The Promise Keepers, a new evangelical Christian men's movement, follows an agenda that many Jews feel is antithetical to Jewish values and corrosive to constitutional safeguards of religious liberty. Yet the Jewish community has been relatively unresponsive to the exponential growth and mainstream embrace of this volatile young organization. During the Promise Keepers' "Stand In The Gap" rally in Washington, DC, on October 4, 1997, Jewish organizations‹including politically active groups like the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center‹were noticeably absent from the assorted liberal groups who showed up to protest. Other Jewish watchdog organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, have kept their usually humming faxes at bay. And while the Jewish press did cover the rally in Washington, they have largely ignored the Promise Keepers and their founder, Bill McCartney. After demonstrating a fearless approach to activism in recent decades, has the American Jewish community reverted back to 1950s era timidity? Or is an organization that many believe is mounting a ferocious attack on the wall separating church and state really just an innocuous religious movement?
According to Steven Steiner, the public relations representative for the American Jewish Congress, his organization hasn't felt the need to voice an opinion about the Promise Keepers. "If they issued antisemitic statements we would get involved," said Steiner. "There is no reason for us to be involved right now ." The AJCongress' wait-for-the-smoking-gun approach has been mirrored by most other Jewish organizations, who don't seem entirely comfortable with the popularity and power of Promise Keepers, but are not prepared to take a major stand opposing the group.
When Jewish organizations have expressed displeasure with Promise Keepers, often their umbrage is directed at the inclusion of so-called "messianic Jews" in Promise Keepers activities. The rally in Washington was kicked off by a "messianic Jew" wearing a kippah, who blew a shofar and declared that the tikiyah represented a victory for those who believe Jesus is the Messiah. "Their only portrayal of Jews in Washington was offensive," remarked American Jewish Committee National Director of Inter-religious Affairs Rabbi James Rudin, who has been following the Promise Keepers for the AJCommittee. Rudin was very disturbed by the representation of Jews at the rally. "While there were representatives of other communities, the only Jewish representative was a converted one." Yet despite the outrage, the AJCommitee's response has basically mirrored that of its shared acronym: it has remained silent.
The Anti-Defamation League is the only major Jewish organization that has directly confronted the Promise Keepers. Jeffrey Ross, the Director of Campus Affairs for the ADL, joins other Jewish groups in criticizing the organization's public embrace of "messianic Jews" and what he called an "ambiguous stand towards women." Twice the ADL has taken action against the Promise Keepers for their infringement on church/state separation, albeit for isolated incidents. According to Ross, the Promise Keepers had planned to hold an event at a United States naval base. "The ADL found out about this and protested using state grounds for Promise Keepers purposes," said Ross. "Partially because of our protest the rally was called off."
The second incident, Ross explained, occurred before McCartney had founded the Promise Keepers when he was coaching the University of Colorado football team. McCartney had introduced prayer and other Christian elements into team activities. In the mid-1980s he attempted to recruit a Jewish player. The student had problems with what Ross described as "the Christianizing of the team." The local Jewish community contacted the ADL, who felt that McCartney's Christianizing at a public university was a breach of separation of church and state. The dispute was resolved when the player decided to attend a different university.
The Religious Action Center in Washington has been critical of the Promise Keepers, but has limited its activism against the group. The Center joined 60 other religious organizations to form an anti-Promise Keepers coalition called Equal Partners in Faith, which put out a statement criticizing Promise Keepers for excluding women and female clergy, and for a message that asserts that "women belong behind men, not in equal partnerships, and that this is God's will for men and women." But for the most part it has been content to let liberal Christian groups get involved. "The Christian community has done a good job responding to the Promise Keepers," according to Mark Palavin, the Associate Director of the Religious Action Center. "We try to educate the community about the Promise Keepers," said Palavin.
Interestingly, the Religious Action Center, which often gets involved in political advocacy over issues of interest to the liberal Jewish community, has not made an issue of the links of Promise Keepers to the religious right. While Promise Keepers claims to be nonpolitical, the movement is a major force in right wing political circles. Its rallies have political undertones, and the behind-the-scene supporters of the organization are all influential men identified with the religious right. In fact, Promise Keepers represent the "third wave" of the religious right, following the fall of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and the still active Christian Coalition of Pat Robertson.
