Promise Keepers


       Only two days ago, I had the biggest blind date of my life–a rendezvous with those 800,000 Promise Keepers on the National Mall–and you’re right: Already it seems like, well, like yesterday’s story.
       The numbers were impressive–those staggering aerial shots gave a sense of vastness impossible to grasp when stuck, sweaty, cheek by jowl in the crowd–and the organization was praiseworthy. But perhaps the coverage was anticlimactic because in many ways the event itself seemed to be. The sort of emotive epiphanies you reported from previous football-stadium rallies just didn’t appear to materialize on the Mall beneath a blazing sun more likely to produce heat stroke. Maybe it was the fault of the sheer numbers, or the demands of the flesh. As speakers with voices trembling urged men to repent for abusing their wives, neglecting their children, and abandoning their aging parents, I found myself threading my way through the crowd jammed onto the grass, where a goodly number of would-be Promise Keepers were snoring contentedly through that stirring summons. Nor did it appear to be changing the lives of the hundreds who were shuffling by me and the equally oblivious lineups at the wall of Porta Pottis.
       As for no traces of political connections showing up on the talk shows, maybe, as they say, you had to be there: In the midst of that massive throng, who should turn out to be standing squarely in front of the media enclosure beneath the stage but a handful of congressional movers and shakers eddying around the stellar presence of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Idaho’s Republican Sen. Dirk Kempthorne. None shrank from the media spotlight. According to Lott, in fact–and contrary to earlier protestations of apoloticality from the Promise Keepers’ hierarchy–the politicians had been invited up on the stage. “We said, ‘No, we don’t want to go onstage,’ ” Lott told me. ” ‘We want to be out here with the men, praying together.’ ” Surely the savvy senator would not have been mistaken about such an invitation to the dais.
       Still, even down among the crowd, the worlds of spirituality and politics seemed to intersect in a curious fashion. Struck by the stellar political presences in their midst, dozens of Promise Keepers tapped Lott and Kempthorne to autograph their souvenir “Stand in the Gap” softcover Bibles. The politicians seemed to feel no compunction about fulfilling this puzzling task, inscribing the front flyleaves of the Scriptures just as any author on a book tour might. In one, Lott penned a request that mirrored an address from the stage: “Pray for us,” he wrote, “in our positions.”
       Looking at the crowds, I was struck by the extent to which the Promise Keepers’ message of racial reconciliation had taken hold–perhaps their most politically significant contribution. And I was reminded that, while interviewing President Randy Phillips in Denver, he admitted that a considerable amount of the group’s mail had come from unrepentant men protesting that very message. After one rally, a typical letter arrived at Denver headquarters raging, “I drove 200 miles to hear that junk!”
       But I was also struck by the organization’s failure to advocate reconciliation with another prominent segment of male American society: gay men. That thought struck home when, after the rally, I hopped a flight to Chicago and found my seatmate was a Promise Keeper on his way back to California. Joe, as I came to know him, was a born-again Christian who had been raised as a Catholic, but referred to his parents as non-Christians. He urged me to read the Bible for the inerrant word of God and insisted that it made clear there were no gray areas of life, only black and white. One of those black-and-white areas, he said with certainty, was homosexuality–a subject to which he had given no small amount of thought. His own sister, he admitted sadly, was gay and, although he loved her as a person, he said there was no doubt she was a sinner. Homosexuality, Joe knew, was wrong. The starkness of that opinion reflected Bill McCartney’s own pronouncements, and his vociferous support for Colorado’s abortive anti-gay amendment. It also reflected an anecdote in the book by Randy Phillips’ wife, Holly Faith Phillips, about a married man whose homosexual dalliance led to a public scandal–an anecdote pointed out to me as evidence that the Promise Keepers are in no way homophobic. After all, the movement member asserted, Promise Keepers helped the man to see the error of his sinful ways and returned him to heterosexual domestic normalcy. Reconciliation, it seems, has its limits.
       On that note, I agree: Let’s leave the Promise Keepers in peace for a while and check in on them again, perhaps in a year. Then we may be better able to judge whether they are just another sociological flash in the pan or a spiritual force still to be reckoned with.