The way of the Promise Keepers

October 03, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It came to him as a cardiovascular epiphany. Bill McCartney, former football coach and founder of the Promise Keepers, was jogging on the Washington Mall when he felt his heart "yanked toward heaven."

This spiritual aerobic high led him to call for a gathering of men to "Stand in the Gap." Not The Gap store. Not the gender gap. The biblical gap recorded in Ezekiel when God went looking for a few good men to save a country.

So it is that a half-million men are expected to arrive in the nation's capital this weekend for a Saturday of male bonding and male bashing.

They will be uttering an all-male mea culpa for the abuse and neglect of families and children. If the pattern of such rallies holds, these men will be sharing their feelings and taking responsibility.

Feminist fantasy

This gathering of what is arguably the largest men's movement in the U.S. sounds at some levels like the fondest feminist fantasy.

Hundreds of thousands of men collectively eschewing adultery and pornography, violence and abandonment. Men pledging publicly to keep their promises to their wives, to change diapers and bring flowers and offer respect.

Yet many women kept away from this event call the leaders of this assembly the enemy.

Indeed, the National Organization for Women has put together the darkest analysis of their goals and gone so far as to declare a policy of "No Surrender" in what they define as a battle of the sexes.

This is the duality that has tracked the Promise Keepers since the movement began drawing followers to religious rallies in the comfortable male venue of sports stadiums.

A mixture of old-time muscular Christianity and New Age sensibility, the group has raised hopes and hackles in almost equal proportion.

On the one hand, the Promise Keepers appeal to men alienated from each other and their families, men uncertain about what masculinity means anymore, men in search of spiritual healing.

On the other hand, the organization is deeply connected to the Christian right, profoundly hostile to homosexuals, opposed to abortion and "liberal women's groups" as well as "atheists and Satanists."

On the one hand, it promises women husbands who will, in Mr. McCartney's words, "take responsibility for their actions, who are faithful to their families, who keep their word, even when it's difficult or costly."

On the other hand, it assumes a trade-off: wifely submission to a kinder, gentler patriarch.

I don't believe that the Promise Keepers are Women's Enemy No. 1. Or even No. 10. During their peak years, the rallies offered more than 2 million men a safe place to atone, to acknowledge what was missing in their lives, even to change.

But at the same time, the Promise Keepers point a way out of the current conflict of roles and identities which is a way back.

The leaders speak to an old familiar view of authority in our culture. This is a view that says power is granted in return for protecting the weak and vulnerable.

It's a view that says, in turn, the weak and vulnerable must follow that leader, accede to that authority, in order to be protected.

This was the deal once struck between kings and subjects, men and women. It does not acknowledge that, sooner or later, every protection can become a protection racket.

It prefers the clear lines of authority to the muddle of egalitarian democracy.

In many ways, the Promise Keepers' message echoes the words of the secular fatherhood movement. Mr. McCartney blames "a decline in responsible manhood" for the problems of children who grow up without fathers, for crimes of assault and rape.

But what he means by a responsible man is a take-charge kind of guy. Women, in this scheme of things, are left with the choice of a dangerous man, no man, or a sole head of household.

Locker room talk

Mr. McCartney, trying to reassure women especially of his good intentions, has compared a country of shattered families to a losing football team.

"In the game of football," he wrote, "if your team is getting trounced, you'd better have a serious talk with the men at halftime and identify the problems."

You don't have to be a sports analyst to find the flaw in this game plan. In the world of Promise Keepers, men are the only players.

In the locker room, they identify the problems and call the shots. On the field, whether it's the Washington Mall or the family back yard, a woman's designated place is on the cheerleading squad.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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