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Promise Keepers:It's a guy thing for Jesus All the Lord's Men


Washington -- On another weekend in another season, these men hustling down the ramps at RFK Stadium would be scrambling to beat the parking lot jam or make last call for Budweiser. Tonight, there's no beer to be found. The men rise cold sober from their seats, rush to the field and step onto the red clay to bow their heads, cry, embrace, tell a story.

They offer stories to their Lord Jesus. Some have been drunk. Some have been driven by pornography into sexual fantasy. Others have been deceitful or adulterous or blinded by ambition or absent from the lives of their wives and children. Scan the field and see in the bluish night-game light all these fallen men of God.

Look in any direction and see nothing but men -- more than 50,000.

When they filled the stadium the last weekend in May they became part of the continuing story of Promise Keepers, a 5-year-old evangelical Christian men's movement that has packed one stadium after another. The group was founded by the former University of Colorado head football coach, Bill McCartney, a born-again Christian known for leading his team to a nationalchampionship. And for saying publicly that ' homosexuals are "stark raving mad" and for nearly getting his university sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for preaching in the locker room.

Lately, Mr. McCartney's been preaching mostly to the choir at these conferences, which have drawn more than 400,000 men since last year. Entry fees and donations have swelled the nonprofit organization's budget from $4 million in 1993 to $22 million.

What's driving all this?

It's not anger, the men say. It's not a backlash against feminism, says Mr. McCartney, whom Rep. Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat, once called "a self-appointed ayatollah." The rhetoric has all the storm of a testosterone-fueled tent revival, but one-on-one, the men seem such regular, mild-mannered guys.

Most profess no interest in the secular men's movement, no experience with encounter groups, drumming or pursuing their Wild Man. Yet they come, seeking their male essence under the auspices of Christ in a stadium full of cheering men.

The Promise Keepers, based outside Boulder, Colo., claims to seek nothing less than the country's moral redemption. That is, it wants to repair the family, rebuild communities and redress America's own Original Sin of racism. Not by political action but by raising men's standards of ethics and responsibility. Hence the group name, which refers to commitments members make to honor Jesus Christ, form close relationships with a few men, maintain high sexual and moral standards, build strong marriages, support the church and break down racial and "denominational" barriers among Christians. No mention is made interfaith barriers, and Promise Keepers pledge obedience to the mandate set forth in the Gospel of Matthew: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

The men seek, the weekend refrain goes, to become "more godly men."

Men seeking greater godliness stream down the aisles of RFK Stadium. The crowd ranges in age from 30 to 55, and most are married. There are more black and Hispanic men than one might have assumed from reading the press clippings.

They wear shorts and baseball caps and polo shirts, blue jeans, sport shirts or kerchiefs on their heads. Some are bearded and long-haired and drive Harleys. Some are carefully groomed like disciples of Ralph Reed. They look like the men you'd expect to see at Camden Yards on a spring night.

On stage stands Luis Palau, a radio and television evangelist from Oregon, urging the men who have not committed themselves to Christ to step forward and do so. Submit yourself, he says. Submit your intellect. Submit your sexuality to the "godship" of Christ. "How many of you," Mr. Palau asks, "are ready to come forward and say, 'I surrender to you'?"

Several thousand in the crowd of 50,440 move to the field, crisscrossing with others who carry trays of nachos, hot dogs and sodas, and passing the women's bathrooms where doors are papered over with hand-lettered signs that say "MEN." The arena fills with bass voices singing. Song lyrics glow white on blue fields from two screens lofted high above the stage:

You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray.

The men have already paid $55 or $65 to get in. Further tithing this weekend is done in the currency of the moment, the sort of confession commonly heard in 12-step meetings: Here is where I fell, here is the person I hurt. A stadium full of men, a stadium full of stories. A whole movement seemingly knit together by the symbolic power of stories. Gospel, personal narratives, a mass convergence of falls and pursuits of redemption.

