Promise Keepers Rally

       I hear the phrase “licentious and perverted sexual practices” and look up, half expecting to see one of those grainy sex-ed training films from the ‘50s that MTV sometimes runs, alongside clips from Reefer Madness, as evidence of how far the culture has progressed in the past 40 years. But the man on the screen looks disconcertingly modern, as do the half-million or so Promise Keepers he’s addressing. I’m only about 100 feet from the event, watching it live on television, but from where I’m sitting, inside the press tent, it seems like another country. “Many of you are addicted to pornography,” the preacher is saying. Wow, I think, there’s something you don’t hear every day. I look around the tent to see if anybody else is watching.
       No one is. A couple of print reporters are hunkered down over their laptops, tapping out stories about an event that won’t be finished for another five hours. A few others are reading the paper. Just as the preacher on the screen says something about “mind-boggling sexual depravity,” I take a look at the guy next to me, a radio reporter, who is rooting around absent-mindedly in a bag of Rold Gold pretzels and watching as a female volunteer in a Promise Keepers baseball cap and snug jeans walks past. The radio reporter has fixated on her butt, his eyes following intently as the hemispheres rise and fall. He has a distant look on his face, almost like shell shock. Clearly the message on the screen isn’t penetrating.
       It’s a different story outside, where the first thing I see when I get to the Mall is a group of about a dozen men sitting on top of an enormous steel construction-site Dumpster, their heads bowed in prayer. Somehow it’s a startling tableau. Of all the behavior one anticipates running into in downtown Washington, public prayer is about the least expected. I’m as sympathetic to prayer as anyone, but even I have to remind myself that these people aren’t crazy. There are all kinds of men here–Christian bikers, pudgy middle managers from the Middle West, a surprisingly large number of black men–but all of them look devout. Most carry Bibles and wear T-shirts with devotional slogans. At least one has “God Rules” tattooed on his forearm. It’s a reminder that for all the talk of politics and gender roles, the Promise Keepers are engaged in pretty straightforward Christian evangelism. Most of the day’s program could have been hosted by Billy Graham (who, in fact, delivered a message by videotape).
       The most dramatic deviation from a standard tent revival comes about midway through the afternoon, when a speaker tells the men to take off their hats and lie on the ground. “Get down as low as you can go,” he commands. “Get down on your face.” Many do. The man in front of me slides out of his wheelchair onto his knees and proceeds to burrow his nose into the dirt. On all sides men are dropping and getting prostrate. The Mall is virtually silent. The speaker begins to pray. Forgive us, God, he says, for ignoring our children, for being thoughtless and inattentive to our wives, for being lazy, weak and bullying, angry and unfaithful. For being so focused on our work that we shortchange those who love us.
       It’s quite a litany of apologies and I’m scribbling furiously to keep up with it, when suddenly it occurs to me that some of what the speaker is saying applies to me. In a flash I feel bad about myself–bad, as the Episcopalians put it, about things done and left undone. It’s obvious that just about everybody else feels the same way. On my way back to the press tent a few minutes later, I nearly stumble over a man sitting on his haunches under a tree. His head is down and his lips are moving. He’s still repenting. There is a Winston smoldering in his fingers. It has burned down almost to his knuckles, but he hasn’t noticed.
       Making men feel temporarily bad about themselves is a big part of why the Promise Keepers have been successful. Many men, for good reason, feel guilty about neglecting their families in favor of their jobs. Others have graver sins to worry about. Promise Keepers operates under the assumption that repentance is good. And they’re right.
       A lot of women’s groups, of course, don’t buy any of this. All the rhetoric about being better husbands and fathers, they argue, is merely a cover for an agenda that would make men more controlling husbands and fathers. Outside the rally, on the lawn beneath the Capitol, a heavy-set woman, wearing what looks like a paper crown from Burger King, leads a line of marchers through a crowd of confused-looking Promise Keepers. The women, one of whom is topless and has Keep Abortion Legal stickers pasted over her nipples, are singing “When the Dykes Come Marching In” at full volume. These are the shock troops of the Lesbian Avengers. They have gathered with representatives of Transgendered Nation, as well as with both members of the Utopian Anarchist Party, to protest the presence of the Promise Keepers in Washington. There aren’t many reporters around to record the moment, but the marchers shout their slogans undeterred. “Long live promiscuity,” yells one Avenger. “These people are extreme,” says another, pointing to the stage behind her.
       Toward the end of the day, I wind up sitting next to a reporter named Tania Unsworth, who has been sent to cover the event for the London Sunday Times. Unsworth used to write the sex-advice column for the British edition of Cosmopolitan (she says she made up most of the letters, by the way), so presumably she knows something about men. But she is baffled by the amount of self-flagellation she has seen today. All that business about being sorry for your sins, “they laid it on a bit thick, I thought.” “Come on,” I say. “Men are pigs. If you only knew what was going through our minds a lot of the time.” A strange look comes over her face. “I’m a woman,” she says. “I can’t afford to think about it.”