Julie Barker has heard all the criticisms fired at the Promise Keepers Christian men’s movement for being a threat to women’s equality in the home.
Her experience, however, has been different.
Four years ago, before her husband attended his first Promise Keepers rally, she was looking into divorcing her spouse of more than 20 years.
But the man who came back from Promise Keepers was different. He had started thinking of other family members first and treating his wife as a friend to be listened to and respected.
So how would she respond to the movement’s critics?
“I would tell them I have never felt more respected. I have never felt more honored. I have never felt more equal,” she said.
“He’s my best friend, and I couldn’t say that four years ago.”
In the debate over whether the movement is good for women, many Promise Keepers - and their wives - say it has helped them become more sensitive to their wives and children and more likely to consider their spouses as equals.
But some feminist critics say the movement has the potential to restore and reinforce hierarchical households, where the man rules. If the men say they are more caring, critics say, many also still hold to the traditional interpretation of Paul’s biblical admonition urging wives to submit to their husbands.
“He’s really encouraged to love his wife, come alongside her, be a partner,” says Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney. “Promise Keepers do not believe it is an unequal yoke.”
Still, when compromise in a family decision can’t be reached, the man has the final say, according to McCartney.
“Almighty God ordained this,” McCartney said in a news conference before the Promise Keepers recent Stand in the Gap rally in Washington, D.C.
Mark W. Muesse, a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., said Promise Keepers has not resolved the tension over the conflicting views of gender relations.
“Sometimes,” he said, “the Promise Keepers use a rhetoric of masculinity, although their practice is one of equality.
“It’s an ambiguous movement. It has good sides and negative sides.”
For the most part, men report that they return from Promise Keepers’ events less self-absorbed, and more considerate of their wives.
“I think I’m a lot more patient. I think I have a lot more respect for her, probably more aware of her needs,” said Keith Benedict, 36, who joined a bus caravan from Minneapolis to the rally.
He laughs and adds that he is more aware of his wife’s needs “probably because I listen more. That’s the big thing.”
Harold Wheeler said he was “work, work, work” before becoming involved with Promise Keepers three years ago. With a renewed commitment to family, he said, he is having more fun with his wife of 25 years than he has had in years.
“I look at my wife as a partner, a side-by-side partner,” he said.
Wheeler’s wife, Shari, said her husband has made a conscious effort to spend more time with her, to talk about his feelings and to “really, really listen” to her.
“I think he has a lot more respect for women,” she said. “He has changed, and I love it.”