American Atheists Plans

Promise Keepers To
March On Washington
by Conrad F. Goeringer

December 1996

In the fall of 1997, the Promise Keepers Movement will try to bring 1,000,000 men for a religious "March on Washington."

In the fall of 1997, American Atheists will launch its biggest public street action as we confront the Promise Keepers, and demonstrate for state-church separation, individual rights, an end to sexist-gender oppression of women and gays, and civil liberties!

(Have we gotten your attention yet?)

Then join American Atheists for two days of street demonstrations, comraderie and a stimulating symposium on Freedom From Religion followed by a workshop in Atheist-Separationist activism!

That's right. The Promise Keepers, a fast-growing religious fundamentalist group which recruits men and organizes expensive, glitzy events in athletic stadiums, plans to mobilize followers for its equivalent of the Million Man March in the fall of 1997. Promise Keepers has emerged as a multimillion dollar evangelical machine, known best for its defense of patriarchal religion. It calls upon men to "reassert leadership" as "heads of household," families and government. It is a homophobic movement as well, one that preaches gender bigotry and calls for a "return" to Bible-based law and principles.

In a diverse, pluralistic America founded upon the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, Promise Keepers represents a backlash against the rights of women, gays and other segments of society who don't conform to fundamentalist dictates and stereotypes.

And the Promise Keepers threaten the cherished principles of First Amendment based state-church separation, and the liberties of Atheists and other nonbelievers -- male or female, gay or straight.

That's why American Atheists is already preparing to confront the bigoted, religion-based agenda of the Promise Keepers next fall in our nation's capitol. This won't be the first time American Atheists has "taken it to the streets!" We've picketed and demonstrated at state capitols, political events, and the publicity-stunt visits to America staged by the pope. We also organized the first Atheist Pride March in history!

Now, American Atheists is planning our biggest and most ambitious public demonstration, as we confront the Promise Keepers. If you missed the pope picket in '95, you now have another chance to strike a blow for Atheism and the First Amendment! Don't miss it! The day before the demonstration, American Atheists will host a stimulating symposium featuring a panel discussion and a workshop in Atheist-Separationist activism. So be part of the action! Plan on joining us in Washington, D.C. as we stand up for First Amendment rights!

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Promise Keepers Rally
in Washinton DC

Confronting the Agenda
of the ''Godly Men"
Questions and Answers about
the Promise Keepers Movement
by Conrad Goeringer
American Atheists' AANEWS

October 2, 1997

This weekend, hundreds of thousands of members of the Promise Keepers movement will descend on Washington, D.C. for a "Solemn Assembly." The group's founder, former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney says that, "Almighty God has called us here to repent," adding that the organization is "not coming with any other agenda. We are coming to ask God to forgive us."

But is that really the whole story?

Many people, while they have heard of the Promise Keepers, are unfamiliar with the organization's origins, leadership, and links to hard-line religious rights groups. Some wonder why American Atheists, National Organization for Women and other movements have called for protests this weekend against the Promise Keepers. And critics say that beneath the veneer of calling upon men to "repent" and reform their lives, there is a dangerous social and political agenda.

What Is the Promise Keepers?

Founded in 1990 by popular football coach Bill McCartney, the Promise Keepers is a Christian mens' group with the explicit goal of reconstructing nuclear, heterosexual families under the leadership of "godly men," and fostering an evangelical religious movement throughout society. The group has become noted for holding mass prayer rallies in stadiums, arenas and other athletic venues; indeed, much of the group's rhetoric employs sports-oriented metaphors and slogans. Along with telling men to "honor Jesus Christ and learn more about becoming men of integrity," Promise Keepers are exhorted to "reach the goal line" and "carry the ball for Jesus." PK rallies usually last several hours, and involve spirited singing, hugging, outbursts of public emotion, evangelical revival-style preaching, and "altar calls" where men are urged to "turn your life over" to god.

The Promise Keepers is possibly the nation's fastest growing religious movement. It's rallies have attracted over one million men in the last year; and this weekend's "Solemn Assembly" is being compared to Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March.

Why Is American Atheists Protesting this Weekend? Don't the Promise Keepers Have the Right to Express Themselves?

Indeed they, and every other group, should have full freedom of expression. A number of groups will be protesting the Promise Keepers event; and American Atheists does not question or oppose the right of the PK to assemble and express their views. We would hope that these "godly men" would take a similar stance in defense of our right to peaceable gather.

