Three years ago Laura, age 40, and her husband of 13 years, Frank, age 42, were on the verge of divorce. They argued constantly over money, their children, and Frank's tendency to spend every evening and weekend curled up in his La-Z-Boy recliner watching ESPN. Today, they say that they have never been happier. The Oak Ridge couple is communicating more effectively, enjoying time together, and cooperating in the management of their household. When asked what made the difference in their marriage, their answer is both enthusiastic and unanimous: Frank's involvement with Promise Keepers, a fast-growing and controversial religious movement for men set to bring its message to Knoxville's Neyland Stadium on June 6 and 7.
Promise Keepers, known as "PK," is an evangelical Christian men's ministry based in Denver, Colorado. Started in 1990 by Bill McCartney, former head football coach at the University of Colorado, the organization has ballooned from an inauspicious 72 members to participation by over 1 million men in 1996. Current revenues for the nonprofit organization, reported to have over 400 employees across the country, total over $95 million annually.
Sociologists have described it as one of the most rapidly expanding religious movements of this century. But, while many families credit PK with strengthening their relationships, at what price are men buying into its philosophies? Critics accuse the group of fostering religious intolerance and regressive social mores. Believers, on the other hand, just say it works.
IN THE BEGINNING
According to PK literature, McCartney was on his way to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event when he suddenly conceived the idea for a nondenominational ministry reaching out specifically to men as a response to the "flight" of American males from home and church. McCartney saw escalating rates of crime and divorce as a "wake up call" to American men to accept more personal accountability in their lives.
Although the organization also sponsors smaller, community-based programs, Promise Keepers' signature attractions are its huge revival-style rallies for men, held in athletic arenas across the country. Inside the stadiums, male speakers attired in coach-like garb emblazoned with the PK logo exhort, inspire, and instruct the thousands of men in attendance to reclaim the "spiritual and moral leadership" of their families and churches. Men who have attended the rallies say that they leave the stadium with a renewed commitment to marriage and parenthood and a closer relationship with God.
Knoxville, described by organizers as the smallest city on PK's 1997 conference schedule, will host its second PK rally at Neyland Stadium on June 6 and 7. The theme of the event is "The Making of a Godly Man," and conference organizers expect between 30-40,000 men to pay the registration fee of up to $70 to gain admittance. Based on previous venues' sales, Bob Davis, UTK Associate Athletic Director for Facilities, estimates that attendees will drop an additional $1 million at the Conference on official PK retail merchandise, including shirts, hats, books, and audio and videotapes. Approximately 2,500 men will attend the conference at no cost as a result of PK-provided scholarships.
PK literature states that the group expects 1997 income to top $115 million. Of the group's annual income, 72 percent is derived from conference registration, while contributions make up 11 percent. Proceeds from the sale of various resources and products such as books, tapes, study guides, and clothing account for 17 percent. The nonprofit, 501 (C)3 group is run by a 16-member, all-male board of directors and employs a full-time staff of 452. As a member of a financial oversight group called the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Promise Keepers states that it is dedicated to scrupulously honest money management. It claims that its executive and staff salaries are commensurate with other U.S. nonprofits of similar size and performance.
JERRY FALWELL DRESSED AS A SENSITIVE '90s GUY?
Nationally and locally, Promise Keepers has received almost exclusively positive press coverage. Media reports have emphasized the group's call for such inarguably attractive behaviors as more involved fathering, financial responsibility, and racial reconciliation. Founder McCartney has been chosen in the past as ABC News' "person of the week," and publications such as U.S. News and World Report and The New York Times have praised the group's efforts. With the exception of articles in MS. magazine and The Nation, Promise Keepers' claims that they are simply a source of positive Christian spiritual nourishment for all types of men has been left virtually unchallenged in the public arena. There are critics of PK, however, and they argue that Promise Keepers is actually the Christian Right's clever and highly lucrative new attempt to disguise itself as a consciousness-raising group for men.
