WASHINGTON -- america's evangelical movement has taken a giant leap forward in its attempt to shed its racist image. And a conservative movement is showing the way.
At last Saturday's rally of the Promise Keepers, nonwhite representation was estimated at up to one in five in a crowd of more than 500,000. Amidst bold proclamations about ending racism in the church by the year 2000, it was clear that Promise Keepers is not only going out of its way to make reconciliation a priority, but it has linked Christian revival in the U.S. to reconciliation.
"Denominational and racial division is what has kept the church of Jesus Christ from growing," says Rev. Raleigh Washington, an African-American who is the Promise Keepers' vice president of racial reconciliation. "What is going to give credibility to the Gospel's truth is our ability to love one another despite our differences."
That statement, and the number of nonwhites who have joined Promise Keepers, may signal the forging of a genuine multiethnic spiritual coalition. Today, public repentance -- like John Dawson, an evangelical leader kneeling before Saturday's national TV audience asking forgiveness from his "African-American brothers" for racism -- is almost the rule at evangelical prayer meetings.
But it also raises the stakes for evangelicalism. If Promise Keepers fails to deliver on its promise -- a religious movement where nonwhites experience equality and acceptance -- race relations could actually end up worse in the church. The toxic smell of past Christian promises gone sour is still high among African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans.
While there's a considerable road to travel between words and deeds, there are indications that Promise Keepers means what it says. It has already built up a staff that is 30 percent nonwhite, and has more than token numbers of nonwhites in executive positions. Half of the platform speakers at Saturday's rally were nonwhite.
Promise Keepers spent $125,000 this past spring to bring together 100 Christian leaders from the Asian-American, African-American, Native American and Latino communities for frank discussions about race relations. And racial reconciliation has been a major theme at its stadium events, which have drawn millions of participants over the last five years.
Many white followers are puzzled by this theme in a movement focused on seeking redemption in male-female relationships and between men and God. But Promise Keepers founder and head Bill McCartney's "confession" of confronting his own racism has made many converts.
This in turn has forced nonwhites to examine their own racism. Earlier this year, a summit of Latino evangelical leaders convened by the Promise Keepers in Denver, ended with members of various groups -- Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and so on -- asking forgiveness for their prejudices against each other.
Some who view Promise Keepers through a political lens -- like Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women -- have expressed fears that it masks an extremist conservative agenda. But, while the group has the backing of Christian right-wingers such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson, there are many Promise Keepers who vigorously oppose their agenda. Besides, Promise Keepers is more a proselytizing force than a political movement. What holds the group together, despite the divergent political views of its members, is their shared belief that Christians possess a spiritual truth that has transformed their personal lives.
That transformation has a significant racial component. At the Washington march, Promise Keepers head Bill McCartney said he believes that by the year 2000 Christians will be able to say "the giant of racism is dead in the church of Jesus Christ." This may sound over-optimistic, but it signals a profound recognition of the need to listen to and embrace the nonwhite grass roots -- the fastest-growing segment within evangelicalism.
For nonwhites, the next step will be an increasing say in decision-making in the use of the evangelicals' massive resources -- Promise Keepers alone has a $120 million annual budget. They also want to see repentance lead to understanding and even advocacy from whites on behalf of the powerless, such as immigrants. These will be litmus tests of true reconciliation.