According to several sources, including a comprehensive article in The Nation, the most influential and important figures behind McCartney and the Promise Keepers are James Dobson, Bill Bright, and Pat Robertson, who gave the organization the exposure it needed through the Christian Broadcasting Network. Dobson is a social psychologist, radio commentator and head of the largest religious right organization in the country, Focus on the Family, which is the current publisher for Promise Keepers. The political views of Dobson are reflected in the militantly anti-abortion and anti-gay Family Research Council, a Washington lobby group to the right of the Christian Coalition that was founded by Dobson's son.
Bill Bright is involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and has been a part of the radical right since the 1950's. The overall mission of the Campus Crusade is to "win every human being on earth for Christ in preparation for the Second Coming." In addition, Bright has attempted past ventures such as banning director Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ. Bright's most recent book, which is sold at all Promise Keepers events, denounces the "homosexual explosion," abortion, the lack of state-sponsored prayer in schools and the teaching of evolution rather than creationism.
The presence of numerous political organizations at all Promise Keepers conferences provides further evidence of the organization's political agenda. Outside each gathering are vendors selling Promise Keepers books, shirts, caps, and tapes. But most of the space is taken up by various political organizations.
One such group is World Magazine which offers "to help Christians apply to their understanding of and response to everyday events." In this magazine, advertisements are mixed with political statements, including one ad with the headline, "Traditional Christian Faith and Values vs. Welfarism and Big Government." Books published by Focus on the Family are usually available. One such book is Check Colson's Breakpoint which identifies feminism as an "extremist ideology" and argues that God had created a female chemical and hormonal balance that women who have abortions disrupt, thereby risking breast cancer. Another organization, Exodus International, is a "Christian referral and resource network . . .[whose] primary purpose is to proclaim that freedom from homosexuality is possible through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord."
Promise Keepers president Randy Phillips has denied the assertions of critics that PK is a right wing organization. "We are not a political organization, we are not politically motivated and we do not have political goals." But the amount of space allocated to political causes and messages at Promise Keepers conferences along with the prominent roles of right wing activists within the organization belie his assertion. It is clear that McCartney and his followers are linked to the Christian Right and its war against contemporary culture. As National Organization for Women (NOW) president Patricia Ireland pointed out at the "Stand In The Gap" rally, "There is a reason that Promise Keepers is having their rally in Washington with the Capitol as the backdrop. . . When members of Congress look out onto the Mall, they see the same thing I see‹hundreds of thousands of constituents and voters."
Just as Patricia Ireland has been the most forceful voice speaking out against Promise Keepers, the strongest response from Jews has come from the Jewish feminist community. Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, is taking Promise Keepers seriously. "Promise Keepers represents a danger to Jews in their frequent assertion that this is a Christian nation." Schneider also believes that the Jewish community should be aware the Promise Keepers' "dangerous stand towards women." Traditionally attacks on feminism become attacks of "Jewish feminists", or on the "un-Christian" nature of feminism. Lilith is planning to run a substantial article on the Promise Keepers in an upcoming issue.
Michael S. Kimmel, a scholar of men's studies at State University of New York at Stony Brook, agrees with Schneider's assessment. In a recent article in Tikkun magazine, Kimmel criticized the Promise Keepers attitude toward women. Kimmel writes that, "the resurrection of responsible manhood is really the Second Coming of Patriarchy." According to the Promise Keepers, men have abdicated their responsibility as the head of the household. At home, husbands are "not giving their wives the support they need," and are absent from the lives of their children and friends. The Promise Keepers 'remind' men of the 'power' they are born with, and make it clear that the husband should be the head of the household.
Yet even Tikkun, which ran Kimmel's article condemning the PK's conservative, patriarchal agenda, tempered their criticism in the November/December 1997 issue. The differences between Promise Keepers leadership and its constituents can be significant, and just as many of the men who attended the Million Man March felt that they could separate the messenger from the message, many Promise Keepers do not fit the right wing mold of the group's leadership. According to Tikkun, liberals were right to point out the Promise Keepers connection to right wing leaders and their sexists assumptions about the proper structure of the family; yet they "missed the point. Most men who have been attracted to the Promise Keepers and other right-wing-connected Evangelical movements have not come into that context because of the politics, but because of their own hunger for meaning and community."