"Promise Keepers is the third wave of the religious right," opines Dr. Charles Reynolds, head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee. "The whole thing has a theocratic dimension. These people envision a society in which conservative Christian males would be in charge and alternative lifestyles would be stamped out. Many people think that they have gotten too much in bed with conservative Republicans."
Roger Chapman, Promise Keepers' national media relations spokesman, denies Reynolds' charge and says that the organization has no political agenda whatsoever.
"We are a ministry aimed at reaching men's hearts so that they can be better fathers, husbands, and people," says Chapman. "We are not affiliated in any way with the Christian Coalition. You won't hear political views expressed at our events."
According to men who have attended PK rallies, however, literature tables inside these events are burdened with information from such groups as Operation Rescue, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, and the Christian Coalition. Additionally, McCartney himself has appeared as a speaker at Operation Rescue events, and other regular PK rally speakers are affiliated with conservative Christian causes such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Today's Family. Promise Keepers has extensive ties with Focus on the Family, another Colorado-based religious organization that makes no secret of its support for a right-wing political agenda. According to a February 1997 report in Extra magazine, PK conference speakers have used their pulpit to heap praise upon conservative Republicans like Dick Armey (R, Texas) and to criticize Fidel Castro.
A WOMAN'S PLACE IS IN THE SKYBOX?
Some of the most cogent questions raised about this organization concern whether Promise Keepers' much ballyhooed endorsement of increased male responsibility comes at the price of a return to a pre-Feminine Mystique, Cleaveresque family structure.
In the popular Promise Keepers manual, "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper," author Tony Evans talks about how "the eclipse of male influence must be laid at the feet of the feminized male." In a section titled "Reclaiming Your Manhood," he writes that the first thing a man should do after accepting Jesus Christ and embracing the PK philosophy is sit down with his wife and say something like, "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."
Evans continues by advising readers, "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." He further instructs female readers that, "for the sake of the survival of our culture, let your man be a man if he is willing."
Paul Osborne, East Tennessee field ministry representative for Promise Keepers, explains that in his view, a man's leadership of his family is Biblically mandated and involves a husband's willingness to "lay down his life for his wife."
"I believe that men and women are equal, but not the same. We are different in sexual and psychological makeup," says Osborne. "That is why our roles within the family are different."
Don't try to tell Ann Furrow, the dynamic Knoxville civic leader who is employed as the first female PK state volunteer coordinator in the nation, that Promise Keepers is a sexist organization. On a Thursday afternoon at the bustling Knoxville Promise Keepers office, donated by Furrow Auction Company, she is busy conducting a meeting for the core group of volunteers for the Knoxville Promise Keepers Conference. With confident efficiency, she instructs the diverse crowd of about 30 men and women in their duties during the big weekend. After she wraps up the meeting, she sits down to talk about her instrumental role in bringing Promise Keepers to Knoxville.
"I first read about Promise Keepers in Focus on the Family magazine," remembers Furrow. "I began dreaming then of holding a Promise Keepers event at Neyland Stadium."
She says that the city of Knoxville and Knox County, along with corporate and media bigwigs such as Covenant Health and WIVK, have been highly supportive of getting the PK message out to the Knoxville community. Despite what some other women may think, Furrow believes that the Promise Keeper point of view on gender roles is both appropriate and beneficial to families and society.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I am in favor of equality, but just like in a company, somebody has to have the last word. I feel that the Scriptures support the man's role in this way," explains Furrow cautiously. "For example, my daughter is a graduate of Duke and her husband is at Harvard Law School. They are definitely very modern and my daughter wants her opinion heard and respected, but if it came down to it, I would encourage her to accept her husband's decisions. This shouldn't be a problem as long as a woman's husband is kind and thoughtful. Now if your husband is a tyrant or domineering or something, maybe you shouldn't accept his leadership."
