1996 elections.

Though postponed, the plans were evidently modeled after the Christian Right rallies called Washington for Jesus, which had similar backing and were held during the presidential elections in 1980 and 1988. Considering the high-level backing by the leadership of the Christian Right, and the anti-democratic views of Promise Keepers' leaders, this movement ought not be underestimated.


Russ Bellant is a Detroit-based author whose books include Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party: Domestic Fascist Networks and Their Effect on US Cold War Politics (South End Press, 1991) and The Coors Connection: How Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism (South End Press, 1991). He was a founding member of the Public Eye network. This article first appeared in Front Lines Research, Vol. 1, Number 5, May 1995 issue. Footnotes appeared in the original and can be ordered through Political Research Associates. Copyright 1995, Russ Bellant.

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