Albany, N.Y. — Whatever happened to Promise Keepers (“PK”), those zealous-for-change Christian men who in the 1990s filled football stadiums, refined the box lunch down to a science and struck fear into the hearts of feminists and other left-wing types as a kind of holy terror of the “Religious Right”?
The state of flux in my own life lately piqued my curiosity, and I decided to tag along for one stop on PK’s 18-city “summer tour.” Right about the time New York legislative honchos were burning the oil in their smoke-free rooms, doling out the pork in New York’s $93 billion dollar budget, the Pepsi Arena on South Pearl was being readied for the 9,000 or so men who signed up for the day-and-a-half conference. Setting aside my sometimes contrarian nature I put on the $79 PK wristband with an open mind.
Promise Keepers began in 1990 with a vision that men turn from their wicked, or at least wishy-washy, ways and live their lives to comport with Biblical principles. Sports stadiums got packed — 50,000 to 60,000 men worshipping to music, listening to inspirational speakers, praying en masse and coming to the makeshift altars in throngs. By 1997 PK had attracted over 2.5 million men to its gatherings, and had an annual budget of some $89 million with a paid staff of 350. Then came a real million-man march in October 1997, when PK men converged on the National Mall in Washington to “Stand in the Gap” for the country. It was the peak of PK’s momentum.
As all this was happening, “women’s groups” and other liberals were not entirely silent. The left was getting nervous. Then-National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland was “very afraid.” Calling PK “the hottest religious-right marketing tool since televangelism,” NOW also described it as a group stealthily promoting an agenda of “male supremacy,” and “jeopardiz[ing] women’s rights,” all apparently in reaction to PK’s exhortation to men that they be responsible citizens and leaders in the home.
Left-wing policy groups like the Center for Democracy Studies called Promise Keepers the “third wave” of the “Christian right,” following Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, claiming a nefarious alliance among the trio — both politically and financially. The left feared that PK would do “great damage to American democracy at the grassroots” if allowed to wield any political influence. Accused of being everything from anti-abortion, anti-gay to anti-woman, PK was just too darn Christian for this country.
Promise Keepers is now a different animal, if only in its numbers. While PK conferences will still attract several hundred thousand men this year, its budget is a pruned $25 million. Choice of venue is now the more modest 15,000 capacity urban arena. Hardly dead, but vastly scaled down. Steve Chavis, a PK spokesman at its Denver headquarters, said Promise Keepers is and always was a mere “ministry to men,” now simply more focused. The real PK happens, it is insisted, after the conferences, where men are instructed to form small “accountability groups” in their communities for mutual affirmation and encouragement for the real world.
But PK’s critics haven’t gone away. The Troy Record took the bait from the NOW press release and by the tone of its pre-conference story one would think that Promise Keepers is awash in controversy and that many, perhaps thousands, are outraged by its rolling into town. NOW is not happy and will not be silenced.
AT THE PEPSI ARENA ON FRIDAY evening, I make my approach. I hear a demonstration of some sort. The formal NOW protest isn’t scheduled until Saturday, but anything could happen. The noise is cheerleading, 30 or so pro-PK women who set up a gauntlet of claps and cheers as men file past them into the Arena. Placards read, “Thanks for taking the Challenge,” and “We stand by our men.”
The crowd is a lot of white, late-30’s and early-40’s suburban types, but a fair number of blacks and Hispanics, even a few yarmulkes in sight. Several PK-ers have come up from the Bronx in church vans. But PK leadership has acknowledged that it would like to see more diversity at its conferences.
Things are underway inside. Approaching from the crowd with wireless headset, Joe White, an ex-jock type, totally sold out to Jesus, does a soliloquy about coming to the cross, breathless as he builds a real one on stage. Then there’s prayer, songs and an altar call. At least a thousand men approach the stage to rededicate their lives to God. Lest anyone take himself too seriously, Brad Stine brings the house down with his decidedly non-politically-correct comedy. He takes some shots at government paternalism (“If you don’t like it wear a helmet!”) but pokes fun mostly at stilted and legalistic Christians, inspiring them to enjoy God, enjoy life, but don’t waste it. The evening is closed with more prayer. As the crowd files out, a transvestite is on the sidewalk with a sign reading “God sucks.” Identifying with no formal group, he doesn’t argue with the title “freelance gay-rights activist.”
