Countering the Promise Keepers: Practical Methods (part 1)
Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly
as published in the Body Politic, March/April 1998
as published in the Body Politic, March/April 1998
While many people are uneasy with the Promise Keepers movement, attempts to counter the PK influence are frustrated by a persistent scarcity of credible criticism and effective practical methods. In the first of this series, we present an overview of the Promise Keepers ideology, its place in a broader context of a Biblical America movement, and the coercive methods used by PK that may open it up to effective criticism and scrutiny. In the next part we will propose a number of methods of countering PK in the media, other public forums, and through direct action.
The Promise Keepers movement is only one example of a variety of social, cultural and political movements that we, in broad scope, call the Biblical America movement. Each of these individual movements and organizations has its own language, customs and methods, and while each moves on its own track, separate and sometimes seemingly in opposition to others, they are all moving in the same direction.
The members and leaders of these groups may be viewed as an enormous web, enabling a constant idealogical interplay and cross-pollination. There are also several major convergences, primarily the Coalition on Revival (COR) and the Council for National Policy (CNP) which serve as a more formal method for this interchange among groups and leaders.
While many of these groups and organizations may appear to be in competition for the relatively small pool of participants, we note that what we may see as competition and sometimes open conflict may be, in fact, a process of division of labor and differentiation of purpose. Out of earshot of the public and of their constituents, group leaders converse among themselves through their membership in umbrella groups such as the CNP or through more informal methods. Each individual group or cause provides a distinct outlet for separate, and sometimes even opposing idealogies or causes, yet all are driven towards a common goal; the multitude of groups provides a wealth of opportunities for an individual to self-identify with a cause and become involved in an expression of their special interests.
In this landscape the Promise Keepers movement, connected as it is to much of Biblical America's leadership, is unique in that it provides something of a foundation. PK is not so much focused on a particular religious ideology as it is a promoter of an ideology of a certain process or set of processes. It incorporates the dominionist ideology boiled down to its bare bones, in Promise #7, for mass consumption: "A Promise Keeper is committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission," the Commandment being "love God" and "love your neighbor as yourself," the Commission being a call to evangelism. Coupled with other references in the Promises, such as those to "biblical values" and "biblical unity" in a vague context that is not specifically limited to the individual participant, their church, or the PK millieu, the stage is set for mass action, an activistic attitude that provides an underlying legitimacy and urgency to all other groups and causes that form Biblical America.
PK provides a unifying ideology, a set of promises that are bare-bones and a few easily understood points of agreement, and that completely dodges points of contention. It transcends almost all other individual movements and causes while setting up an enormous pyramid of cell-structures - the accountability groups which use guilt, fear, confession and peer pressure - "brokenness and repentance" in the PK lexicon - to ensure compliance and eventual obedience from all participants.
Fundamentally, effective countermeasures against PK must first acknowledge that the core of the Promise Keepers ideology is intended to generate an activist movement, not a membership organization that will keep to itself. PK is not benign; it is very much focused on working against the outside world and imposing a set of Biblical values; the values, and the methods used to impose them, disregard any notion of obtaining the consent of those with whom they do not agree. There is no language suggesting peacefully sharing the planet with others in the PK lexicon, only promotion of some form of spiritual warfare and conflict. At no time are there guarantees that such conflict will not take some form other than 'spiritual.'
For this reason we've adopted the slogan, "Never surrender, never submit!" We must first understand, and spread the word, that Biblical America does not use compromise as anything other than a tactic to gain ground. Its leaders will not accept anything other than complete victory, and they are quite convinced that through their actions they will emerge victorious. Their thinking is similar to that of cults that predict an immediate end of the world, that are not dissuaded by setbacks or obvious failures. Events of all kinds are always re-interpreted as being in support of their movement, manufactured crises are created to anneal the movement, and few, if any, things dissuade them from their pursuit. Therefore, compromise, or any submission to their demands, never results in resolution of the war, only the end of a single conflict.
While the meaning of our slogan may be rather obvious on the group or social level, it has another dimension on the individual level. Freedom of conscience is ignored in the Biblical America millieu; the right to disagree, and to then not be further coerced and worn down until conversion results, is never acknowledged. Meanwhile, inside the PK accountability group, submission to others and elimination of personal privacy through the demand for purity, enforced by the laying open of the most intimate details of the individual's life through confession:
(from the Key Man & Ambassador Handbook)
In the context of such covenant relationships, a man willingly grants other men the right to inquire about his relationship with God, his commitment to his family, his sexuality, his financial dealings, and his relationships to others (believers and non-believers).
