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Countering the Promise Keepers: Practical Methods (part 2)

By Mike Doughney and Lauren Sabina Kneisly


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. We continue our exploration of the ideology of the Promise Keeper movement and propose several methods of explaining and exposing the more disturbing aspects of the PK agenda, with a particular emphasis on showing how much of that agenda is abhorrent to most Americans.


The Promise Keepers movement, while identified in the public consciousness as a series of large stadium events, is far more than an organizer of these assemblies. Rather it is a means of promoting an ideology, and a set of rituals and standards. As we described earlier, the Promise Keepers milieu provides a means of control and supervision, the glorification of the small group and the "accountability relationship." Certainly these rituals and practices may be offensive to many, as an intrusion into an individualís privacy and autonomy and as a perpetuation of values often viewed as abhorrent. But it is not, strictly speaking, the use of these values or practices, inside the group, in and of themselves that is most objectionable. It is the projection of those values and practices, as some kind of universal absolute standard, onto the rest of us, without our consent, that is unacceptable to most Americans. It is a movement whose vocabulary doesnít even contain the word "consent."

We propose, therefore, that an effective critique of the Promise Keepers, or of the Biblical America movement (of those who seek to impose an exclusively Biblical standard on American governance and society), not be exclusively centered directly on the PK value system. Instead, the critical focus should center on how PK views most everyone who doesnít share their viewpoint as an adversary to be conquered, exposing language that betrays plans for future action against groups of people rather than that which expresses privately-held beliefs. Other people of faith are among the groups targeted by Promise Keepers and the modern evangelical movement, and the exposure of PK attitudes towards other Christian churches who donít climb on the PK bandwagon or buy into the need for aggressive evangelism may also serve to form an effective response. The overall aim is to create awareness that a broad swath of American secular and religious society is, in the Promise Keeper milieu, seen as an enemy to be conquered and subdued.

The evolution of the modern evangelical movement, of which the Promise Keepers are but one recent manifestation, is marked by efforts to define and differentiate the evangelical from the traditional Christian and from the rest of society. A key development in this process was the popularization of the "church growth" movement in the early 1970ís. The ideology of church growth insists that it is not enough for Christians to go out into the world and do good works, and in the process, attract people to their church. Instead the primary function, for them, is to convert as many people as possible to their particular system of belief through evangelization and the growing of numbers, fulfilling the "Great Commission" to "baptize all men" and thus insuring their own salvation, both individually and collectively. Success for the growth-oriented evangelical is measured by the expansion of churches, the tallying of the conversions of new members, while all other considerations, even those of "morality" or of human welfare, are secondary, and subservient to, that growth. Eventually the church-growth strategy evolves into one of overtly asserting "dominion" over all men, a development marked by the growing activism of evangelicals and their involvement in political activities.

This emphasis on growth is not, for them, merely a different strategy; growth oriented methods are understood to be mandated by God, and that any church that doesnít adopt church growth strategies is not fulfilling its mission as a church in carrying out "Godís will." Further, obedience to the "Great Commission" and its manifestations Ė exponential growth, missionaries, high birth rate, heavy indoctrination for children and teenagers, and ubiquitous Christian media Ė become the very definition and measure of "church."

Donald McGavran, who is credited by many as the father of the "church growth movement," is explicit about how churches that donít buy into the church-growth imperative should be viewed. McGavran wrote in 1970, in the widely-used evangelical textbook, "Understanding Church Growth:" "The congregation which is not engaged in proclaiming Christ to men and persuading them to become His disciples and responsible members of His Church, may be a religious club, but it is not the Body of Jesus Christ. His Body [the church] is filled with His Spirit and engaged in finding lost men." This activity is not limited to that of a professional class of pastors, but becomes the responsibility of every church member.

Evangelism as a fundamental lifestyle is codified in the seventh promise of a Promise Keeper, that one must "influence his world" through obedience to the "Great Commission," that is, to baptize all peoples. There is no implied respect for other religions here, nor for atheism; there is no limit, expressed or implied, on actions that may be taken against those who disagree, or against anyone whose beliefs are not just like theirs.

The connection between the church-growth movement and the Promise Keepers is also evident in that most if not all the PK leadership has been drawn from evangelical churches that have fully implemented the church-growth paradigm, heads of churches that have themselves grown rapidly through lay evangelization.

The objective of setting up menís ministries and a key man in every church by the end of the century, then, is not simply for the purpose of discipling men. It is to set up a standard by which churches and individuals can be sorted and identified by this particular, evangelical definition of Christianity. Churches that havenít bought into the model of aggressive evangelism and church growth fueled by the training of lay people will be targeted for change, or labeled as something other than a "church" as McGavran did three decades ago.