Furrow says that she takes no issue with the fact that women are asked not to enter Neyland Stadium during the Promise Keepers conference.
"The messages at these events are geared totally towards men. The ministry has found that having women in the room inhibits men. Besides, there are plenty of roles that women can play to support the men. Women can be assigned volunteer roles in the skyboxes, outside, or underneath Neyland Stadium."
Tim Reese, arena manager for The University of Tennessee, says that the University saw no problem with renting out Neyland Stadium, something he admits is done on a very selective basis, to an all-male religious organization which "strongly discourages" female attendance and prohibits women from speaking to the rally or assuming spiritual leadership roles.
"They have women volunteers and employees," says Reese in a telephone interview from Chicago, "I was not aware that female volunteers could not work inside the stadium. I am sure that the women will have dealings around the stadium."
Reese continues by saying that, "The question [of gender discrimination at a public facility] simply wasn't an issue for the University. The intent of Promise Keepers is worthwhile. They are trying to get their message to a particular audience. The feeling of the institution is that the efforts of this organization are suitable for us to extend our facilities. Promise Keepers greatly influences the Knoxville community."
Dr. Reynolds of UT's Religious Studies Department says that he finds it difficult to imagine that questions about gender discrimination and PK's controversial views on family structure were not raised in discussions by the University concerning rental of Neyland Stadium.
"This group has been dealt with very gently," remarks Reynolds wryly.
Although most Christian churches in the United States (and particularly those affiliated with denominations from which PK tends to draw its participants) are still headed by men, Promise Keepers defends the all-male crowd makeup at its rallies by saying that men today lack a masculine setting in which to meet and share highly personal concerns, both spiritual and secular, without the diversion of a female presence. In interview after interview, Knoxville PK supporters, both male and female, refer to church environments and hierarchies as having been "taken over by women," "feminized," or "emasculating," a place where men just can't really let their hair down and emote.
"Right or wrong," said one male Promise Keeper volunteer who chose not to offer his name, "men can't talk with women around. Promise Keepers is the first place I've ever felt comfortable hugging and touching another man. I couldn't do that with women around."
Kerry Woo, Promise Keepers' state manager for Tennessee and Kentucky and conference coordinator, says that while PK can't actually deny a woman the opportunity to attend the Knoxville event, he doesn't believe female attendance would add to the setting of male spiritual growth that PK is attempting to foster.
"It's like this: If a bunch of girls are at a baby shower and a guy comes in, it changes the whole environment," explains Woo. "We are talking about men's issues, and we want men to be comfortable. Media and women can watch the conference from large screens that will project the speakers. That way, they can watch without being a distraction. If you had a woman cashier working inside the stadium and she was wearing shorts or something, that could be a distraction because that's just the way men are. Besides, women buy into this. They drag their husbands to the conferences."
Women who support men's involvement with Promise Keepers echo Woo's views. Janette, a 26-year-old Knoxville social worker, says that she had doubts when she first heard about the group but has grown to appreciate the beneficial effect that PK has had on her husband.
"I'll admit that I was skeptical when I heard of Promise Keepers because I am a feminist and I'm not interested in a caste system by gender," says Janette. "My husband showed me the literature and I became more interested. Now, I see a big difference in our marriage."
Debbie Patrick, a 41-year-old freelance writer who recently relocated to the Knoxville area after working in North Carolina and for Esquire magazine in New York, says that although she doesn't currently have a man in her life, one of the reasons she is volunteering for the Knoxville Promise Keepers conference is because she hopes to one day find a male partner who is striving to live up to PK ideals.
"A few years ago, you wouldn't have caught me dead near Promise Keepers. Now, having been through a marriage and divorce, I have grown to believe that families need men in leadership positions," says Patrick. "I think men today are hesitant to lead because they don't realize that women really want them to. There are areas, like spiritually, where men need to take the lead and set an example of integrity. In an institution, someone has got to have 51 percent of the vote. I realize that some people are uncomfortable with that concept, but I no longer am."
