Some 17,000 males fill Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., screaming, praying, cheering and singing. Despite first guesses, this isn't the regional rally for the Log Cabin Republicans. This raging crowd of testosterone is here for the Promise Keepers conference. Yes, it's PK that men-only, Christian organization whose stated goal (according to Fred Ramirez, director of U.S. Ministries for PK and organizer of today's event) is "to have men lead better family lives, to be better fathers, better husbands, men of the church, men who live their lives according to God's law."
PK appears to be a wholesome group it wants men to take part in the family and be good husbands and fathers, preaches racial unity and claims to have no political agenda. However, this assertion seems a bit suspicious as I walk around the stadium and see booths promoting creationism, Christian groups whose mission is to convert Jews to Christ and a mutual fund company that screens out businesses that support abortion, same-sex marriages and affirmative action. The decor reminds me more of a reactionary assembly of fundamentalists than an innocent gathering of concerned dads.
The obvious question, of course, is where are the women?
"They're here," insists Ramirez. "There are over 200 women here. Women are always a big part of our team. If you go in the back here, you will see women working. If you go outside, you'll see them working as well."
A few women do the chores while men attend to their business sounds straight out of an episode of "Leave it to Beaver." Ramirez then explains that PK is only for men because they're not living up to their responsibility, which is to take charge of the family.
"A man is the leader, yes," Ramirez tells me. "But he is in leadership to serve his family."
This would be the "enlightened despot" form of patriarchy. Dad is a benevolent king, not a tyrannical dictator. Nope, no signs of religious conservatism here.
Keeping the faith
Brian Donovan, sociology professor at KU, has done extensive research on the Promise Keepers.
"Their gender rhetoric advocates a soft form of power for men," he explains. "The message is 'moving forward by stepping back.' Maintain control in family. They are doing so through a back door or passive route."
OK, so PK wants men to be the leaders, but why can't husbands and wives just lead equally?
"They have different roles," Ramirez responds. "The Bible points out that men are responsible for leading their families. They have to protect their families both physically and economically. The women's role is that of a nurturer, the glue that keeps the family together."
I guess that means no more touchy-feely fathers. According to Donovan, Promise Keepers think that men are strained by blurred gender norms and that Christian men need to embrace the traditional role of the strong, rational male.
For PK, contemporary messages might leave modern-day Beaver Cleavers stuck choosing between Boy George and John Wayne for a role model. In this case, perhaps neo-Wards need to send their Beaves to the Promise Keepers "Passage" gathering for young males this December in Columbus, Ohio. A poster for the event urges the "next warriors for Christ" to "get your sword off the shelf" and participate as "20,000 teen GUYS find out what it really means to become MEN."
Despite any vivid images wrought by the notion of 20,000 boys "getting their swords off the shelf," PK like most of the religious right isn't a fan of homosexuality.
"We love the homosexual," Ramirez counters. "But God has clearly indicated that it is not a lifestyle which is according to the biblical principles."
What can gay Christians do then?
"We believe that God can change you from homosexuality," Ramirez states. "We truly believe that it is a choice. All habits we do are choices, whether we live for God or not, whether we are homosexuals, whether we have an adulterous relationship, whether we steal. Through the power of God we can change."
Ah yes, the sinful trinity of homosexuals, thieves and liars. I wonder if they serve equal time in hell.
Ramirez goes on to explain that PK wouldn't even endorse companies giving benefits to partners of gay employees. Denying loved ones health insurance? Doesn't sound very Christ-like to me. While Ramirez gracefully tip-toes around any offensive language, PK founder Bill McCartney has referred to homosexuals as "an abomination to the Lord."
PK has been getting straight-As on the religious right test so far. What about their much-lauded promise No. six, which seeks to break down all racial and denominational barriers?
"White men, black men, Asian men, men of all colors, creeds and congregations, all those under Jesus Christ can be united under the blood of Jesus Christ," elaborates Ramirez.
While perhaps minorities and whites are allowed to bathe equally in Christ's blood, what does this have to do with the problems associated with racism: unequal incomes, job discrimination, persisting neighborhood and school segregation and the massive incarceration of minorities?
"They promote racial unity without exploring underlying causes of racial inequality," Donovan says.
PK's "non-political" environment really becomes suspect with the presence of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, a right-wing Christian group that makes no qualms about wanting to turn the United States government into a promoter of its fundamentalist version of Christianity. These people are so hardcore that they actually advocate the return of corporal punishment in public schools.
Not surprisingly, Gary Rosenberg, marriage counselor and Focus on the Family speaker, is on the arena's stage as a featured lecturer. Ramirez clarifies the relationship between PK and right-wing groups like the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family by stating, "They are sister ministries."
That clears up any doubts I had about the Promise Keepers' intentions. PK's warm and fuzzy version of fixing the family through patriarchy avoids the extreme diatribe of other right-wing boy's clubs, but it's still the same fundamentalist promise.