Back in the 1990s, some observers speculated that the Promise Keepers (PK), an evangelical Christian men’s group, would spearhead a new wave of Religious Right activism.
It didn’t happen. The organization, founded by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, was known for holding mass rallies in sports stadiums that attracted hundreds of thousands of men. For a time, it looked as if the group really might sweep the nation.
But that peak was impossible to sustain. For various reasons, Promise Keepers went into decline. The organization, based in Colorado Springs, once had 345 people on its staff. It now has 28. Its budget, which reached $30 million 20 years ago, now stands at $2 million. Promise Keepers’ current CEO, Ken Harrison, is an unpaid volunteer.
Veteran religion reporter Adelle Banks of Religion News Service wrote an interesting story July 31 about Promise Keepers’ hopes for a comeback. The group held a virtual rally Friday and Saturday that a reported 500 U.S. churches agreed to simulcast. The event was translated into Spanish and a few other languages.
In the late ‘90s, many of us who monitor Christian nationalist groups were curious as to what Promise Keepers were all about. Seeking to get a better understanding of this movement and its goals, I attended a June 1997 PK event at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C. At the time, there was a lot of talk about the Promise Keepers “going political.” After attending the two-day rally, I concluded that they didn’t really need to do this because they already were. (I later wrote about the event in my 2000 book Close Encounters with the Religious Right.)
During the rally, I heard the same messages I’d been hearing at Religious Right events since 1988: LGBTQ rights must be curbed. Because it is God’s plan for women to submit to men, husbands should run households. The Bible, which is to be read literally, provides answers to every issue we face. Contemporary culture mocks Christianity.
Twenty-three years have passed, but things don’t appear to have changed for PK. Banks reported that the schedule for the weekend Promise Keepers event included a session featuring My Faith Votes, a group whose honorary co-chairmen include U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas and unsuccessful presidential candidate – yet Harrison denied that the group is wading into politics. (Several speakers, however, are affiliated with far-right politics, among them David Barton, a notorious Christian nationalist pseudo-historian who’s one of the backers of Project Blitz, which seeks to pass right-wing legislation in the states.)
“We are not going to take on politics in any way, shape or form,” Harrison said. “But some of the things we do, talking about justice, standing up for justice, people will come to their own political conclusion.”
To me, it’s 1997 all over again. When PK men spend two days hearing a constant bombardment of right-wing culture war messages, they really don’t need to be told explicitly how to vote. Chances are, they can figure that out for themselves.
Will this work? Can Promise Keepers rise again? Call me skeptical. PK is offering a product that fewer and fewer Americans want. At a time when racial justice is a growing concern, PK has little to say about this issue. (Indeed, some observers believe Promise Keepers went into decline in the late 1990s because its leaders began talking about the need for racial reconciliation. The conservative, white, evangelical men who formed the group’s base weren’t interested and drifted away.) At a time when increasing numbers of Americans support LGBTQ rights, PK remains homophobic. At a time when women’s rights are on the upswing, Promise Keepers tells women to stay home and follow the guidance of “godly” husbands. At a time when America is more diverse than ever (including growing numbers of Americans leaving religion altogether), PK remains wedded to a vision of the nation mired in the 1950s.
While the brand of far-right, “he-man” evangelism offered by PK still has adherents, it doesn’t represent our nation’s future. That’s a significant challenge to any sort of comeback the group wants to mount.
Photo: Men gather for a 1997 Promise Keepers event in Washington, D.C. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Protest Photography via Creative Commons