Keeping the Lord's promises Gathering: A male Christian crusade that favors stadium rallies heads for Washington.

October 02, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Here is what the Promise Keepers promise for Washington on Saturday: hundreds of thousands of Christian men assembled on the Mall for six hours of confession, repentance, embraces, tears and sermons -- all intended to help men strengthen their spiritual lives, take back America for Jesus and reclaim their ordained roles as leaders of the family.

It is an event that many applaud. It is a movement that others view with great suspicion.

And it is a phenomenon that has religious scholars pondering what it is about the Promise Keepers that has drawn American men by the tens of thousands to stadiums around the country.

"There's a sense among religiously minded people have that we're going downhill, that we're in a moral slide," offers Derek Davis, director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"The Promise Keepers group believes it can make a serious impact on our culture," Davis says, "by bringing American men into a proper relationship with God. The ultimate goal is the reversal of the secularization of society."

Saturday's gathering is expected to be the biggest showing yet of the Promise Keepers' numbers. The city is preparing for up to 700,000 participants, a number that would rival the 1995 Million Man March to Washington.

The event is titled "Stand in the Gap," a name inspired by Ezekiel 22: 30: "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none."

40 speakers

The organizers have planned for about 40 speakers, three podiums, 12 big screens around the Mall. The free program, which begins at noon, will be translated for the hearing impaired and into other languages, including Spanish and Korean. The staff says the "Stand in the Gap" budget is about $10 million. They will take up an offering during the program.

The Promise Keepers' assemblies typically include crying and singing among men who spend hours together in prayer.

"Part of it is the sense among these men that we have somehow lost our connection to the kind of communities that once sustained us, religious communities and civic communities," says Charles Marsh, a theology professor at Loyola College and theologian in residence at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Incarnation.

"It's saying something about the sense of loss that we feel," Marsh says, "and our efforts to reconnect with others."

Founded by football coach

Founded seven years ago by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, the Promise Keepers believe that men have abdicated their positions of spiritual and family leadership -- with disastrous results.

Society's ills -- from drug abuse to domestic violence to poverty and adultery -- is based in men's sin, they say. Most of that sin, they add, is sexual.

"Men have entered into a time in history when we don't stand behind what we say, and it has really hurt the home," McCartney said last month at the National Press Club in Washington. "It has hurt the workplace. It has hurt every fabric of society. It has compromised society.

"So if men were just men of integrity, men who did what they said and meant what they said and said what they meant, it would have a tremendous impact on society," says McCartney, who gave up his $350,000-a-year coaching job to run Promise Keepers.

The way for men to reclaim integrity, the born-again McCartney says, is through Jesus Christ. "There is no other way."

"We are unashamedly Christian," says Dale Schlafer, a Promise Keepers' vice president.

The Promise Keepers' method of bringing men back to Christ is to gather them together -- in stadiums, for assemblies 60,000-strong, and in Bible-study groups.

There, they are urged to confess their sins, to repent, to rededicate themselves to their churches and their families. They are told they must go home, be faithful to their wives and take back their places as heads of the household.

"It's very much a part of a conservative, religious right movement that wants to take action to bring America back to its Christian senses," says Davis, of Baylor.

NOW is critical

But even some people who admire much of the Promise Keepers' message say they are troubled by the insistence on male leadership. Not surprisingly, National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland is angry about it.

"The Promise Keepers speak about 'taking back America' for Christ," she said soon after the group announced the Saturday gathering, "but they also mean to take back the rights of women. Their call for 'submission' of women is one that doesn't have a place in either the pulpit or the public sphere in the 1990s."

A "feel-good form of male supremacy," Ireland calls the group.

She describes the movement as "the hottest religious-right marketing tool since tele-evangelism," just another part of a conservative Christian campaign to influence American politics.

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