Saturday, the speaker lineup is diverse, but all the listed speakers, despite the subject-to-change disclaimer, show up. The uniforms are crisp and casual: Linen trousers and blue sport shirts. More songs. More prayer. The crowd settles in, Bibles on laps, quiet note-taking. No emotion. The aggregate message is this: Come to God and bring someone with you; work to transcend denominational and racial boundaries; make a commitment to spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity. Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t steal money. Don’t be a jerk.
NOW in its official literature wants help to “stop the Promise Keepers — Before they can keep their promises.” I didn’t get a chance to follow up as to which promise they find so objectionable: the not stealing part or the fidelity to your wife admonishment.
It’s noon and almost time for the box lunch and, afterward, the NOW “speak out.” Earlier, I staked out State Street, and given the advance press NOW generated, looked for a bus, or at least a van, full of anti-PK demonstrators. Instead, a three-door, subcompact, cheap import pulled up, and out piled the NOW organizers, both of them. They are relegated to State Street, two short blocks from the Arena, by the terms of their $30 City of Albany permit.
Patricia Rose, head of NOW’s Albany chapter, tells me that PK is a “paramilitary organization,” because of PK motifs like “battle” and “war.” I suggest with the most neutral expression I can muster that perhaps this language might be metaphorical — a figure of speech to suggest, say, a struggle of a different nature? Not a chance. In fact, I’m told, some PK members are active and reserve members of the military. (Do you think then some might even be employed by defense contractors?) Being a protester or two short, the group is joined by a Green Party member. When I ask what the Greens have at issue with PK, she hesitates a second too long but comes up with “inequality.” Likewise, Marcia Pappas, a former NOW national board member, gives me the nebulous “extreme religious right” and “political threat” rhetoric when I inquire what, exactly, is wrong with those PK guys. Promise Keepers leadership in fact invited Rose and her group inside the Arena to watch the entire conference (albeit via video monitor) but she declined that kind overture.
Now for the absolute marvel: 9,000 shrink-wrapped and perfectly chilled lunches served in a matter of 30 minutes or so. Although the meal of a sandwich, chips, carrots, cookie and water bottle was highly edible, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the Styrofoam tray and all the plastic. But the Green Party should have at least thanked the crowd, the majority of whom ate their lunch outside on the sidewalks, steps and curtilage of the Arena. Of the potential havoc 72,000 pieces of debris following a mass feeding could wreak on the beautiful architectural landscape of downtown Albany, not one scrap was to be found.
THE CROWD IS UNCOMMONLY polite (and extremely tolerant incidentally of those few who haven’t yet been delivered of the smoking habit, a section being set aside just for them). No shoving, no pushing. The cops are bored. I’m ready for the protest, which consists of the NOW people making one round to the front of the Arena with the chant, “What do we want? Equality. When do we want it? Now!”
In an amusing afterword, the Times Union of Albany in its coverage counted 24 protesters from NOW. I counted six. The comic Stine, who did an encore Saturday evening, counted four-and-a-half.
Inside again, the tone remained unchanged. But in the end, I heard no political propaganda, no advice to call your congressperson. No gay bashing. No anti-abortion themes. Promise Keepers’ official stance is that women are equal to men and it has no position on abortion, no candidates to endorse and no political agenda to pursue. Spokesmen categorically state that PK is not politically motivated, has no affiliation or “formal flow of cash” to or from Falwell or Robertson, and welcomes all men, including gays (okay, they might have to repent a little, but they are welcome). I scoured the bowels of the Arena and found no wife-beating workshops, only a bullpen bookstore with Christian music, hats and other PK paraphernalia, and of course lots of books with themes like how to love your wife unconditionally, spend money wisely and similarly wholesome topics.
Forget the religious themes for a moment. Maybe these PK guys really are just a bunch of dirty rotten liars. Maybe there is the stealth, the hidden agendas, and the “strident cultural messages muted to a point of inaudibility.” Or how about downright non-existent? What, then, is the rock of offense?
These conferences would hardly compel anyone to go home and vote Republican. But if a man relies on God and takes personal responsibility for his life and those around him, as he is urged to do by PK, he is probably not likely to be hoodwinked into believing that government shall supply all his needs according to its riches and glory and the wishes of the Democratic party, nor be fooled by any like statist mentality or liberal ideals — nor harbor any confusion about what civil liberties really mean. Is this the real bee in NOW’s bonnet?
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