Keepers of the patriarchy?

"We Couldn't Dominate Women If We Wanted To."

Salon, October 8, 1997
By Arthur Allen

All in all, it wasn't an ideal spot for a feminist frontline in the culture wars. At 11 a.m. Saturday, Patricia Ireland and a few dozen supporters of the National Organization for Women planted themselves in a triangular island of green near the U.S. Capitol, on an entrance route to "Stand in the Gap," the colossal prayer meeting of the all-male, born-again Christian group, the Promise Keepers. While feminists and a small group of atheists chanted and waved posters -- "Stupidity is Not a Family Value," "Lions Yes, Christians No," "PK [Promise Keepers] is not PC," -- wave upon wave of men, Baptists from Brooklyn, N.Y., Pentecostals from cornfield Indiana, Christian Motorcycle Association members from Texas and Godly Men of Pittsburgh solemnly washed past them toward the Washington Monument, kited out with Bibles and coolers and lawn chairs and PK baseball caps for a long day's prostration before the Lord. The "guys," as leader Bill McCartney calls them, had been up all night singing on buses and praying at rest stops across the country. It was a hot and sunny day, with a huge blue sky, and they were bleary-eyed and reverential and uninterested in confrontation. The one exception was a lone bearded dude in a cowboy hat with a leather chin strap, straight out of central casting, who paced the sidewalk shouting things like: "Jesus will set you free from the vile infections of one another!"

Promise Keepers is a contradictory jumble. Its leader, Bill McCartney, a former Colorado college football coach, would like nothing better than to build an army of God, dissolving the authority of the denominations and putting everybody in lockstep behind him and other right-wing mullahs. But for the moment, the political uses of PK are in the future tense, and its mass rallies give ardent Christians the strength of their convictions and courage to battle their own shortcomings. The left has glommed onto the fact that biblical teaching, as interpreted by PK, urges them to "take control over women," as Ireland said. But 90 percent of Promise Keepers are fundamentalists who have always believed in some kind of male-led family hierarchy. What's new about the Promise Keepers is that it echoes some of the rhetoric of feminism, especially in its most therapeutic guise. The group counsels men to deal with the reality of the two-job economy by learning they can wash the dishes, change the diapers, nurture the children and even confide tearily in male buddies without losing their masculinity. Indeed, the new emotionalism is intended to enhance their manhood. Don't be such workaholics, Promise Keepers tells men. Don't cheat on your wife, or beat her or divorce her. And when you're at home, put down the channel surfer and the newspaper and pay attention to the family.

"My wife is a physician's assistant in internal medicine and she's the least subservient, cookie-baking woman you'll ever meet," said Steve Moscoe, a 34-year-old Lexington, Ky., music teacher who sat near the stage with his integrated church group. "The idea that Promise Keepers is about dominating women is a lot of bull. We couldn't dominate them if we wanted to."

The black men I spoke with -- they made up 14 percent of the crowd, according to a Washington Post survey -- seemed generally disinterested in the political orientation of the leadership but hopeful about prospects of racial unity and community building they believed PK offered. Pat Tomlinson, a 39-year-old Presbyterian from Queens, N.Y., had also attended the Million Man March and saw Stand in the Gap as its cultural successor. "It may be that right-wing people will be in charge of Promise Keepers in certain parts of the country, but we're here because we're gleaning the good," said Tomlinson, who wore a Million Man March T-shirt and a red-and-yellow spangled pillbox hat. "You can walk up to anybody here right now and they'll give you a hug and say they love you. And that's what it's all about."

What bugs the left is that all this happens in the context of a conservative, hierarchical organization whose followers believe we'll burn in hell if we don't take Christ into our hearts. "It is a control structure," as NOW's Eleanor Smeal put it. Her anxiety isn't entirely unwarranted. On Saturday, Coach Bill, as he is known by the flock, demanded "diversity without dissension" and announced that the PK flock, one or two million strong, or however big it is, would be herded into 10,000 local accountability groups organized by churchmen trained at central PK meetings. "Nobody goes outta here without the same plan," Coach Bill said. The next stage, he explained, would be for hundreds of thousands of Promise Keepers to join male ministries in community activities like the much-publicized repair of a dilapidated D.C. school building by PK volunteers on Friday. Coach Bill insists that PK isn't political, but the school repair was nothing if not brilliant politics. D.C. schools, which opened three weeks late this year because of colossal bureaucratic bungling, are not an unfair symbol of the bankruptcy of urban Democratic political machines.

This worries NOW's Patricia Ireland, who described the group as "ominous" and said that when she looked over the mall, "I see mailing lists." During a prayer for unity, as hundreds of thousands of men lay bowed on the Mall lawn, some weeping as they clutched wallet-sized photographs of their wives and children, I stood with Frederick Clarkson, a PK-watcher who has written a book warning of its religious-right affiliations. "All this sounds very ecumenical," he said, "but it isn't. This is just a group with one version of the truth attacking other people's versions of the truth." Clarkson believes that the PK "key men" -- the PK shepherds whom Coach Bill is calling into action on a local level -- will come into conflict with some local pastors, in effect dividing those churches. Maybe yes, maybe no. None of the "key men" I talked to were fighting their ministers. About a third of the guys on the Mall seemed to be former drug addicts or alcoholics or had done time in jail. They had a lot to repent for and politics was the last thing on their minds. I joined a group of leather-clad Bikers for Christ as they knelt in front of a Jumbotron TV screen near the Air and Space Museum. Here I found Gilles Charles Auguste Debuisser, a 47-year-old, Paris-born reformed biker -- "Frenchie" to his pals -- and one of the more unusual individuals I have ever met. Frenchie, a pot- bellied fellow with a full brown beard, spoke with a lisp and looked like one of the more hallucinatory self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh. He said he was here to thank the Lord for delivering him from a life of sin, and to pray for help because his family was barely getting by on a two-earner income of $40,000 in Edgewood, Md. He couldn't afford medical insurance and felt the whole system was working against him.

Suddenly, he began to speak of frogs. "They found mutant frogs in 48 states," he said. "Frogs with extra flippers, no flippers, legs on their heads, eyes on their legs. What that tell you? It mean that time as we know it is going to change." He spoke for a while of the apocalyptic predictions of Nostradamus and the Aztecs, then fixed me with his piercing blue eyes and added: "You might think I'm crazy, and maybe I am a little bit. But it's a thin line between crazy and wise."

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