Promise Keepers


       You’re the second male journalist in days who has warned me that I may not be on NOW’s Christmas card list this year. Hey you guys, has it ever occurred to you that we women aren’t necessarily into that kind of my-way-or-the-highway thinking? As for Patricia Ireland’s expectations, I didn’t write the piece for NOW but for U.S. News readers, many of whom have only heard about Promise Keepers from those apocalyptic, now-I-see-the-light tales from men, which you relate.
       But in fact, you’re partly right: I did go to Denver, fresh from an interview with Ireland and armed with research from the Center for Democracy Studies, prepared to encounter Ralph Reed’s minions and their dutiful stay-at-home wives, perhaps nicely decked out in pinafores. But like you, I found the reality exposed by reporting far more complex and nuanced–on the one hand making a mockery of some of NOW’s charges, on the other partially confirming its worries.
       Of course, no pinafores were in evidence. Without exception, the Promise Keepers’ wives I talked to were strong, feisty, and outspoken; and all were working, or had jobs until writing a book or having a baby intervened. And, as you noted, half the staff at the Denver headquarters are women, as are two-thirds of the volunteers for the rallies. Contrary to an assertion by NOW, women can turn up at the rallies and even cover them for the media; female journalists don’t need to hide out in drag as Ms. magazine’s reporter did.
       Almost every tale the wives told me boiled down to one theme: Before their husbands went to Promise Keepers and had a personal epiphany, they, the women, had been oppressed in some way–in some cases beaten up physically, in others regularly put down, ordered around, or ignored. Most of their sex lives had become strained or nonexistent. All of them talked of depression, of going through life by going through the motions. And Holly Faith Phillips, the wife of Promise Keepers president Randy Phillips, even admitted flirting with suicide for years when her husband, a pastor, kept signaling her to put a lid on her opinions and musical talents lest she offend his parishioners. What struck me was just how desolate most of these marriages had been–for both parties. But in every case I encountered, the husband became less macho, more sensitive, and more apt to pitch in for kitchen duties than before.
       Just as NOW predicted, into every one of these tales crept the admission that these women had adjusted their behavior too: They had given their husbands more understanding and permission to vent, but they had also given them respect and acknowledged them as “head of the household.” Still, what fascinated me about these trade-offs was that they seemed more rhetorical than actual acts of capitulation: It seemed to be the kind of positive reinforcement for good behavior that mothers learn when fostering the social coming-of-age of–if you’ll pardon the expression–a child. I mean, isn’t every aspiring corporate climber advised to wield the same diplomacy? “Yes, of course you’re right, but have you thought about …?” In all the cases I interviewed, the women made it clear they were not “women’s libbers”–even Peggy Ruppe, the wife of Promise Keepers’ public affairs director, who had once been on the board of Louisiana NOW. But these women were also so smart and capable that, in every one of the couples I interviewed, their newly sensitive husbands admitted suddenly listening to them and, reportedly, taking their advice. Contrary to NOW’s assertions, the men were not keeping any discussion of family finances or their sex lives from their wives and bringing these topics only to their Promise Keepers’ support groups. For the first time in most of their marriages, these husbands were helping shoulder financial problems, talking them out, and praying over them. And as for sex–the women I talked to could hardly contain themselves from telling me what Promise Keepers had done for their love lives.
       But if reality sabotaged some of NOW’s assertions, it did seem to me that this newest phase of the men’s movement does have the potential to become a major political force–although not, perhaps, in the way NOW intends. Ireland warns that Promise Keepers is trying to build a conservative Christian institution that will displace denominations and churches. But in fact, the movement claims no membership lists or dues, and doesn’t seem to be pursuing that route. Instead, Randy Phillips says, Promise Keepers wants to send men back to their churches to start male Bible study groups and involve themselves in the congregation and the community. As I see it, therein lies the rub–and the real agenda: to strengthen and essentially double the membership of evangelical churches, and thus, the rosters of the nation’s conservative Christian activists. When I asked Phillips if his real agenda was to renew the country’s evangelical churches, he didn’t bat an eye. “Absolutely,” he said, as if I had finally gotten the point. In every denomination, even, as it turns out, in the evangelical tradition, women have been the backbone of the church. So many of the Promise Keepers’ wives lamented that their husbands took no interest in their faith before they went to the rallies. Now, they’re showing up on Sundays as well as for other duties. That’s clearly adding incredible new numbers and strength to the already muscular conservative Christian community. And, of course, if these men may not explicitly address political issues in their Promise Keepers rallies or support groups, there is no such nicety preventing them from doing so when they get back home and keep their pledges to become activists in the church and community. No wonder Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are standing on the sidelines cheering on Promise Keepers.
       What do you think?