Although Promise Keepers encourages men to "honor" their wives by showering them with praise, removing the burden of financial affairs from their shoulders, and guiding them in areas of spirituality, the group is almost silent on larger gender issues in the workplace or at the polls.
"They talk about a woman being a good mother to her children and a helpmate to her husband. They don't say anything about women's roles outside the home, " says UT's Dr. Reynolds.
MEN NEEDING MEN
According to local Promise Keepers, the all-male format is most beneficial in the small meetings of two to six men called "accountability groups" that are a less flashy yet integral part of the PK organizational structure. Hundreds of these small groups meet in the Knoxville area each week. Coming together early in the morning or sometimes after work, men talk over their troubles and mentor one another.
"I first heard about Promise Keepers from a colleague whom I really respected. I had always wondered what he had in his life that led him to always do the right thing," says Brian, a 27-year-old Knoxville C.P.A. Although the Knoxville conference will be Brian's first PK stadium rally, he has enjoyed the fellowship of his Promise Keepers accountability group for a number of months.
"We meet at Hardees every Tuesday at 6:30 am," explains Brian. "We're all under 35 and have a lot in common. We pray together and ask each other whether we have worked too much that week or whether we've spent enough time with our wives. Maybe one guy will need to talk about how he'll handle temptations when he's traveling for his job, and we can talk about that too. I am really enjoying being open with other men in a way that I haven't been able to before."
According to U.S. News and World Report, 50 percent of the men who attend Promise Keeper rallies say that their fathers were largely absent, leading to the need for what Woo describes as "men sharpening men." He notes that in today's fatherless world, many men have never been taught how to be "men of integrity" or how to complete simple tasks such as balancing the checkbook or buying car insurance. This male mentoring process continues as PK members move up through the Promise Keepers volunteer hierarchy to become "Key Men" and then "Ambassadors." Key Men are trained and approved by the PK organization to work with the men's ministry within their churches or to start new accountability groups. Ambassadors are men who have completed more advanced training and can work with more than one church, recruit new men to Promise Keepers, and speak to the media. An application fee of $40 is required for processing of an application for Ambassadorship.
"MACHO, MACHO MAN...I WANT TO BE A MACHO MAN"
Despite Promise Keepers' stated goal of "strength with tenderness," PK antagonists see the type of manhood being taught and rewarded by the organization as simply a "kinder, gentler patriarchy" and one steeped in outdated macho stereotypes involving competitive sports and the military.
George White, J.D., instructor in the College of African American Studies at The University of Tennessee, says that Promise Keepers' decision to hold their large events in athletic arenas was no accident.
"You hear Promise Keepers speakers revving up the crowd with all these references to war and going out to fight battles," says White. "Speaking to the crowd in the coaching shirts while inside a football stadium is sort of like addressing them in military fatigues."
Buster Goodman, 47, a local Promise Keeper who has been actively involved with the organization, says that these sorts of metaphors are effective for motivating men.
"Using sports or military examples works for men because we are goal-oriented. We are the hunters, and we need something to work for. The format used by Promise Keepers allows natural leaders to rise to the top. If you put an army of men on the field, they will naturally recognize the leaders among them," says Goodman.
BUT NOT THAT KIND OF MACHO MAN
As with the military, Promise Keepers is openly anti-homosexual in its philosophy. The group's official stance on gay men is that they are welcome to attend events. However, media relations spokesman Roger Chapman admits that they might not be comfortable, since once inside the stadium, gay attendees will be instructed that homosexuality is not compatible with being a "Godly Man." Because Promise Keepers believes the Bible to be inerrant, they refer to Biblical support for their belief that homosexuality is a sin.
Osborne says that although PK has no specific outreach efforts to the gay community, he encourages gays to attend.
"We invite homosexuals to the conference. Just like liars, thieves, murderers, and other sinners, they are invited. After all, Jesus said that he didn't come for the healthy, but for the sick," says Osborne.
