Frame Game

Promise Keepers 1, NOW 0

Promise Keepers 1, NOW 0

On Oct. 4, hundreds of thousands of “Promise Keepers” assembled in Washington, D.C., to praise Jesus, repent their sins, and pledge to take charge of their families and communities. Nearby, protesters from the National Organization for Women chanted: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay! Born-again bigots, go away!” Usually, the media sympathize with this particular criticism of conservative Christians, but not this time. How did the Promise Keepers succeed where the religious right has often failed? By framing old stereotypes in new ways.

1. Control vs. responsibility. NOW’s chief rap on PK is that it tells men to take “leadership” at home. This connotes unequal power, a no-no among rights-based liberals and feminists. But leadership has two sides. PK plays down the power aspect and plays up the opposite aspect: male responsibility for domestic tasks. This drives a wedge between communitarian and rights-based liberals, isolating NOW from its usual allies.

PK also argues that the “biblical” (as opposed to “secular”) meaning of leadership is service and that the Bible, while instructing wives to submit to their husbands, also instructs husbands to submit to their wives. This has led to the bizarre spectacle of scriptural debates on TV chat shows, in which PK spokesmen and NOW president Patricia Ireland argue chapter and verse. PK wins not by refuting Ireland’s exegesis but by displaying subtlety in its own–by arguing, for example, that a true leader recognizes his wife’s talents and takes the initiative to help them flourish. The viewer comes away persuaded that PK is much more open-minded than the Christian Coalition. Conversely, by showing no flexibility, Ireland comes across as though she’s against the missionary position.

2 Misogyny vs. masculinity. Critics accuse PK leaders of crusading against “the feminization of man.” True, they goad men to action by accusing them of acting like sissies. But they also teach that masculinity lies in moral strength, not in money, power, or stoicism. They preach vulnerability, humility, contrition, intimacy, sharing, weeping, tenderness, and surrender. They deride “machismo.” Humility, they say, includes letting your wife pay the bills if God gave her better math skills than you and letting her pursue the professional dreams God planted in her. Which explains why Ted Koppel has compared PK founder Bill McCartney, a former football coach, to Alan Alda.

3. Segregation vs. self-help. As with Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March two years ago, feminists have assailed PK’s “exclusion” of women. But McCartney frustrates this criticism by differing from Farrakhan in two ways. He has made racial inclusion a central project of PK, and he has stipulated that gender segregation must be a temporary means toward integrating and reconciling the sexes.

McCartney’s rationale for temporary segregation draws heavily on liberal themes. Men, he argues, have been culturally uprooted and stripped of their identity. They need space to protect and repair themselves. This argument combines the religious right’s standard defensive posture (we’re not imposing our values; we’re just protecting them from assault) with liberal gender protectionism (e.g., girls should be educated separately from boys so as to free them from cultural pressure) and multiculturalism (men must preserve their unique masculine culture).

According to Coach McCartney, women dominate church attendance and have their own Christian support groups, whereas PK is men’s only refuge. Men won’t open up and cry in women’s presence because it’s not “safe.” They need the company of buddies to assure them of their masculinity so that they can break down without feeling like sissies. This message has induced some liberal pundits to call the Promise Keepers pathetic, thereby undermining NOW’s portrayal of them as dangerous bullies.

4 Materialism vs. idealism. In politics, practical benefits usually beat principle. Most women feel less oppressed by their husbands’ pretensions to authority than by the work that falls to them because of their husbands’ neglect. PK leaders have won over many women and assuaged feminist pundits by addressing the latter problem. “Be first to the dryer,” they tell men. “Turn off the television and empty the dishwasher.” They instruct fathers to spend more time with their kids and to forswear adultery, abandonment, and domestic abuse. PK routinely embarrasses feminist critics by producing testimony from women who love the way PK has transformed their husbands’ behavior.

5. Condemnation vs. compassion. Opponents make much ado of PK’s injunctions against abortion and homosexuality. Ireland has lambasted McCartney for speaking at Operation Rescue rallies years ago and for promoting a Colorado ballot measure that would have restricted laws protecting gay rights. Usually, the media view these positions as mean, but PK leaders take a softer approach. They never speak of gays as an organized threat. And when asked about homosexuality, they always subsume it in a general rule against extramarital sex.