So what, exactly, is the Promise Keepers' stance on the role of men and women in society? The form of masculinity called for by the Promise Keepers relies on men "taking back" control over their homes, and apologizing to their wives for making them lead the home all these years. Relying on the aggression men have been socialized to exhibit, Promise Keepers also promises an upcoming holy war that will bring Christian heterosexual men back to their deserved patriarchal position in society.
The Promise Keepers put forward a critique of feminized masculinity. "The demise of our community and culture is the fault of sissified men who have been clearly influenced by women," writes Tony Evans, a black Dallas evangelist, who is among the most popular speakers at Promise Keepers rallies. He warns that men must "reclaim" their manhood, declaring, "I want to be a man again."
Building on the image of a "strong masculine man," Promise Keepers makes constant reference to the upcoming "holy war." Promise Keepers literature and speeches are filled with metaphors of cultural war. McCartney's call for battle is a crowd pleaser, once announcing that "we're calling men of God to battle - we will retreat no more. We're going to contest anything that sets itself up against the name of Jesus Christ."
In the Promise Keepers book, Go the Distance, McCartney predicted that his evangelical efforts will be met with "violent opposition." He told a gathering of pastors in Atlanta (the largest gathering of clergymen in history), "many of you feel that you have been in a war for a long time, yet the fiercest fighting is just ahead. God has brought us here to prepare us. Let's proceed. It's wartime!" In addition, he has referred to the clergy as "commissioned officers" of his movement, and has even sought to penetrate the armed forces through the Pentagon's chaplain system.
If the opposition McCartney predicted has been slow to organize, it may be due to a new coalition based on "traditional values." "What happened here is that the boy's club has expanded to include people of color," writes Chip Berlet, who researches right-wing populism in the United States. "When push comes to shove, what's more important, race or gender?" Indeed, on the issue of gender, black and white male clergy have found room to unite.
Promise Keepers' promotion of a softer patriarchy caters perfectly to men's anxieties by "reminding" men of the "power" they are born with. During a rally at Shea Stadium in New York City, Rev. Ed Cole reminded his audience that "God's revelations came through man," not woman, and so the two genders can never be equal. Speaker Wellington Boone noted that "how you handle your wife," would reveal how you "handle the world." He added that "woman came from man, not man from woman." Boone also equates the relationship in the house between man and woman as a form of competition‹"spiritual warfare,"‹a test of masculine strength. "I'm never gonna let no woman outserve me," he once shouted to an applauding crowd.
The role of women called for by the Promise Keepers not only keeps wives at home, but has often stripped women of their economic independence. In an email to the National Organization for Women, the group at the forefront of anti-Promise Keeper activism, one Promise Keeper wife wrote to request a free copy of NOW's video on PK: "He keeps the checkbook and all the credit cards so I am unable to right [sic] you a check." Women are expected to limit their involvement at home to caring for their family. "Promise Keepers are about the return of patriarchy in its Sunday best: spiffed up, polite, and earnest but always, and ultimately, in charge," says Unitarian minister Rev. David Blachard of Syracuse. While the philosophy of the Promise Keepers may lead some men to have better relations with their wives and daughters, it does so at the expense of women's freedom.
Perhaps women's rights just isn't considered enough of a "Jewish issue" to inspire most Jewish groups to act. Or have the similarities between Promise Keepers and orthodox Jews, both politically and socially, dampened the enthusiasm of Jewish organizations to confront the Christian group? Susan Weidman Schneider shared an encounter she had with a group of Jews during the Washington rally. "While walking in the Georgetown area, I noticed a group of individuals carrying signs printed with the words 'Shalom. Jews keep promises too.' Interested, I asked whether this was an organized protest against the Promise Keepers. They explained that it wasn't a protest, but a way for them to express their belief in many of the Promise Keepers messages." One can only wonder why the most visible Jewish presence at the rally was a group of Promise Keepers wanna-bees.
Mik Moore is the editor of New Voices. Udi Ofer is graduated from SUNY Buffalo in 1997 and is a frequent contributer to New Voices.