Jim Richards, pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Knoxville, a local congregation serving the needs of gays and lesbians, says that he is very disturbed by this point of view.
"What these people are saying is that they will include us, but only on their highly judgmental terms," says Richards. "I have trouble understanding how a Christian group can hold these beliefs. The language of intolerance that groups like Promise Keepers and people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson use is language that invites violence against minority groups. If you offer up this language, you better be ready to take responsibility when violence results."
"RACIAL RECONCILIATION" OR SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?
Although Promise Keepers has no formal relationship with the gay community in the United States, the organization has received tremendous accolades for its vocal stance against racism. Promise Keepers literature talks at length about the sin of racist behavior and encourages men to reach out on a personal level to men of other cultures in a spirit of what is called "racial reconciliation." Local Promise Keeper meetings reflect a mix of black, white, and brown faces rarely seen at any Knoxville event.
At a recent PK gathering at Calvary Baptist Church on Kingston Pike, Master of Ceremonies Hallerin Hill of WIVK radio talk show fame leads a large group of Knoxvillians, both male and female, some dressed in suits and others in overalls, in worship and praise for the PK message. A gospel singing group of diverse composition performs contemporary Christian tunes for the enthusiastic listeners and Furrow excites the crowd with her talk of the changed lives that will result from the June 6 Knoxville Conference. Hugs and high fives are exchanged among the men of various races, leading observers to the conclusion that locally, positive race relations on a personal level are indeed a realized goal of Promise Keepers.
Lloyd Gable, an African American Promise Keeper from Knoxville, applauds PK's efforts to work against racism.
"I think that Promise Keepers is doing a good job at treating the sickness that is racism and if you treat the sickness, the symptoms will go away," says Gable. "Once men start to sit down and communicate...to reach out to one another and get beyond race, great things can happen."
Gable does feel that Promise Keepers could improve their outreach to Knoxville's black community by meeting men in their neighborhoods rather than only through their churches. Despite PK's vocal support for racial diversity at their events, only an estimated 2 to 10 percent of attendees at any given stadium conference are black. Promise Keepers organizers are cognizant of this shortfall. At a recent meeting at Knoxville PK headquarters, Woo told volunteer leaders not to worry about African American attendance at the local conference.
"I can't go into details," said Woo, "but inner city leaders here have given me assurances that at least 5,000 ethnic men will be at the Knoxville conference."
Commenting later on this remark, Woo says his consultations with the leaders to which he was referring were "personal in nature" and "not meant for the media."
White of UT's Department of African American Studies says that Promise Keepers' message has yet to make a significant impact within the African American community. He argues that the group's use of the word "reconciliation" as opposed to "equality" or "justice" in regards to race relations shows it lacks a sincere desire to see racial progress in the United States.
A national leader of Promise Keepers was quoted in The Nation as saying that the group wasn't interested in integration. When questioned, media relations spokesman Chapman verifies the statement and tries to clarify its meaning.
"We are interested in racial harmony. Promise Keepers doesn't believe that people should have to abandon their cultural uniqueness to achieve racial reconciliation. Black people shouldn't have to become white, and white people shouldn't have to become black. Jesus urged us to reach across those boundaries to achieve real friendships."
"YOU HAVE TO BE THERE"
Many of those involved with Promise Keepers say the various critics who naysay the group's efforts are missing the point. Woo invites anyone with doubts about the sincerity of Promise Keepers to attend the Knoxville rally and see for themselves why up to 40,000 men have chosen to commit a weekend of their time to this endeavor. Men who have attended previous conferences say that without experiencing a PK event, it is impossible to accurately comment on the organization.
As one Knoxville volunteer put it, "When you have tens of thousands of men inside Neyland Stadium, holding hands and encouraging each other to be better people, well, I consider that beyond reproach. How can anyone be against that?"