6 Reproach vs. repentance. For decades, feminists have criticized moral conservatives who blame women for untimely pregnancies and abortions. Now along comes PK to blame men. Instead of advocating legislation against abortion, PK instructs men to stop having sex outside marriage and to stop pressuring their wives and girlfriends to have abortions. To critics who construe this as an attack on abortion rights, PK’s defenders paraphrase the liberal slogan that NOW famously applied to abortion: “If you don’t like Promise Keepers, don’t marry one.”

The Promise Keepers talk far less about abortion and homosexuality than their critics and the media do. They’re more interested in spiritual self-flagellation and renewal. Their ventures into social topics focus on alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, adultery, divorce, illegitimacy, crime, and urban decay.

7 Puppets vs. persons. NOW accuses PK of being too friendly with the bad boys of the religious right: media mogul James Dobson (who gave PK its initial seed money and promotes it on his radio network), Pat Robertson (who promotes PK on television), and Gary Bauer (who heads the Dobson-backed Family Research Council). PK denies engaging in politics with these men, but Ireland says PK is acting as their “religious-right marketing tool.”

Far from protecting PK’s reputation, the boys keep trying to get inside its blouse. PK President Randy Phillips urged men at the Washington assembly to set aside politics and focus on God, but Operation Rescue and the FRC showed up to distribute pamphlets. The FRC invited the men to sign petitions for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, thereby adding their names to its political database. Others who have signed up for PK have subsequently turned up on Republican mailing lists.

8 Imperialism vs. enlightenment. Even if PK isn’t in bed with the religious right, many liberals predict that its commitment to restore traditional morality will inevitably draw it into right-wing politics. The group’s military culture plays into this indictment, as do Coach McCartney’s hideous sports metaphors. Men, he says, have “dropped the ball.” They need a “halftime” pep talk and a new “game plan.” They must defend morality “like offensive linemen protecting the quarterback.” Many of the group’s speakers and supporters are prone to using Christian war metaphors: “battleground,” “army of God,” “civil war of values.” This kind of talk spooks most folks.

PK spokesmen emphatically deny a political agenda. They describe the group as a “revival movement” aimed at changing hearts, not a “reform movement” aimed at changing laws. They point out that they postponed the Washington assembly from 1996 to 1997 to avoid getting embroiled in last year’s election. Unlike the Christian Coalition, they don’t keep a membership list, and they expect to disband when God decides that PK’s revival mission is complete.

In this dispute, tone matters more than content. PK needs to show less of its macho side and more of its sensitive side. So its leaders have begun to play down the war metaphors. They have turned the other cheek to NOW’s attacks. In Washington, they asked the assembled men to pray for the country’s political leaders instead of judging them. They have also instructed the Promise Keepers to seek civic assignments from their local pastors, not from the movement’s elite. “We stop short of prescribing what that agenda should be, because it’s beyond our competence,” says PK’s vice president.

By projecting this kind of humility, PK puts its critics in the posture of aggressors. Ireland’s hair-trigger charges of intolerance have backfired, convincing the media that NOW is intolerant. Ireland persistently denounces PK for “excluding anyone who is not Christian”–roughly equivalent to denouncing a synagogue for confining its membership to Jews. NOW’s objections to the PK lifestyle have prompted some journalists to question where NOW gets off second-guessing women who embrace that lifestyle.

By now, it’s clear who has won the war. Many feminists, including the president of the Ms. Foundation, have expressed sympathy for the Promise Keepers and an interest in coaxing them toward gender equality rather than opposing them. NOW’s vice president, in retreat, says NOW was only trying to “educate” people that PK isn’t purely benign. Ireland complains that PK spokesmen won the war because they’re “slick,” like Ralph Reed. Actually, they won because they aren’t. They admit ignorance and error. They answer no-win questions. They listen to criticism and openly contemplate changing their ways. If they were selling anything but integrity, they’d be a disaster.