We are demonstrating in order to prompt a critical and reasoned discussion on just what exactly this movement wants. Promise Keepers have made a number of brash and dogmatic claims, and they offer society a "solution" to personal and cultural problems. Is this really true? We're asking -- whether you agree with American Atheists or not on other points -- for people, including rank-and-file Promise Keepers members, to step back and examine this movement.

Why Are You Concerned about the Promise Keepers?

For starters, we think the public -- and the members of PK as well -- need to check out information about the origins and leadership of this movement. Promise Keepers grew out of the "Latter Rain" evangelical movement which embraces extreme and even bizarre and cult-like religious practices -- speaking in tongues (glossolalia), direct revelation, and even components of the authoritarian "Shepherding-Discipleship" tradition which teaches a dangerous, manipulative follower-leader relationship. Promise Keepers "huddles" or chapters are often invasive. Journalist Russ Bellant, for instance, notes that members are probed by other participants and compelled to "confess" and reveal highly personal and intimate facts about their life. We suspect that many PK men would be surprised to learn about these more bizarre and strange origins of their movement. After seeing the destructive influence of cults like Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, or the Koresh sect and other groups which preach unquestioning obedience and submission to dogmatic leaders, shouldn't everyone be caution in endorsing a group like the Promise Keepers?

There are other disturbing aspects of the movement as well. Despite lip service about "being worthy of women," Promise Keepers are urged to "take back" governance of the family. Biblical passages ("Women, remain silent in the churches. Men are the head of the household as Christ is the head of the church...") are often used as doctrinal points. "Coach" McCartney and other PK leaders define a "godly man" as one who obeys the church and is involved in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship within the confines of sanctioned marriage. These sorts of teachings -- and McCartney's own endorsement of anti-gay initiatives in Colorado -- have disturbed civil libertarians, womens' groups and gay-lesbian organizations.

But Doesn't Promise Keepers Preach Racial Reconciliation?

The Promise Keepers record concerning blacks is highly problematic. PK seems to distinguish between what they term "reconciliation" and a more pronounced call for true equality. Black men (and others) are "godly" only if they fit into the PK lifestyle template. In addition, it should be noted that a number of the black evangelists showcased by the Promise Keepers are Christian Reconstructionists. This extreme movement teaches that society should be "reconstructed" along Biblical, Old Testament lines; it proscribes the death penalty for a number of transgressions, including blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, "witchcraft" and even disrespect to parents. These sorts of extreme associations are not known to most of the rank-and-file men caught up in the enthusiasm of the Promise Keepers prayer rallies.

Could Promise Keepers Be a Dangerous and Manipulative Movement?

It may be. Promise Keepers grew out of an extreme charismatic religious tendency, and "Coach" McCartney -- while undergoing traumatic personal upheaval in his own life, later documented in his autobiography -- fell under the extreme influences of men like Rev. James Ryle, and "power evangelist" James Wimber of the cult-like Vineyard movement. Theologically, the group's roots are apocalyptic -- an integral component of the "Latter Rain" tendency which talked about impending Armageddon, and gathering groups of men into what they call "Joel's Army" to combat transgressors and sinners, and prepare the way for "Kingdom" at the end of the world. Many mainstream religions shun this sort of rhetoric, and see these Biblical references in historical or symbolic terms.

Ironically, many churches are guarded about endorsing the Promise Keepers movement. PK sees itself as a "para-church," or "movement within the church."

Men in the Promise Keepers movement are provided with a steady stream of literature and teachings, most of it based on emotionally evocative but vague slogans. The constant use of sports metaphors -- "going the extra mile for Jesus" or "carrying the ball" -- appears to be employed in an effort to "hook" or appeal to contemporary males; this discourse, however, is the religious equivalent of advertising cliches or contemporary psycho-babble. Phrases like "godly men" and "submitting your life to Jesus" assume an almost hypnotic quality where rational analysis and questioning is not encouraged. The PK "huddles" serve to reinforce this process through peer pressure -- not rational persuasion and discourse. The world is portrayed in Manichean terms. In "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper," for instance, McCartney declares, "We're in a war, men, whether we acknowledge it or not. The enemy is real, and he doesn't like to see men of God take a stand for Jesus Christ and contest his lies."