'Watch your eyes'

Men in the field huddle with bowed heads in groups of two, three, four, five. One fellow is standing with a Promise Keepers volunteer counselor, confessing his penchant for masturbation. "Watch your eyes," the counselor cautions, offering a story about one difference between men and women: "Men are stimulated by their eyes. Women are stimulated by touch." The two hold hands and pray. Another man owns up to trouble in his marriage, another to a past cocaine addiction, another to lying. Men put their arms around each other. Eyes well up. Faces flush, cheeks glisten with tears.

To view the spectacle from the mezzanine at RFK Stadium is to imagine that Billy Graham and men's guru Robert Bly collaborated on a script produced and directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

No one strips and dances, though. No one paints his face to summon his warrior spirit. During the course of the weekend, however, men do follow the master of ceremonies' instruction, turn to the man next to them and rub that man's shoulders. A good manly rub, says Gary J. Oliver, the emcee, "no wussy rub."

And during a break in the speaker's program, men in the grandstands and those in thousands of chairs on the field start a shouting contest: "I LOVE JESUS HOW 'BOUT YOU?" And the response: "I LOVE JESUS YES I DO." Sort of an evangelical version of "TASTES GREAT -- LESS FILLING."

That's about as close as they get to competitive male activity. Second to the powerful evangelical rhetoric is a thrust that seems a curious echo of the pro-feminist men's movements of the early 1970s. Consider the Berkeley Men's Center Manifesto: "We, as men, want to take back our full humanity. We no longer want to strain and compete to live up to an impossible oppressive masculine image . . ."

That was 1973, and contemporary feminism was rattling the American male cage. A year later came the First National Conference on the Masculine Mystique and a year after that the first Men and Masculinity conference, both meetings of pro-feminist men in sympathy with the National Organization for Women. The quest to redefine masculinity was on.

Then came the spiritualists, seeking the roots of masculinity in the system of myth and universal archetypes posited by psychologist Carl Jung. Poet Robert Bly appeared on the scene and soon we heard about men getting naked together, dancing, drumming, seeking their manly essence in sweat huts. In the late 1980s he found in the old fairy tale of "Iron John" a metaphor for men in search of themselves.

Now the Promise Keepers step to the plate. They don't quote Jung or Mr. Bly or the Berkeley Manifesto; they quote Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Corinthians. Their model man is Jesus Christ. Not the brawny savior who appeared briefly in America in the late 19th century, when Century Magazine urged a "vigorous, robust, muscular Christianity," but a gentle, compassionate, paternal figure. Servant to family and community.

"The men in America are caught in a web of confused identities," says Promise Keepers president Randy T. Phillips. The confusion is "tearing at the very fabric of this nation. We believe we're in a moral free-fall."

Come, men, and hear the Good News, says Promise Keepers: you need be macho no more. Open up, share, become vulnerable. And so they do. White men hugging white men, black men hugging white men, all telling secrets and asking for help.

A note in the media packet urges discretion in approaching men for interviews and photographs. Without trace of ironic intent, the note refers to this gathering of multitudes in RFK Stadium as a "deeply personal event."

So goes the justification for the absence of women. To be open to connections with other men or free to confess occasional sexual transgressions, men must be with men. The weekend is all men, but for a few women at the concessions and helping with press relations.

Yet one cannot escape the symbolic presence of women, fluttering like angels above the light stanchions. In the speeches, in the remarks of men and group officials, women appear as exalted beings from whose good graces men have fallen.

'For the ladies'

"You're going to find out," Mr. McCartney says in a press conference before the proceedings, "that our heart is for the ladies. We commend them and salute them for carrying the load all these years." Mr. Phillips says that for women "this is not a place to feel threatened but to have hope."

Mr. Phillips says that the group represents a response to feminism in that feminism is largely "the result of the misuse of authority and domination and hurt."

This particular theory is echoed by many men attending the conference. Feminism is not attacked, but interpreted as a consequence of men's failings. If only men had been nice guys, if only they had paid attention and listened. It does not seem to occur to anyone that there might be another version, that regardless of men, women have their own pursuits.

Mr. McCartney's personal tale of redemption involves his homage to a female angel in the person of his wife, Lyndi, to whom he has been married 32 years.