We believe that such submission to others as a method of control - the abusive nature of the shepherding/discipleship relationship, exploited by religious and political cults the world over - is dangerous in an environment completely devoid of controls or limits. A movement that is completely convinced of its superiority and ultimate victory as foretold in their reading of the Bible has no such limits, and is potentially incredibly dangerous both for its participants and society.
Opening up the PK participant to control through discipleship is also accomplished through rituals designed to manipulate through guilt and fear. Along with the abovementioned demands for purity and confession, other devices are used, such as the myth of racial reconciliation. PK rallies are not a place of reconciliation, or even of getting to know others around oneself - all eyes are on the stage or the Jumbotrons, participants are encouraged to bring radios with headphones and shut out any one-on-one interaction. Talk about racism - while not actually doing anything about it - is manipulated to generate feelings of guilt over one's past actions, as part of a purification process. People of color are icons, as if "being one who brings one" (as it's said in the PK racial reconciliation statement) somehow entitles the bringer to a "get out of racism free" card. Such practices are an affront to churches and people who have actually worked toward true racial justice.
Another device is provided by the promise to "build strong marriages and families." The expectation is that one's family relationships will conform to some cartoonish, Biblical ideal, with the man in charge, the wife submissive, and the children compliant. Again, this unattainable ideal offers more opportunities for the generation of guilt; seldom does an individual's life match the ideal. PK stands against divorce and abortion, and guilt is easily created in those men touched by either. PK stands against homosexuality, while men struggle against their own queerness, that of their children, or of those around them. The list of means by which guilt and shame may be manipulated to exert control is limitless and ever-changing.
Other methods of control are sometimes less obvious. In recent weeks we've learned that the Promise Keepers staff will allegedly be laid off as a result of a so-called "revenue shift." We suspect that, as has been demonstrated by other groups, this announcement is a ploy that serves three purposes. Obviously the PK leadership would prefer not to pay its staff as an economy measure, and that this "layoff" may actually play out as an effort to make each staff member responsible for their own support, be that through a sponsoring church, private donations, or the largesse of family members. This move also serves as a filtering mechanism that tests for loyalty and compliance. Staff members who are unwilling to ride out crises that may be entirely a creation of the leadership will fall away, a "lean and mean" organization may be stressed such that it is more productive than one that is well-paid and comfortable, and those who have doubts or aren't completely committed to the cause are weeded out. Thirdly, this announcement may be designed to create the misleading impression that the PK movement is ending or failing, while in fact the movement may actually be changing into a leaner, locally-focused organization, relying almost completely on local volunteers and maintaining a minimal staff at the top of a vast pyramid only for as long as it is necessary. PK CEO Bill McCartney has previously admitted that the Promise Keepers organization will not continue indefinately, and we think it likely that it will change into a flatter organization with little to any central structure.
This honing of the PK pyramid into a military-style, mission-focused organization is openly advertised on the Promise Keepers web site. The aim is to place a 'key man' into every church in the 'Body of Christ' by the year 2000, presenting a clear threat to the autonomy of churches and religious denominations that do not comply with the PK vision of 'biblical unity,' sorting churches into those that are part of the 'Body' and those that are not. A hierarchal structure, independent of any pre-existing church structure, is clearly laid out in the Promise Keepers plan: the 'key man' reports to a 'task force' of 'Ambassadors' that then report to Promise Keepers state and regional offices. This PK strategy, with a clear and unambiguous plan to extend its reach directly into every church, poses a clear threat to the stability of any church that doesn't conform to the PK party line. Eventually, churches will likely be under pressure to abandon the benign, community-oriented and pragmatic methods derided in some Dominionist circles as 'pietism,' and be coerced into adopting an activistic role centering on contentious issues such as abortion, queer rights and media control. The influence of a large number of individuals acting through local church groups may be exercised through unprecedented means, through the presence of these activists acting in concert throughout all levels of business and government.
We propose that any effective criticism of the Promise Keepers movement must be centered on documenting, explaining and analyzing PK methods and strategy, and not on vague allegations of sexism or racism which are swept away by the Promise Keepers manipulation of positive images and spokespersons. Any effective response must address the entire campaign and methods of the movement, including the military strategy and the former military leaders who have developed the strategy. The connections between the Promise Keepers leadership and the leaders of Biblical America, and their agenda, must be exposed. We must explain their methods of exerting control over compliant targets, and how they aim to coerce individuals, their families, co-workers and social groups, and other targeted populations, into compliance without their prior consent. Further, we must expose the Promise Keepers coercive and potentially destructive nature, and the implications for the participating men, churches, American democracy, and culture and society as we know it.
Copyright © 1998 BARF