We suggest that any dispassionate examination of twentieth century political and social movements would suggest a red flag about any organization which bases so much on emotional outburst, demonstrations of frenzied angst and sloganeering. Promise Keepers literature (including the publication "New Man" which until recently was their official journal) is remarkably devoid of substantive material. The stories are often folksy, anecdotal and make widespread generalizations about how miserable men are prior to "turning their lives over to the Lord." Shouldn't we be skeptical of any group, cause or ideology which makes such a request of its members? Finally, Promise Keepers should also be scrutinized for another reason; it offers simplistic solutions to complex personal and social problems. The world simply isn't like that.

Are the Promise Keepers a Political Movement?

Promise Keepers representatives increasingly face that question; "Coach" McCartney insists that the aims of the group are spiritual, not political, and that the movement is designed to change hearts, not voting patterns.

But there are concerns. Many Promise Keepers statements, especially those regarding women and gays, have serious political implications. In addition, the leadership and key figures behind the Promise Keepers movement reads like a who's-who of the religious right. We identify a number of them in the Spring issue of American Atheist Magazine, including James Dobson (Focus on the Family), E. Peb Jackson, Bill Bright, Ronald Blue and Billy Kim. Several are linked to the Christian Reconstructionist group known as Coalition on Revival; they include "Bishop" Wellington Boone, John Perkins, E.V. Hill and Joseph Garlington. In addition, Promise Keepers has received boosting from savvy religious right politicos such as Pat Robertson of Christian Broadcasting Network, and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed. We consider the Promise Keepers movement to be a fertile recruiting ground for more overt religious right political groups, and a "spiritual boot camp" for those same interests.

What Is the Social Significance of the Promise Keepers?

Ignored in most of the general media commentary about this movement is the fact that Promise Keepers is a component in a larger cultural-religious revolt against modernity, especially with its emphasis on asserting patriarchal authority based on Old Testament models. The group's lexicon suggests an agenda of self-abnegation and debasement before Jesus, god, the "huddle" and other men, and admission to self and others that one is "unworthy."

The group is also remarkable for its irrationalism. All religious groups, in that they accept faith and some form of revelational knowledge, are to varying degrees irrationalist or non-rationalist. Promise Keepers, with its roots in extreme charismatic, evangelical ideology, however, could even be described as an anti-rationalist movement. PK events are held in sports venues -- no accident here, since spectator sports play a multifaceted role in modern culture. They are orchestrated to be highly evocative, not on the basis of calm, reasoned arguments, but through the use of literally hours of verbal pounding, repetitive use of content-void slogans (often employing a sports vocabulary), group reinforcement and heightened states of emotional excitement even bordering on the hysterical . The latter may account for the "Jesus waves" of joyous weeping, crying, public praying and other emotional displays. It exploits doubts in men about being "worthy" -- sort of the religious equivalent of asking, "Is your penis of sufficient size?" -- and then caters to fantasies of "taking charge" and "being heads of the household."

Should We Be Hostile Toward the Promise Keepers?

We should certainly oppose the agenda of the group, but still have a degree of sympathy and understanding for at least some of the men who are drawn into the Promise Keepers movement. Many men are legitimately confused and upset with the convulsive changes taking place in the world today. As secularists, we need to emphasize the positive aspects of many of these changes, though; equality, diversity, rights for women and others. We should also note that many women are under stress as well. The average American worker is expected to have seven careers in a lifetime. Earning power for many is stagnant. Vacations are shorter, and there are new stresses and dislocations in the work place. There are, indeed, legitimate sociological problems facing everyone, and legitimate questions to raise.

But is Promise Keepers, or any other religious right movement, an answer? Too often, we look for scapegoats to explain a sense of personal powerlessness; unfortunately, some men perceive women as competition in the marketplace or elsewhere. They get "mixed signals" pitting old stereotypes against a new reality; they feel alienated, stressed out -- and sometimes can become "easy picking" for religious hucksters who offer a well packaged program which requires little thinking or scrutiny. Promise Keepers pays, and it PREYS on the discontents of modern society, specifically, the way those discontents often manifest themselves in men.

PK members of often mostly unaware of the backgrounds and agendas of the leadership of this group.

