During the seven-year history of the Promise Keepers, their roaring football stadium rallies have attracted 2.6 million men, resolving to take back the leadership of their families and reclaim the nation for God.
Who are these men? Just good old-fashioned guys seeking a way to live in a modern world? Or, as critics claim, men whose prescription for a better world is merely a retreat to biblical chauvinism?
Hundreds of thousands of Promise Keepers are expected to gather here in Washington on Oct. 4. They will be seeking the safety in numbers not only to shout, but to pray, hug and weep. And this will definitely be a guy thing, said Bill McCartney, the group’s founder and former University of Colorado football coach. “There’s going to be a lot of guys here,” he said. “We’re going to worship an extraordinary guy.”
To religious scholars, there is nothing new about the Promise Keepers’ display of holy machismo. In fact, it is seen as the latest strain of a movement known as Muscular Christianity, which has long been bent on convincing the American male that prayer isn’t wimpy.
Margaret Bendroth, a religious historian, feels as if she has heard this all before.
“I’ve studied revivals held 100 years ago,” said Bendroth, who teaches church history at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass. The message was the same then. Prayer “was a manly thing. It goes way back.”
Since the late 17th century, women have far outnumbered men in religious settings, said Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College in New York.
The trend continues today. In a recent Gallup Poll sponsored by the Princeton Religion Research Center, 47 percent of women said they had attended a church or a synagogue in the last seven days, compared with 37 percent of men.
Despite the fact that the hierarchy in most churches is male, women wield immense power in the lives of America’s churches. They keep the books, choose the pastors, teach the Sunday schools and answer the phones. They are the living voice of the church throughout the week.
Since the days when men left the farms to work in the cities, women have been tending matters of home and spirit. By the time of the Victorian era, religious historians say, roles and worlds of the sexes were clearly divided. The marketplace was seen as sinful, a place for men. The family and faith, on the other hand, were havens from the world, “feminized,” said Bendroth.
But for generations, there have been drives to call men back to God.
“The Promise Keepers is merely the latest in a series of attempts,” Balmer said. There was the “Businessman’s Awakening” of the mid-19th century, persuading the men of Wall Street to pray. At the turn of the century, the Men and Religion Forward Movement advertised its “religious campaign for the men and boys of America” in the sports pages of newspapers. Evangelist Billy Sunday, a baseball-player-turned-preacher, declared Jesus “the definition of manhood.”
McCartney preaches the same to the Promise Keepers. “A real man,” he tells them, “is a man’s man, is a godly man.”
But McCartney sees a shortage of these guys in America. He blames a general faithlessness for violence in the streets, addiction, abortion and out-of-wedlock births. “Many - perhaps most - men see church as a place for women and children, ” he wrote. “More and more men are becoming disconnected from any moral vision.”
Before he quit coaching in 1994, McCartney said he himself neglected God and family for football. His daughter had two babies, out of wedlock, by members of his team. His marriage languished.
“I had been directing my own life without reference to God,” he has written. “Many men today are doing exactly the same thing I did.”
Admirers and critics alike credit McCartney with a particular genius for speaking to the anxiety of conservative Christian men trying to find their place in a world changed by feminism and multiculturalism.
In books and in speeches, leaders of the Promise Keepers urge the men to go home and tell their wives they are taking back their role as head of the family. They say a woman’s place is to respect and submit to her husband.
That message has a certain resonance.
“It’s a little hard to understand what it means to be a man these days,” said Stephen Boyd, a Baptist minister who teaches religion at Wake Forest University.
“What’s needed from us is changing,” he said. “Many of us are at sea.”