This year he is scheduled to tell his story to stadiums full of men in Washington, Detroit, Denver, Atlanta, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Oakland and Dallas. Sports Illustrated told it early this year in its account of how "Coach Mac," at 54, walked away from a $350,000-a-year contract with the university to pursue his work with Promise Keepers. How his daughter had two children out of wedlock by two members of his own football team. How he wishes all those years he'd paid more attention to his family.

In a thundering speech to close this conference, he tells about his epiphany while looking years ago into his wife's face. There he saw such depths of anguish and loneliness. He felt crushed by the weight of his failure as a man and understood the errors of his selfish, career-obsessed ways. Then he adds a line he says his wife suggested: "You tell them that the radiance that was in your bride that you married 32 years ago, that radiance is back. You tell them that the glow in my heart is back."

And with this, Lyndi McCartney herself rushes onstage like someone casting off crutches in a faith-healing tent. She is all smiles. She hugs Coach Mac as the multitudes rise and cheer the radiant display.

Witness, says Mr. McCartney, "the bounce in her step. . . . Men, you can hold me to this. I'm going to be a teammate to her. I'm going to come alongside her. I'm going to be her other self. We're going to live out Lyndi's dreams, too. We're going to see Lyndi blossom and become the person God predicted she would be."

Such affirming statements have not allayed all suspicion, as PromiseKeepers' conferences have been picketed by women who believe the group would like to see wives confined to the kitchen. No protesters are spotted at RFK, where the speakers include the Rev. Tony Evans, a Texas pastor whose writing has been quoted as evidence of the group's anti-feminist bias.

In the book "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper," Mr. Evans, co-founder of the 3,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, urges men to assume leadership of their families: "Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. I'm not suggesting that you ask for your role back. I'm urging you to take it. . . . Unfortunately there can be no compromise," he writes, "Treat the lady lovingly and gently. But lead."

This has been misinterpreted, says Mr. Phillips. It is not an instruction to rule the house as a tyrant, but to serve the family, in the manner of Christ.

A dissenting view

One skeptical voice in the weekend crowd comes not from the political left or center but the right, the far right: the Rev. Rob Schenck, ardent foe of abortion and for the last few months general secretary of the National Clergy Council in Washington. Mr. Schenck has made a name for himself in recent years by twice displaying fetuses in public and getting arrested.

Mr. Schenck, who is offering a right-of-center news magazine in the "ministry booths" at the D.C. Armory next to RFK, says the Promise Keepers should come clean about what they represent. He notes that Mr. Palau opened the conference by saying, "We are for biblical manhood. We're not against this group or that." How can that be? Mr. Schenck wonders aloud.

"The very fact that you are for men being head of the household is against the feminist perspective," he says. "Everything I know about the Promise Keepers is that the woman should be generally submissive and the man should be dominant. I don't disagree with that, but we have to be honest about that."

The same goes for the biblically based opposition to homosexuality and abortion, he says, and for the political ramifications of such views. None of the weekend speakers mentions either subject, but Mr. McCartney has made his views known on both. He has spoken at Operation Rescue meetings and joined a group that supported Colorado's anti-gay rights legislation.

The Promise Keepers are careful to avoid blatantly political statements.

"We have no candidates to endorse, no partisan political agenda to be distracted by," says Mr. Phillips. He notes that the group dTC postponed from 1996 to 1997 its plans to assemble 1 million men in Washington, skipping the presidential election year to avoid political overtones.

Among the men interviewed at the conference one hears no political fervor, no anger toward feminists or homosexuals. When pressed, they acknowledge they tend to vote conservatively, but their voices are moderate. Their deepest concerns seem to lie close to home.

"We're not angry, but we're serious," says Thomas Wise, a full-time bookkeeper and part-time men's pastor of the New Horizon Church in Durham, N.C., which is affiliated with Assemblies of God. "Let me tell you what the fruits of the Promise Keepers are," he says. "Wives have more devoted husbands, children have more loving fathers, pastors have more active men in the church, communities have better citizens."