Finally, we all need to ask -- at a time in our history when men and women, straight and gay, Anglos and others -- are scrambling to cope with unprecedented economic and social upheaval, is constant rhetoric about being "unworthy," or confession, or submission really appropriate? Is it genuinely self-empowering? The Promise Keepers lexicon is both inherently authoritarian and self-debasing. It is not the language of reason and personal empowerment. Its textual character betrays an inherently irrationalist, authoritarian component where one is "moved by the spirit" to "submit" to Jesus -- or his self-announced representatives. Again, there are plenty of legitimate problems in society; but as secularists, we need to point out that Jesus, religion, churches and the Promise Keepers are not the solution. We should also beware of any group which insists that it has all of the answers -- and the only answers!

Some Critics Have Charged That the Promise Keepers Movement Is Arrogant And Manipulative ...

That's true, and the claim concerning arrogance is often linked to the group's stance on the social and theological role to be assigned to women. It's certainly true that some women do want men to become more involved in domestic relationships. But not all women opt for that; presuming that all or even most women want the sort of monogamous, marital situation within the nuclear family which PK leaders say they should, is both arrogant and presumptive. Even within the context of a heterosexual marriage, women should rightfully be leery if their male partner suddenly "finds Jesus" and a new way of life. Isn't that the possible triumph of external form over substance?

And is there any evidence, other than the anecdotal accounts which populate PK literature, to suggest that followers of this movement really do become "better fathers and husbands"? How long do these changes last? It should also be noted that there are other alternatives to religious conversion which can help families cope, even in today's stressed-out environment.

Just as Promise Keepers literature, with its abundance of sports metaphors and catchy, yet amorphous slogans renders it difficult for participants to "get a handle" on, is manipulative, so is the role being played by the PK movement. As noted, many denominations are suspicious of the Promise Keepers anointed role as a "movement within the church," and the group is suspect for its trans-denominational character. What exactly is it they want? What exactly are they saying? Even certain religious groups are confused and wary. Worse yet, the PK leadership rarely announces its own extreme, bizarre theological and political agenda, relying instead on a flashy veneer of endless sloganeering.

Is the Promise Keepers Movement a Threat to State-church Separation?

Answering that question requires a cogent analysis of the objective social and cultural role played by the Promise Keepers and other religious right groups. PK is not overtly partisan and political in the same way which the Christian Coalition is. It is closer to the type of "renewal politics" one finds in kindred groups like Focus on the Family. Promise Keepers ideology overlaps with that of other religious groups; again, the analogy to the PK being a sort of ideological boot camp for future religious social activists may be useful.

Atheists and other secularists should know that Promise Keepers is a Dominionist movement. Dominion theology attempts to integrate religious doctrines into a form of political conservatism. It should be noted, though, that Dominionists -- often found in groups like the Christian Coalition or the Coalition on Revival -- quickly part company with the more secular, laissez-faire teachings of secular conservatives and even libertarians found in groups like Cato Institute.

Simply put, Dominionist Theology teaches that Christians are commanded by god to occupy and govern all institutions in anticipation of the "final days" and the Second Coming. It holds that Biblical principles must be applied to every aspect of individual, social and political life. "Bible Law" must govern the person, families, neighborhoods, communities and governmental institutions. In a pure Dominionist culture, there is no separating of state and church; the police powers of the government are harnessed to ensure that Bible law is enforced.

You won't find the more hard line excrescences of Dominionist teaching in most of the Promise Keepers literature. That discourse is reserved for other doctrinal publications like the Reconstructionist journal Chalcedon. But Promise Keepers materials have referred to and promoted standard religious right works such as books by David Barton, author of the controversial and misleading 1989 book The Myth of Separation. Many Promise Keepers leaders have expressed agreement with Barton's claim that the "wall of separation" between church and state is myth, or "one-directional" and prevents only interference by government into the affairs of religious groups. This same refrain echoes from other religious activists like Ralph Reed, James Dobson and even Pat Buchanan.

Promise Keepers teachings often serve to reinforce the religious political agenda on a number of fronts, including laws against abortion rights, equal rights for gays, calls for censorship, and the demand for "special rights" for religious groups and believers.

What Happens on Saturday, October 4?

American Atheists will be gathering on Constitution and Louisiana Avenues, north of the Capitol, for a peaceful demonstration on behalf of First Amendment rights, state-church separation, and opposition to the Promise Keepers agenda. We hope that you can join us!

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