The Promise Keepers Catch 22

WASHINGTON -- Just before last weekend's Promise Keepers rally, a coalition of feminist groups met with news crews to issue challenges to the men massed nearby on the National Mall.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence made a very specific request.

"It is essential for the leadership and membership of the Promise Keepers to speak out against all acts of family violence and sexual assault, as well as to reject attitudes that too often fuel such violence," said spokesperson Pamela Coukos.

Three hours later, a Promise Keeper leader stressed that it is time for men to stop committing the same old sins.

"Two of them must end today. When it comes to marriage and family -- no more abuse and no more abandonment," shouted Bruce Fong of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, during a six-speaker segment of the rally dedicated to such issues. "The Bible is very clear. ... A husband should love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave his life for it. It's very simple, very clear. Battery is not included."

But there's a problem. Feminists can't hear these appeals because they are linked to calls for husbands to serve as the spiritual leaders of their families. It's this simple: one side believes that traditional Christianity can heal the wounds in homes today; the other is convinced that Christian tradition is the root cause of the suffering.

So the more the Promise Keepers say one thing, the louder their critics chant that they mean exactly the opposite. It's a Catch 22. For example, the movement's leaders keep trying to avoid partisan political statements. To critics, this only proves the Promise Keepers are both dishonest and dangerous - the Christian right flying in stealth mode.

"Why has a multitude of men from almost every city in the United States ...come to our nation's capital?", asked Promise Keepers President Randy Phillips. "Is it to demonstrate political might? No. Is it to display masculine strength? No. Is it to take back the nation by imposing our religious values on others? No. ... When it comes to politics and faith, we confess that we have had too high a view of the ability of man and too low a trust in the sovereignty of God."

To which the left responds: there they go again.

"Deceptive and carefully conceived," said a statement from the Center for Democratic Study, "Promise Keepers attempts to mainstream its image by using a seductive vocabulary of male-only self-improvement, opposition to religious `denominationalism,' and an alleged commitment to racial 'reconciliation,' to advance the strategic political agenda of the Christian right."

The historic "Stand in the Gap" assembly in Washington, D.C., offered ample proof that Promise Keepers is primarily a religious phenomenon. Yet secularists and the Christian left are correct when they say its message has political overtones. There's a reason for this: America's most divisive political issues - such as abortion and the redefining of marriage and family -- center on questions of religion and morality.

Using relentlessly biblical language, speaker after speaker told those packed onto the Mall that the sins of modern men have produced millions of abandoned, abused and aborted children and a climate of sexual confusion that is wrecking homes and marriages. Promise Keeper's leaders called for repentance and urged the church to act.

Trouble is, "sin" and "family" are now fighting words, especially when spoken with the U.S. Capitol looming in the background. However, the Promise Keepers coalition includes men with ties to the Religious Right and many from groups -- primarily black churches -- that historically vote Democratic. Increased efforts to reach conservative Catholics and mainline Protestants will add variations on the movement's morally conservative themes.

Maybe this really is about "guilt and grace, shame and forgiveness, repentance and resolve" and men striving to change, said church historian Martin Marty, in the New York Times. "Is it not possible that this sprawling movement is, in its present expression, as benign and as simple as that? ... Instead of seeing a threat, we should listen for what is really bothering the men. Perhaps this most recent 'muscular Christian' phenomenon is sincere at its core."