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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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