Promises, Promises

The Promise Keepers Stage A Tucson Revival.

By James DiGiovanna

LAST WEEKEND, an enormous, throbbing crowd of testosterone-tinged Christian zealots, the extremely manly Promise Keepers, thrust repeatedly in and out of the Tucson Convention Center, finally exploding in prayer, forgiveness and reconciliation. Who could argue with that?

The Radical Wimmin's Action Guild, that's who--a group of lesbians who staged a sweaty protest just outside, hoping to form a prophylactic barrier between the manly members of the PK and our fertile community.

The Promise Keepers are a group of men who believe that a virgin gave birth to a guy who walked around Jerusalem three days after he died. They also believe that this guy could make other dead people get up and walk around, and that he created the world in seven days, but did so centuries before his own birth. And, as George Carlin has observed, he loves everyone, but unless you follow 10 rules that he gave to a stuttering desert nomad, he'll cause you to burn in agony for an eternity. (I don't get it either.)

Feature However, those are not the beliefs to which the Radical Wimmin's Action Guild objects. No, unlike the PK's, the members of RWAG seem to have the sense of humor (their name is, in fact, pronounced "rag") needed to let that kind of foutaise slide by. What bothers RWAG is that the PK's main mission is not limited to spreading the word that you don't need a boat if you got Jesus to help you float. Rather, theirs is a men's ministry, dedicated to reclaiming the lost manliness of the North American male. They have said that many of our contemporary social problems have come about because men have left women in charge of families, and now it's time for men to take control again. Essentially, they take very literally Paul's words in his letter to the Ephesians: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands."

Understandably, this kind of thing doesn't sit well with RWAG. For my part, I wonder if the PKs also take literally Deuteronomy 23:1, which reads: "He whose testicles are crushed, or whose male member is severed, shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord." I'm guessing, based on their literature, that they take that as a metaphor.

The Promise Keepers teach that American males have been "feminized" by, yes, feminism, and that they need to rediscover their manly natures. While that kind of talk about men being men in a manly environment can be a bit titillating, there should be no mistake about the PK's unsavory position on homosexuality: PK founder Bill McCartney was instrumental in passing Colorado's anti-lesbian, anti-gay Amendment 2, which was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. That unusual bit of legislation actually would have made it legal to discriminate against homosexuals in any context, as long as the discrimination was based solely on their homosexuality. Which is to say that residents of Colorado would have had the right to fire homosexual employees, deny housing to homosexuals, and even forbid homosexuals from entering stores and restaurants. Not exactly the Christ-based ministry of love that the Promise Keepers aspire to.

WHEN ELIJAH CRANE, Agnes Geurts and Chelsea Farrar heard the Promise Keepers would be holding a rally in Tucson, they formed RWAG. While the Promise Keepers rally was the catalyst for the group's formation, they see themselves as a more general-purpose feminist/activist group, modeled loosely on the Lesbian Avengers.

When the members of RWAG announced they would be planning a protest against the Promise Keepers at a September 10 meeting at Bentley's, they drew media attention. Well, actually, by media attention, I mean that I showed up, and so did Sally Shamrell, action reporter for Eyewitness News. In spite of the fact that I was the only man there, she looked more out of place than I did. Sporting a hideous, pale blue women's business suit (basically a take on that red monstrosity that Nancy Reagan used to affront our national sensibilities with), Shamrell poked her painted face into the midst of the meeting and asked this group of self-described radical lesbian activists, "What is it you don't like about the Promise Keepers?" One wonders if the word "Duh" means anything to her.

Shamrell followed that up with, "Now, I don't know anything about the Promise Keepers--could you kind of explain them to me?" Excuse me, but if you're going to be doing a news item on a particular topic, would it hurt to do, I don't know, some research?

The RWAG meeting was otherwise uneventful, and members planned a good old-fashioned protest, including live fire-eating demonstrations.

But they weren't on hand on Friday, September 18, when the Promise Keepers began their rally at the Tucson Convention Center. More than 10,000 people jammed the TCC Arena to listen to speakers, buy T-shirts and sign up for the PK record club. (Yes, you get three CDs when you join, and 11 more for free--and it only costs $10! There's also a PK book club, where you get the first book free and then only have to buy four more in the next two years.)

The first speaker, Luis Palau, was introduced with "...and he's been married for 37 years!" This elicited more applause than McGwire's 63rd homer. Palau went on to talk about resisting masturbation and homosexual urges; the importance of reconciling black, white and Hispanic Promise Keepers; and how wives will be happy to submit to dominant men who act like Jesus. Unfortunately, he wasn't referring to the fun kind of domination and submission, so with that and masturbation both out of the picture, I was pretty sure PK wasn't for me.

But they certainly appealed to an incredibly diverse group of men. The decidedly multi-racial crowd included dozens of disabled men, a gangly young man with a mohawk hair-cut spreading his arms in prayer, bikers smelling of the manly scent of leather, Asian men, young boys, elderly men, business men, Vietnam vets--you name it, if it was born with a Y chromosome, it was there. A number of the speakers talked about the importance of overcoming racism, and the speeches were simultaneously translated into Spanish and American Sign Language. The PKs wanted to make it clear that "all are welcome and Jesus turns no one away," making this one of the least exclusive men's clubs in the history of the world.

