"Why are you here?" I was asked by countless people as I arrived at the Washington mall on the day of the Promise Keepers (PK) national rally. In response, I would briefly explain my situation--that I am a college professor who recently finished a book on Christian women's ministries and who now was working on a book on men's ministries focused on the Promise Keepers movement. This introduction worked quite well as a legitimator of my presence. When I gave it, I was accepted by men who willingly talked with me at length about their participation in PK men's ministries.
When I queried PK attendees regarding why they were there, I generally received one of two answers. The first was that coming to D.C. was part of a spiritual journey. This answer frequently was given by father-son, brother-brother, teacher-student attendee pairs and was coupled with an expression of commitment to bonding among men. The second answer I typically received from men was that they were there because their wives had sent them. Eventually, I concluded that this second response was something of an in-joke among Promise Keepers men. Most obviously, it was an attempt to subvert the extensively covered National Organization for Women (NOW) criticism of PK. Yet it also pointed to the dissonance those I interviewed described themselves as experiencing between NOW's claim that PK is problematic for women versus PK participants' perceptions that their spouses consider PK a blessing. Every heterosexual, married man I spoke with at the rally (and all but two fit this description; that is, all claimed to be heterosexual, but only two indicated they were single) described their spouses and children as supportive of their involvement in PK.
What was the rally like? No one answer suffices. At the level of event, it was a carefully orchestrated religious gathering organized around multiple themes that included the home, parenting, the (Christian) church, and racism. Each theme was introduced by a series of short sermons (each approximately five minutes in length). These instructional messages were followed by a related song or hymn. Then, attendees were asked to pray and confess together in small groups, and sometimes individually regarding their complicity in the topic being addressed. What did the rally mean? Again, no one answer suffices. The Washington DC PK rally was a physical and spiritual experience. It was a revelatory moment in US social-gender-race relations.
And, contrary to the disavowal of PK leaders, it was also a major political event. I will reflect briefly upon each in turn. As a physical, spiritual experience, the content of the relatively contradictory messages communicated from the platform at times distracted from the transcendent sense of place that arose among attendees. Speeches about the end-times, and the physical appearance of Jesus were a regular part of the platform fare. One speaker enjoined attendees to "look up," because Jesus could appear any second; but, the PK men sitting around me seemed to be already in a world with Jesus in it. I unexpectedly experienced a taste of this transcendence myself when, at one point I needed to leave the small patch of ground where I was sitting, and walked off leaving my briefcase to mark the spot with nary a reflective twinge [a briefcase which contained, among other things, my billfold, my money, my credit cards, and my return plane ticket]. It literally never occurred to me not to leave almost everything of value I had brought with me there on the ground in downtown Washington D.C. amid strangers and I am a seasoned urban dweller who took a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. Still while the rally was underway, this did not seem especially remarkable. In fact, it did not occur to me until late that evening to check and see whether my belongings were intact. (They were.) Though my field is religion (social ethics) and not psychology, the best way I can describe what happened is that my consciousness was altered by the ethos of the event. I was not alone in this experiencing this alteration. After the rally's conclusion, several men I interviewed indicated that they, too, had experienced a high level of physical safety as well as the lack of concern over personal property during the day, and were surprised by how natural it seemed at the time. Theoretically, I left with a new appreciation for Durkheim whose ideas of the distinct viability of the social will figure more prominently in my future analytic work.
The Washington D.C. Promise Keepers rally also was a revelatory moment in US social-gender-race relations. On the problematic side, the event raised serious questions about the state of gender relations in the US. As one who has studied the Christian evangelical subculture for years, I am aware of the extent to which gendered ministries permeate that subculture, and consider it grossly unfair that the PK movement at times has been criticized as if it alone practiced gender-separation. As those familiar with evangelicalism realize, women's participation in gendered ministries far outnumbers men's participation by a factor of at least ten to one. Yet when the PK rally is considered against the backdrop of religious rallies and revivals that regularly have marked religious life in the US, startling differences become evident. In the US, religious revivals typically have been designed around an appeal to individuals that cut through group alliances (except for the culturally-related movement of early 20th century `Muscular Christianity'). At the Cane Ridge revival in colonial times, for example, the combined presence of slave and free, women and men was deemed a sign of the presence of the holy spirit. As a men-only revival movement, PK calls attention to the disturbing social reality of how divisive gender is in our time--so much so that even people who attribute wonders to the divine do not perceive the spirit they acknowledge as possessing the capacity to overcome it. On my return plane trip, one exultant Pk'er loudly proclaimed that he hoped the D.C. gathering would be repeated each year and serve as an annual Christian [Protestant] Mardi Gras. My response was to think how troubling it is that someone could envision an annual religious celebration devoid of the presence of women, and not grasp the monumental exclusion and loss this entailed.
On the liberatory side, the rally showcased some of the most fervent anti-racism speeches of recent times. The complicity of white churches in American racism was denounced by speakers from the main podium, after which PK'ers were asked to confess their own racism and pray for forgiveness for their participation in it. Attendance at the rally could be construed as reflecting this unusual inclusive stance on race as, based on my own assessment, between 10 and 15 percent of those in attendance were people of color. When compared to the racial/ethnic composition of most religious groups in this country, the PK rally in D.C. was quite possible the most racially integrated religious event in modern times.
The claim by PK leaders that the Washington D.C. rally was not a political event is disingenuous. It is true that no overt political statements were made from the platform. It is also the case that platform speakers encouraged those in attendance who had political agendas they wished to further not to bring them up during the day. Yet an absence of overt political speech does not keep the rally from fulfilling an important political agenda. Siting the rally in D.C., on the mall made it a political event. The absence of explicit political speech at the PK rally simply made the event a blank political token that anyone could inscribe with meaning#and which group will most readily be able to inscribe this token as representing its agenda? Might it obviously be the Christian Coalition? Until Promise Keepers leaders not only insist they are not political but overtly disavow any connection with the Christian Coalition, their activities will be construed as lending support to the New Christian Right. A Washington DC rally by this or any organization is a political event, something PK's leaders should to borrow their own terminology--confess.
Now the rally is over. I am back in my smallish, assistant professor's office, teaching classes, grading papers and negotiating for the funds necessary to get my taped interviews transcribed. While the media's cultural process of digesting the rally is nearly complete, for me, it may be a year before I compose my definitive interpretation of what transpired, long after the event's "hotness" has faded away. The rhythms of knowledge associated with academic life live differently from those of the public at large, and these fleeting reflections are merely a rippling hint of the later critical work which must follow. Yet these impressions and this admittedly cursory analysis disclose some insight regarding why I was there. Like many in my field, I am driven by a keen desire to know what is going on in religious life in the US, and on October 4, 1997, it was the Washington D.C. Promise Keepers rally.
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