At the individual level, a similar process of "friend or foe" identification is also at work. Despite the demands for purity and certain acceptable forms of behavior, it is not private behavior that differentiates the Promise Keeper man from the rest of society. The hallmark of the Promise Keeper is, first and foremost, participation in the "small group" and involvement in an "accountability relationship" with other men, an arrangement in which no right to privacy about oneís sexual or financial matters is recognized. Professed agreement with a "statement of faith," membership in a particular kind of church, or endorsement of a particular set of views and activities are not the unique values promoted by Promise Keepers, nor is it even that an individual must always be pure in thought and action without fail. It is instead the discipling relationship, the accountability relationships among men, which is paramount in the PK milieu that then result in a particular set of acceptable choices. Promise Keepers leadership insists that there be no "Lone Rangers," that all men must be accountable to others through a small-group structure.

Again, as with the evangelical disparagement of churches that havenít bought into the church growth model, individuals who havenít bought into the small-group, discipling model are in various ways seen as something less than fully Christian. There is no concept here of equality among all men regardless of faith, or even among Christian churches that may differ on the particulars or goals of their work on earth. There is, of course, little to no room in this model for those who donít even consider themselves to be Christian.

Promise Keeper leadership is often careful about what they say about non-Christians and those who do not endorse their movement. A certain amount of reading between the lines and decoding of the language is necessary to begin to understand how they view their adversarial role against the rest of the world. Whatís easier to see are the responses of individuals who identify themselves as Promise Keepers, and how they express themselves.

For example, weíve received numerous e-mails from Promise Keepers whoíve read articles from our website. These messages seldom address our concerns, or in any way question the facts as weíve presented them. They take instead, the form of the standard queries that the lay evangelist has been taught to use to begin the process of conversion, questions in the form of, "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" It is not enough for them that, as fellow human beings, we have witnessed things about this movement that we think are disturbing, and choose to write and inform others of our concern. It is as if any critique is by definition invalid if the writer doesnít share their personal spiritual experience that exactly matches theirs. We are used to hearing this line of argument from members of small, destructive cults; we seldom, if ever, see arguments of this nature from members of established denominations.

This attitude is directed towards all people who donít share the evangelicalís faith, and forms the basis for what we call, "holy racism." Promise Keeper speakers envision that, through faith and practice, that they are creating a new "race:" "We are one in Christ, one body, one race, one new man." There is an implied assumption of superiority for their group, a race of "Godly men." Today it would be impossible to create a large movement along true racial or ethnic lines that proclaimed its superiority, racism of this nature being generally unacceptable in American culture. They have instead artificially created a group that, in attitude and practice, considers itself a "race" and practices a "racism" against all people who are outside this group. The immediate dismissal of all criticism by outsiders, demonstrated by the first response to criticism often being of the form of the evangelicalís "diagnostic question" to determine where the critic stands in relation to the group, betrays the value that these "holy racists" place on the values and lives of those different from themselves, which is of course, very little to none.

The key here is to ask the right questions of Promise Keeper participants, and to listen closely to the coded language that they use, particularly when the subject turns to "spiritual warfare" and the identification of "enemies." The Promise Keepers endorse the "spiritual warfare" concept; it can be found, among other places, on their web site. Any discussion of "spiritual warfare" among evangelicals eventually refers to the sixth chapter of Ephesians that contains, in the Promise Keeper-labeled New Testament translation distributed at the Washington DC assembly, this statement: "We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world." For those who engage in spiritual warfare, then, any resistance that they may encounter is not that of thinking human beings, but is instead attributed to imaginary spirits. Could there be anything more "racist" than to deny outright the humanity of those who oppose you? How is this different from the kind of language that is used before most of the major wars of this century, to dehumanize the adversary?

Meanwhile, the definition of who or what is their "enemy" is incredibly broad. Eventually, one may ask, are all outside their group who work against them, or speak up even to express some doubt about their goals and methods, truly considered by them to be an enemy? It is this kind of question that can elicit the most interesting answers; one participant in the Washington DC assembly was quoted as saying, when asked who the enemy is, "It's anyone or anything in opposition to God." With such a slippery and imprecise definition, isnít it likely that almost anyone outside the Promise Keepers and their allies will eventually be seen as an "enemy?"

Here lies what we think is an effective means to raise awareness of the Promise Keepers agenda, and to promote understanding of the fact that Promise Keepers, along with the broader Biblical America movement of which it is but a part, is not in any way benign. It sees all opposition as coming from something other than thinking, flesh-and-blood human beings; it projects its belief that "God works through men," concluding with the concept of Satan working through their adversaries. Magical thinking becomes a part of their everyday life, negative incidents become spiritual attacks from demons. In this climate there is no simple disagreement, nor an acknowledgement of the variation among individual consciences; people are just pawns of Satan for them.

