Promise Keepers, the fast-growing Christian revival group that has packed stadiums nationwide, plans to rally a million men in Washington next month for what it calls a day of "personal repentance and prayer."
Yet swirling around this ostensibly inward-looking, spiritual gathering is a mounting controversy over how the evangelical men's movement addresses such hot-button issues as gender, race, and religion in America.
By its very nature, the massive "sacred assembly" planned for Washington's Mall on Oct. 4 makes a political statement, despite assurances from Promise Keepers leaders that the group is strictly apolitical, observers assert.
"[Promise Keepers] wants to make sure ... Christianity becomes increasingly the underlying set of principles that governs the country," says Jean Hardisty, director of Political Research Associates, a liberal monitoring group in Cambridge, Mass. "That is what 'taking America back for Christ' means," she says, quoting Promise Keepers literature.
The debate over the Promise Keepers centers less on the root problems that have spurred the group's emergence than on what critics view as its narrow, Christian fundamentalist solutions.
Critics and supporters alike believe that over the past 30 years many men have felt alienated by the women's-rights movement, increasing job insecurity, and a lack of effective men's ministries in local churches. Consequently, they have have grown more aloof, self-serving, and irresponsible. This attitude, many say, has fueled crime, sexual promiscuity, and family breakdown.
By addressing men's inner dissatisfaction and offering a way for them to redeem themselves and society, Promise Keepers has become a highly successful movement. Founded in 1990 by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, it has drawn some 2.6 million men to 61 stadium events this decade. Promise Keepers, or "PK," today commands a staff of 360 and volunteers leading more than 16,000 small groups of PK followers at churches across the country.
But as Promise Keepers prepare to converge on Washington, the group's emphasis on traditional biblical values - along with evidence that its leaders support a right-wing, anti-gay, and pro-life Christian political agenda - has raised concerns among feminists, gay and minority advocates, and more moderate religious leaders.
Women's-rights groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) contend the movement seeks to subordinate women by calling upon males to "take back" their God-given role and responsibilities as head of household. NOW President Patricia Ireland has denounced the PK creed as "a feel-good form of male supremacy."
"It's a backlash against efforts to redefine the family, including the women's-liberation movement and the gay-liberation movement," says Clarissa Atkinson, dean of academic studies at Harvard Divinity School. By advocating a return to "a very 1950s set of white, middle class 'family values' ... the domination of women is implied," Dean Atkinson says.
Indeed, only a tiny percentage of US women - and men - define "family values" as meaning the traditional nuclear family. Far more see them in terms of supportive relationships with each member fully engaged in the family, according to a 1995 survey by the New York-based Families and Work Institute. The survey found the majority of women accept their "provider" role and do not seek to give up home and work responsibilities.
In contrast, PK officials say men should lead the household based on a literal reading of the Bible. But in response to criticism, they have stressed recently that male leadership also demands service. "The leader is the last to bed and first up, the last to eat and first to the front line," explains Paul Edwards, the Promise Keepers' senior vice president of ministry advancement.
While such ideas are anathema to feminists, scholars say they hold appeal for some women, especially fundamentalist Christians, who would prefer a strong male role to what they view as the current disengagement of men. "There are many women in the Christian right who have been waiting for ... their husbands to play their biblically-ordained role," says Dr. Hardisty.
Race relations are new topic for group
The Promise Keepers' message of "racial reconciliation" - verses racial justice - has also prompted attacks from minority groups. Hugs and even friendship between whites and men of color does little to address the historical and institutional roots of racism, they contend.
"A slave and a slave master may reconcile, but that will not necessarily alter their fundamental relationship," writes David Love of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Mr. Love and others believe the right-wing Christian ethic of many PK founders and supporters will align the group behind conservative assaults on welfare and affirmative action.
Promise Keepers officials admit they are not directly tackling problems of institutional racism. "That's a fair question," says Mark DeMoss, PK spokesman and a 1996 campaign adviser for Pat Buchanan. "Promise Keepers can't do everything," he says, but by diversifying its own staff, urging men to forge interracial friendships, and "taking the big step of acknowledging that racism is prevalent within the church," he predicts the group will have a positive impact.
Gauging the group's fundamentalism
For some mainstream Christian clergy, the Promise Keepers theology is exclusivist, emphasizing "real" Christians and thus fostering an "us against them" atmosphere of religious intolerance. Similarly, they worry the group is undermining the authority of existing churches, and especially that of women pastors. For example, women clergy were not included in a PK-hosted gathering of some 39,000 Christian ministers in Atlanta last year.
PK officials counter that they are responding to a failure by local churches to minister to men. "The church has lost its moral vigor," says Mr. Edwards, citing statistics that indicate thousands of churches are closing their doors each year while church membership stagnates.
With this, even some critics of the Promise Keepers agree. "This is a real testament of how the mainstream churches have failed men; it's a wake-up call for us," says the Rev. Meg Riley, director of the Washington office of the Unitarian Universalist Association.