Promises to keep

September 05, 1997|By Philip Terzian

WASHINGTON -- The Promise Keepers are coming to Washington in October.

I say this with some admiration for that organization's capacity to lure tens of thousands of men into stadiums around the country to ''worship God, to confess sin, to commit to a change of heart, in mind and way of life and to inspire unity and reawakening in the church,'' as their founder puts it.

But I say this with a certain dread, as well, since they won't be convening in a stadium this October, but on the Mall, on a weekday morning, in the hundreds of thousands -- maybe a million -- tying downtown Washington into a knot, crowding the subways and stopping traffic cold.

The obvious parallel, of course, is with Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March, which attracted some 350,000 black men two years ago on a weekday on the Mall and featured two hours of Minister Farrakhan's numerology and racist views. That, too, tied up the District, clogged the Metro and jammed Pennsylvania Avenue.

But for all his loathing of Jews and derision of white folks, &L Minister Farrakhan was treated rather gently in the press -- even worshipfully by network anchormen such as Peter Jennings.

It will be interesting to see how the Promise Keepers fare. I would not expect very well.

To begin with, the Promise Keepers, with their sporting world rhetoric and evangelical fervor, are not the sort of mass movement congenial to the media.

An example of this occurred during last month's visit by Pope John Paul II to Paris. Here was the spectacle of a frail, 77-year-old Roman Catholic prelate attracting approximately 1 million European youth to an outdoor Mass and a stern lecture on morality.

But the networks gave it their patented ''yes, but'' treatment: Yes, a lot of kids showed up for the event, but not all of them agreed with all the Pope's pronouncements. To emphasize this point, reporters interviewed a handful of dissenters -- and dissenters only. Presumably, everyone else was in Paris by coincidence.

The Promise Keepers seem to strike a similar nerve. I cannot fully understand why.

The main purpose of the movement is to remind Christian men of their responsibilities as husbands and fathers -- to love and honor their wives, to love and nurture their children -- and, of course, to rejuvenate their Christian faith. This they do by following the admonitions of ex-University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and by doing a lot of hugging, swaying back and forth, and weeping with remorse, in open-air stadiums.

The mission of the Promise Keepers seems essentially blameless, even commendable, especially if it reinforces the sanctity of the marriage oath and exhorts men to take responsibility for their offspring. No doubt there are many men in the world in need of such refreshment, and Promise Keepers seems to speak to them effectively.

For some reason, this has aroused the anger and derision of the National Organization for Women. Admittedly, it does not take too much effort to do so, but NOW's virulence on the subject is startling to behold.

President Patricia Ireland held a press conference the other day to denounce the Promise Keepers and pledge to disrupt their meeting in October. Promise Keepers, she declared, demands the subservience and degradation of women and is ''the latest vehicle for the religious political extremists who have been in our national politics for some time.''

Of course, there is no evidence Promise Keepers is part of any political movement. It professes to be a spiritual movement only, in the words of its spokesman, ''teaching men to love their wives, to not place work as the No. 1 priority in their life, to spend more time with their children and reach beyond racial and denominational barriers.''

''We are not teaching women anything,'' he adds. ''We are not speaking to women at all.''

No wonder NOW feels threatened. A religious movement that is devoted to rehabilitating the traditional family structure in American life must seem ominous indeed to an extremist political organization that has nothing but contempt for the nuclear family, encourages women to exalt work at the expense of

motherhood and has lately been exploring the virtues of polygamy -- in its Utah chapter, no less.

When the Promise Keepers march on the Mall in October, it will be interesting to see if they get the ''yes, but'' treatment: pictures of hundreds of thousands of participants, but interviews only with Patricia Ireland and friends.

Philip Terzian is associate editor of the Providence Journal-Bulletin.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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