A new church of the macho Jesus

Last Friday night, a crowd of more than 60,000 men descended on the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The vast majority of them were middle class, clean-cut and casually dressed. It was obvious from their faces that they were pretty excited about something. At regular intervals throughout the evening, they cheered with jubilation, did the wave and shook their fists in the air. And they spent wads of cash on T-shirts and other souvenirs.
None of this is all that unusual for the Metrodome on a Friday night. What was strange, though, was that neither the Minnesota Twins nor the Vikings were playing, nor was there a competent rock band anywhere in sight. You might be wondering what could possibly draw thousands of red-blooded American males from their bar stools and TV sets on a Friday night other than a rock concert or live sporting event. The answer, I’m sad to report, is something called a Promise Keepers rally — sort of a cross between a Christian revival meeting, a professional football game and a fascist mass demonstration.
For those of you who haven’t read a newspaper in a couple weeks, Promise Keepers happens to be the hottest religious movement in the country. Founded by ex-University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney, the organization’s ostensive aim is to encourage men to commit their lives to Jesus Christ, remain sexually pure and reclaim their roles as fathers and husbands. Like many a political and religious crusade before them, Promise Keepers uses the time-tested technique of the mass propaganda rally as a central means of disseminating its message.
Usually set in enormous football stadiums, Promise Keepers’ all-male gatherings feature Christian music, prayers, chants, speeches from born-again professional athletes and a steady stream of incendiary preaching dished up by frothing-at-the-mouth ministers. The staging of these events is carefully orchestrated to push participants toward a state of uncontrolled, ecstatic frenzy. By the conclusion of a typical rally, the men in attendance have become so overwrought and emotionally vulnerable that they’re ready to submit to and obey just about anyone. They scream. They shout. They cry. From the video footage I’ve seen, the scene looks like something out of a docudrama about life inside David Koresh’s Waco compound.
Indeed, Promise Keepers’ powerful combination of mass catharsis and male bonding is catching on with cult-like speed. Though the movement has only been around since 1990, last year 600,000 men attended Promise Keepers’ rallies in 13 different cities. The group’s official magazine, New Man: For Men Of Integrity, claims a circulation of approximately half a million. This year, the group intends to hold gatherings in 26 cities around the country and hopes to double last year’s attendance. With an annual budget of $65 million and a paid staff of 310 full-time employees, the group has the resources to pull it off.
Whenever hundreds of thousands of people get together to engage in orgies of religious fervor — even for the noblest of purposes — it’s cause for concern. But that’s not the only reason to be terrified by the explosive popularity of Promise Keepers.
To begin with, the movement espouses an uncompromising patriarchal ideology. The group’s manifesto, The Seven Promises of the Promise Keeper, urges men to take back their role as the natural leaders of the family. And it tells the women unfortunate enough to be married to Promise Keepers, “For the sake of your family and the survival of our culture, let your man be a man — if he’s willing.” Behind this affirmation of male authority is, of course, the fairly common conservative idea that the growing independence and self-sufficiency of American women in recent years is somehow to blame for everything from juvenile delinquency to the much ballyhooed collapse of the family. Never mind declining wages or teen-age unemployment. Forget the injustices of racial and gender oppression. The way Promise Keepers sees it, once male authority over wayward women and unruly children has been restored, street violence, teen drug abuse and divorce will simply disappear.
As befits the authoritarianism inherent in their vision of the family, Promise Keepers’ stance on sexuality is severely puritanical. Like most on the Christian right, it advocates chastity for the unmarried and marital fidelity for the wed. And like other reactionary Christians, it sees abortion not as a legitimate medical procedure, but as murder. But the movement’s leaders save their most strident rhetoric for their frequent denunciations of homosexuality. Whenever the topic of sex is discussed at their rallies, it is usually framed in terms of morally coded binary oppositions: purity versus pollution, the natural versus the deviant and the normal versus the pathological. Not surprisingly, anyone who enjoys a sex life that diverges even slightly from the norm of strict heterosexual monogamy gets classified as irredeemably pathological, depraved and impure by Promise Keepers’ preachers.
In the past, McCartney has distinguished himself as a particularly virulent homophobe. According to Freedom Writer magazine, McCartney is on record as saying, “homosexuality is an abomination against Almighty God” and that gays and lesbians are “stark raving mad.” Moreover, McCartney sits on the advisory board of Colorado for Family Values, which sponsored the notorious Amendment 2, a referendum passed in 1992 that deprives gays and lesbians of legal protection from discrimination in the state of Colorado.
Though Promise Keepers is not at this time officially involved in politics, it has strong ties to the Christian Coalition and other right-wing Christian political groups. The possibility that McCartney will steer his zealous hordes into the political arena in the near future is chillingly real. Indeed, rumor has it that Promise Keepers is planning a million-man march on Washington of its own for 1997.
Before Adolf Hitler came to power, liberal Germans scoffed at his movement, at his Brown Shirts and his ridiculous pep rallies and torchlight parades. Despite his burgeoning following, they refused to believe such a buffoon was capable of taking power. When the Nazis finally triumphed, those same Germans refused to believe they would act on any of their grotesque plans. By the time the police state was installed and the persecutions had begun, the Pollyannas could no longer deceive themselves, and, of course, by then it was too late.
Let’s not make that mistake with Promise Keepers. Sure, for now its just a bunch of fanatical Christian tough guys holding spirited meetings in huge sports stadiums. But isn’t that the way the Nazis started?
Steve Macek’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.