The next morning, the speakers started at 10 minutes to 9, effectively preventing me from seeing the first act, as I have no idea what 10 minutes to 9 looks like, and I ain't gonna find out in order to sit in a room full of men. By the time I arrived, the protest was in full swing, although there were only about 10 protesters, who chanted and sang outside. (The fire-eating was nixed due to the lack of a permit.)

The Promise Keepers responded in a largely hospitable manner to the protesters. One of the speakers inside the TCC asked PKs to bring food and water to the protesters, and discouraged debate with them. One RWAG member told me that a few passersby shouted unpleasant epithets in the direction of the sign-waving RWAGsters, but it didn't happen while I was standing there. I did notice that the protesters were surrounded with bologna sandwiches, popsicles, and "Pure American" brand bottled water--presents from the PKs, all of which RWAG politely declined.

One of the security guards, a member of the PKs since '96, began to preach, calling for prayer for the souls of the protesters. While he had a fabulous speaking voice that was far better than those of the "official" preachers, what made him most memorable was the spider web tattooed on his face and the fact that he looked like he could snap a man in two without working up a sweat.

"We can't argue with these guys, but we can pray for them!" he shouted. "We can humble ourselves before the Lord! Let's get addicted to Jesus!" He was definitely more fun than the tie-wearing speakers inside, so I stayed to watch as several men took his advice and knelt in prayer, which turned into about a dozen men holding hands in a prayer circle in front of RWAG's group.

"Women have given up the natural purpose of their body," one preached in a deep and rolling voice. He added that some women, presumably the wives of Promise Keepers, were right now "getting the seed in the name of Jesus!" So that's what the kids are calling it nowadays: "Getting the seed."

The exchange reminded me that I had to piss, so I went into the urinals, where, in keeping with PK teachings, I tried not to check out the penis of the man peeing next to me.

INSIDE THE RALLY, the next speaker was going into the fundraising portion of the evening, and he noted that "right now, in the spirit of Christ, people are writing checks!" I wondered what kind of spirit Christ was in when he wrote checks, but didn't know who to ask.

It was clear that things were winding down, so I followed a BBC film crew back outside and started asking random men about their PK experience.

Most of them seemed sincere, but they weren't very well versed in Promise Keeper Bill McCartney's more objectionable work for Colorado's Amendment 2. They all tried to justify the submission-of-the-wives bit, and some claimed to not even have heard of it, though if that's the case, they weren't listening. For the most part, the rank and file of the Promise Keepers seemed like they wanted to be good people, but were stuck in a biblical literalism by virtue of their lack of critical faculties. One assumes that the leadership, however, should know better.

But the RWAGsters didn't acquit themselves all that well at their protest. They held up signs printed with profanities and shouted obscenities through a bullhorn, which only served to alienate them from any Promise Keepers who might have been interested in their message. It also made it difficult for the local news to cover their protest. I'm certainly not opposed to a little cussin', but it if the RWAG members were hoping to effectively promote their opinions, then their tactics were counterproductive and indicative of a lack of experience with protesting.

The women also held up signs accusing the PKs of racism, which, considering that the crowd in the TCC was more racially mixed than any I've ever seen in Tucson, seemed a bit disingenuous coming from the all-white group of RWAG members. While the PKs may have, at one time, been overly white, that's an issue they've addressed with some force and effectiveness. The speakers in the TCC were also very careful about not vilifying anyone, the protesters included, and preached a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, which gave them a more professional air than their detractors, who were strongly accusatory in their chants and signs. While the RWAG chants of "Misogyny has got to go," and "Homophobia has got to go," were well directed, chanting "Promise Keepers love to hate" seemed to miss the point. While the PK's were not as politically enlightened as one would hope, the great majority didn't seem to be motivated by hate, although they did show some appalling ignorance about their own organization.

Still, this was RWAG's first gig, so one hopes that with a little practice they can act more effectively, since their concerns are extremely important.

As for the Promise Keepers, they've got nearly a dozen more rallies planned for this year, and will no doubt continue their franchised ministry, selling books, T-shirts and salvation in the vendor room, while they give it away for free in the lecture room. In many respects the PK's remind me of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. They exhort men to be better fathers and husbands, and urge them to stay out of trouble, to work for their communities and to engage in charitable acts. But they also relegate women to a secondary roles and are intolerant of homosexuality. In fact, Farrakhan has endorsed the Promise Keepers, something they go to great lengths to distance themselves from. (A recurring theme in their literature is, "We did not ask Farrakhan to endorse us.")

It's a shame the Promise Keepers can't express their masculinity without being sexist and homophobic, but I guess they feel there's no other way to bring 10,000 men together without any sewing circles or circle jerks breaking out. We can only hope that most of their membership doesn't go in for the nasty politics of founder Bill McCartney, though PK leader Raleigh Washington had an ominous comment: "There is no way this group can restrict itself when it comes to public policy. We are producing leaders in this organization. They will enter the political sphere." TW

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