Promises, Promises

"We couldn't dominate women if we wanted to."

Published September 30, 1997 9:55AM (EDT)

All in all, it wasn't an ideal spot for a feminist frontline
in the culture wars. At 11 a.m. Saturday, Patricia Ireland and a
few dozen supporters of the National Organization for Women
planted themselves in a triangular island of green near the U.S.
Capitol, on an entrance route to "Stand in the Gap," the colossal
prayer meeting of the all-male, born-again Christian group, the
Promise Keepers. While feminists and a small group of atheists
chanted and waved posters -- "Stupidity is Not a Family Value,"
"Lions Yes, Christians No," "PK [Promise Keepers] is not
PC," -- wave upon wave of men, Baptists from Brooklyn, N.Y.,
Pentecostals from cornfield Indiana, Christian Motorcycle
Association members from Texas and Godly Men of Pittsburgh solemnly
washed past them toward the Washington Monument, kited
out with Bibles and coolers and lawn chairs and PK baseball caps
for a long day's prostration before the Lord. The "guys," as leader Bill
McCartney calls them, had
been up all night singing on buses and praying at rest stops
across the country. It was a hot and sunny day, with a huge blue sky, and they
were bleary-eyed and reverential and
uninterested in confrontation. The one exception was a lone
bearded dude in a cowboy hat with a leather chin strap, straight
out of central casting, who paced the sidewalk shouting things
like: "Jesus will set you free from the vile infections of one

Promise Keepers is a contradictory jumble. Its leader, Bill
McCartney, a former Colorado college football coach, would like
nothing better than to build an army of God, dissolving the
authority of the denominations and putting everybody in lockstep
behind him and other right-wing mullahs. But for the moment, the
political uses of PK are in the future tense, and its mass
rallies give ardent Christians the strength of their convictions
and courage to battle their own shortcomings. The left has
glommed onto the fact that biblical teaching, as interpreted by
PK, urges them to "take control over women," as Ireland said.
But 90 percent of Promise Keepers are fundamentalists who have
always believed in some kind of male-led family hierarchy. What's
new about the Promise Keepers is that it echoes some of the
rhetoric of feminism, especially in its most therapeutic guise.
The group counsels men to deal with the reality of the two-job
economy by learning they can wash the dishes, change the diapers,
nurture the children and even confide tearily in male buddies
without losing their masculinity. Indeed, the new emotionalism is
intended to enhance their manhood. Don't be such workaholics,
Promise Keepers tells men. Don't cheat on your wife, or beat her or divorce
her. And when you're at home, put down the
channel surfer and the newspaper and pay attention to the family.

"My wife
is a physician's assistant in internal
medicine and she's the least subservient, cookie-baking woman
you'll ever meet," said Steve Moscoe, a 34-year-old Lexington,
Ky., music teacher who sat near the stage with his integrated
church group. "The idea that Promise Keepers is about dominating
women is a lot of bull. We couldn't dominate them if we wanted

The black men I spoke with -- they made up 14 percent of the
crowd, according to a Washington Post survey -- seemed generally
disinterested in the political orientation of the leadership but
hopeful about prospects of racial unity and community building
they believed PK offered. Pat Tomlinson, a 39-year-old
Presbyterian from Queens, N.Y., had also attended the Million
Man March and saw Stand in the Gap as its cultural successor.
"It may be that right-wing people will be in charge of Promise
Keepers in certain parts of the country, but we're here because
we're gleaning the good," said Tomlinson, who wore a Million Man March T-shirt and a red-and-yellow spangled pillbox hat. "You can walk
up to anybody here right now and they'll give you a hug and say
they love you. And that's what it's all about."

What bugs the left is that all this happens in the context
of a conservative, hierarchical organization whose followers
believe we'll burn in hell if we don't take Christ into our
hearts. "It is a control structure," as NOW's Eleanor Smeal put
it. Her anxiety isn't entirely unwarranted. On Saturday, Coach
Bill, as he is known by the flock, demanded "diversity without
dissension" and announced that
the PK flock, one or two million strong, or however big it is, would
be herded into 10,000 local accountability groups organized by
churchmen trained at central PK meetings. "Nobody goes outta
here without the same plan," Coach Bill said. The next stage, he
explained, would be for hundreds of thousands of Promise Keepers to join male
ministries in community activities like the much-publicized
repair of a dilapidated D.C. school building by PK volunteers on
Friday. Coach Bill insists that PK isn't political, but the
school repair was nothing if not brilliant politics. D.C.
schools, which opened three weeks late this year because of
colossal bureaucratic bungling, are not an unfair symbol of the
bankruptcy of urban Democratic political machines.

This worries NOW's Patricia
Ireland, who described the group as "ominous" and said that
when she looked over the mall, "I see mailing lists." During a
prayer for unity, as hundreds of thousands of men lay bowed on
the Mall lawn, some weeping as they clutched wallet-sized
photographs of their wives and children, I stood with Frederick
Clarkson, a PK-watcher who has written a book warning of
its religious-right affiliations. "All this sounds very ecumenical," he
said, "but it isn't. This is just a group with one version of
the truth attacking other people's versions of the truth."
Clarkson believes that the PK "key men" -- the PK shepherds whom
Coach Bill is calling into action on a local level -- will come
into conflict with some local pastors, in effect dividing those
Maybe yes, maybe no. None of the "key men" I talked to
were fighting their ministers. About a third of the guys on the Mall seemed
to be
former drug addicts or alcoholics or had done time in jail. They had a lot
repent for and politics was the last thing on their minds. I
joined a group of leather-clad Bikers for Christ as they knelt in
front of a Jumbotron TV screen near the Air and Space Museum.
Here I found Gilles Charles Auguste Debuisser, a 47-year-old,
Paris-born reformed biker -- "Frenchie" to his pals -- and one of
the more unusual individuals I have ever met. Frenchie, a pot-
bellied fellow with a full brown beard, spoke with a lisp and looked like
one of the
more hallucinatory self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh. He said he
was here to thank the Lord for delivering him from a life of sin,
and to pray for help because his family was barely getting by on
a two-earner income of $40,000 in Edgewood, Md. He couldn't
afford medical insurance and felt the whole system was working
against him.

Suddenly, he began to speak of frogs. "They found mutant
frogs in 48 states," he said. "Frogs with extra flippers, no
flippers, legs on their heads, eyes on their legs. What that tell
you? It mean that time as we know it is going to change." He
spoke for a while of the apocalyptic predictions of Nostradamus and the
Aztecs, then fixed me with his piercing blue eyes and added:
"You might think I'm crazy, and maybe I am a little bit. But
it's a thin line between crazy and wise."

By Art Allen


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