Ultimately any individual or group that doesnít share their particular understanding of "Godís will" is dismissed as unworthy of consideration. Queers, abortion providers, and feminists are not the only groups that are the targets of this movement. Almost any individual who dares speak up against any part of their agenda, who is not identified as one of them through a profession of faith and an "accountability relationship," is a potential target; and this group encompasses much of American society. It is through placing a focus not on the Biblical American viewpoint about certain groups, but on how they view anyone who is not part of their movement who even questions them, that their agenda may eventually be derailed.

One other defining characteristic of PK and Biblical America may also be used to weaken their standing among mainstream Americans. The ever-present apocalyptic worldview, that insists that no matter how good things are right now America is headed for destruction, does not play well, we think, among most Americans, particularly since many if not most statistics about crime, the economy, and even today, teenage pregnancy do not in any way support their pessimism. In a letter to the Washington Post in 1994, a Promise Keeper summed it all up in one sentence: "Robbery is up, assault is up, rape is up, spouse abuse is up, child abuse is up, sexual molestation is up, teen pregnancy is up, births out of wedlock are up, and divorce is up." When the quality of most Americanís lives has improved and shows no signs of declining, itís not difficult to debunk many such pronouncements of impending doom.

It is this insistence that America is about to be destroyed unless Christians assert themselves, reestablish Biblical law and mend a "broken covenant with God" that is one of the primary motivators of the Biblical America movement. It is based on selective perception, on a manipulation of statistics and sensationalism, carried out by leaders such as Pat Robertson through their media. Robertsonís news feature segment on his "700 Club" program is but one example. Stories that are designed to engender fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the audience fill much of the airtime, while stories that might support the popular view that living conditions are, for the most part, improving in this country seldom appear. And the stories that center on subjects like drug abuse, urban poverty, and crime are not centered on developing strategies to actually deal with these problems, but are instead used to perpetuate their myth that only a takeover of government and society at all levels by Christian activists advocating their faith-based solutions would cause positive change.

Most of the materials produced and distributed by Promise Keepers leadership are vague as to how they plan to accomplish this changing of American society to suit their aims. They do occasionally make it clear that the sanitizing of America by some means is definitely a part of their agenda. While couched in magical language, one example can be found in the Promise Keeper booklet, "A Revival Primer:" "Wouldnít it be something if America became a clean, vibrant, holy place? We cannot make it happen, but our God can! He has done it before!" While a statement such as this may imply that such changes would be as the result of a direct "act of God," seldom is real change attributed to direct divine action. Instead, the implication is that God works through individuals, and that such a cleansing of society, as described by many evangelicals, is only possible when they achieve "dominion."

It is this notion of "dominion," that Christians must rise to power and that only Christians are fit to rule the nation, that is the ultimate aim of this movement. Perhaps what we see today is best explained by starting with the premise that the entire purpose of the Promise Keepers and the Biblical America movement is to achieve "dominion," to set up the conditions for a Christian-led revolution. How then, could such an "army of men" be motivated in peacetime? By creating, through their own media, this myth of impending destruction, supported by scriptures that are always interpretable to suit any agenda or movement of the time. Note that this movement is not targeted at the poor or lower classes, among people who are most affected by crime, drugs or the usual named plagues of today. It is targeted at the relatively well-off and usually white suburbanite, at people with a great deal of leisure time, wealth and that nagging feeling that even though they have it "all," something else must still be missing. The allegation of everyday atrocities, in their constant propagandizing against abortion, figures in as a key piece of this strategy.

The challenge for todayís activist, then, is to raise awareness of these issues, to ask the right questions to obtain answers from both Promise Keepers leadership and their participants that reveal their extremist agenda. Mainstream America can be shown that a revolutionary movement exists among us, that its methods, tactics and goals are completely unacceptable to most Americans. This movement is fundamentally in direct conflict with some of the basic values Ė independence, self-determination, freedom of conscience Ė to which the success of this country has always been attributed. Establishment of the mythical Christian nation, based as it would be on the power of an oligarchy of "godly men" and the politics of inquisition, would inevitably cause the decline and fall of this nation as we know it. Success in countering the Promise Keepers and the broad movement of which it is but a small part rests on exposing the true agenda of this revolutionary movement, and how it is targeting not just a few groups or issues but the welfare and values of most Americans.


Originally webpublished January 20, 1999

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