He is 38, married and the father of two, and drove to Washington with Dave Soper, a 43-year-old computer programmer.

Mr. Soper says the group is not about being angry or taking back male authority. He's troubled by the label "right-wing Christian" that is sometimes affixed to Promise Keepers.

"It has bad connotations," he says. "We had this nut blow up a building a few weeks ago. I don't want to be associated with nut cases. . . . Those words are charged. People quit thinking when they hear those words."

Many of the men here have been meeting in more private settings than RFK Stadium. They have been talking in small men's groups in church basements, meeting in each other's homes. But the participants say there is a certain power in the display, this massing of men. This is why so many of them have come from hundreds of miles away to engage in public rites of self-definition.

"I am mostly affected by this, look at this," says Scott Buhmann, 32, a physical-education instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, who traveled from upstate New York with 12 other men from his church. He's standing on a balcony atop a stadium gate pointing to thousands of men walking toward RFK for the Saturday morning session. The father of two daughters says it's nice being around so many men who reject the "macho" male image. "It's good to see you're not the only guy thinking about family and God."

For lack of a better word, says his 38-year-old friend, John Werkema, "You develop a kind of bond" with other men.

Mr. Werkema is a tall, soft-spoken man who works installing cable for a business-communications network. He wears a T-shirt, jeans and two earrings in his left ear, souvenirs of two trips to the ear-piercing shop with his 14-year-old son, Andrew. Yes, his son asked permission to get the earrings. Yes, the boy's father and mother agreed.

"If I don't allow him to express himself the ways he wants to, he's going to express himself" some other way, says Mr. Werkema. Perhaps in a more self-destructive way. Years ago, he says, he would have reacted differently, trying to assert strict control. He was trying to do too much, he says, working two jobs, teaching Bible classes and playing the strict disciplinarian at home. Control was all.

"I began to realize I was not the spiritual giant I thought I was," he says. Lately, he adds, "I'm just trying to keep the balance."

Another story of excess and contrition. So many of those are bandied about this weekend.

It's extraordinary, says Bill Spengler, a 56-year-old from Springfield, Va. "Most churches have trouble getting even 10 men together."

He was among 62,800 men at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis for the Promise Keepers' conference last June. He had heard about Promise Keepers through his church, then drove 14 hours to Indiana to see for himself. This weekend he is a volunteer with about 60 men from the Messiah United Methodist Church in Virginia.

Making the connection

"When you haven't made this connection to Christ, when you don't know him, this is all pretty weird," says Mr. Spengler, father of three grown children. "Why would people do this? Why would they drive 14 hours?"

George Klein, a 53-year-old middle-school teacher and guidance counselor, says he drove down alone from New Canaan, Conn., at the invitation of a writer friend reporting on the conference. "I find this to be exhilarating. Seeing the energy. It's renewing, it's refreshing."

Individually, these men's voices are tempered enough. Together, they roar. Mr. McCartney takes the podium to close the conference, imploring the men to be more attentive husbands and to "go out of our comfort zones" to break down racial barriers. He finishes by inviting all the clergymen in the crowd to come forward so they may be recognized with "the greatest, supercharged ovation they have ever heard in their lives."

Once more, men stream toward the field as the ovation begins. Men are standing, waving hats, waving shirts, cheering, whistling. The cheering goes on, one minute, two, three, four . . . "KEEP IT GOING, KEEP IT GOING," shouts Mr. McCartney, waving his arms, getting red in the face. "WE LOVE THESE GUYS. WE LOVE 'EM." Pastors are spilling onto the field, moving in a mass toward the stage.

Five minutes, six. "KEEP IT UP, KEEP IT UP," says Mr. McCartney, as if he's pushing the offense on fourth and goal. "WE LOVE THESE GUYS." Somewhere in the stands a song rises under the din, then fades. Seven minutes of cheering, a noise like 10 game-winning touchdowns. Eight minutes. It is hard not to be moved to hope, awe or fear, or all of these. The power and thunder of a crowd signifying something.

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