A Christian men's organization and cottage industry that has seen better days. They seek to mold "Godly men" who fulfill their "Biblical responsibilities" (e.g. love your wife, be the head of the family, raise your kids Right). They held rallies in stadia across the US, before the novelty wore off. Nutshell: ultra-conservative middle-class white xian males (with good intentions) preaching to the converted. If it had to come to this, then these leaders were failures to begin with.

Thinking about the Promise Keepers brings me back to the mid 1990's when I was working on my master's thesis in sociology. I wrote about the Promise Keepers website.

The Promise Keepers came into being in 1990 if I remember correctly. Bill McCartney, head coach of the University of Colorado's football team, was riding in a car with a friend. They were heading to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting and came up with the idea of filling a stadium with Christian men.

Within a year, they had done so. And the organization grew, taking in some 130 million dollars a year at the height of its growth. That was in 1996 or 1997.

During the year when they gathered on Washington D.C.'s mall, however, they received less donations and lowered stadium attendance. Nonetheless, a lot of people went to the mall--a few hundred thousand less than the million men they hoped for, but it was still a lot. And the Promise Keepers got a lot of attention for it.

They fell quickly after that.

They stopped charging a $60 fee to attend their rallies, rented smaller stadiums and still the crowds were lower. The poor men the change had been designed to attract weren't coming.

Reaching some grasp of that particular reality, the group began charging admission again.

Reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. It's attracting men to stadiums as much as ever and looks to become a stable organization. As I write this, it's only taking in some $30 million a year, but that's a long way from total destruction.

Core assumptions of the group:

    The world was much better a long time ago (the 1950's?) back when men were responsible wage earners, took care of their wives and children, and generally were involved parents and good Christians.
    Because men haven't continued to do this (women have had to take up the slack) the world is going to Hell in a handbasket.
    Racism is bad.
    Traditional Christian perspectives (if fundamentalism is traditional Christianity) are good.

Thus, the way to change the world for the better is to become involved fathers, helping their wives with the housework and children, attending churches, evangelizing non-believers, attending Promise Keepers rallies, meeting regularly with small groups of other Christian men, and buying Promise Keepers merchandise.

I encountered the Promise Keepers movement in the mid-’90s, when it was at its zenith. I was at that time in my late-thirties, and teaching a Bible study at my church on Wednesday nights. Some of the men mistook my strict adherence to dogma --which for me is a matter of intellectual integrity-- as conservatism, and invited me to help them start a PK group.

If you can read between the lines, the “Seven Promises” of the Promise Keepers will tell you everything you need to know about them. First and foremost, this is is a charismatic Christian movement. The name comes from the Greek charis (χαρις) meaning grace, favor, gift. Charismatic Christianity emphasizes spiritual gifts, gifts of the Holy Spirit. For example, the ability to preach, to explain religious ideas persuasively, is considered a gift from God.

Charismatic Christianity reverses emphases that we have taken for granted: the centrality of the rational, of calculated doing, of articulate verbal skills, of doctrine, and of things western. It does not deny nor reject these things. Rather it comes to them in unexpected ways. A charismatic Christian comes from the nonrational to the rational, from happening to doing, from experience to talk, from sign to metaphor, from spiritual gifts to utility, from receptiveness to action, from demonstration to theology, from indiginization to globalization. (Poewe, 1994)

While there are denominations that are entirely charismatic, notably the Pentecostals, elements of the charismatic movement cut across denominational lines and exist as internal movements within most mainline Churches, including the Roman Catholic as well as Protestant denominations. Within traditional Churches, the charismatic movements counterbalance written dogma and rationality, and the result has been a more lively, multi-media practice of religion, with an renewed emphasis on personal and social change.

Promise Keepers is a typical charismatic movement to the extent that it is non-denominational and anti-racist, and emphasizes personal spiritual transformation. For example, Promise Keeper stadium events conclude with the traditional “come to Jesus” event, where participants come forward to the stage or altar and publicly demonstrate (“witness”) that they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. It isn’t speaking in tongues and snake-handling, but it isn’t a Catholic mass, either

Coming from a non-charismatic religious background, such demonstrations strike me as vulgar and fake. Over the years, however, I have come to understand that they are frequently real events for people that change their lives for the better. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous works.

This brings me to the second promise: “vital relationships” with other men. There is no question that Promise Keepers fills a need, particular in men in the United States, for meaningful social interaction, dedicated to something more satisfying than drinking beer and watching sports on TV. Why it has to be only with men is a good question. In my contact with PK, hanging out with and talking with the men in church congregation, particularly one long drive to a Promise Keeper event in Denver, was the most positive part of the experience. While I had moderated some very interesting discussion groups involving these men in the course of Bible Studies, in front of their wives, significant others, and other female relatives, they will not discuss how they really feel about things, or their fears and worries. This was interesting, once. I have no abiding need, however, for group therapy.

The third promise is where my liberal leanings start getting me into trouble with PK. “Purity” seems to involve a weird obsession with pornography, and homophobia. I could even go along with the fourth promise (strengthening families and marriages) if it didn’t seem to require the obsession with pornography, or require strident homophobic and anti-abortion rhetoric.

The last few promises simply emphasize a commitment to mainline religion, which is fine, except it seems intended to cover-up PK’s weirdness. It’s like the LDS (Mormons) insisting they are Christians: yes, and something else as well.

I couldn’t make up my mind about PK, however, until I went to one of their big stadium events, at Mile High Stadium (the old one). The icon of the Denver Broncos, an enormous white and anatomically correct stallion, presided over the massive event. Mostly it was just a big revivial meeting, which makes me uncomfortable, but was not terribly offensive.

However, evangelicals have this odd habit of holding a hand in the air when they sing hymns. Picture this: a big stadium, thousands of people singing, holding up one hand in what looks like ...a Hitler salute! Suddenly I understood exactly what a Nuremburg Rally must have felt like. It freaked me out totally. I have avoided the PKs ever since.

PKs are not Nazis. They are definitely not racists. They are, however, a romantic mass movement which excludes others: women, homosexuals, non-Christians. As such I am glad to see they are slowly but surely fading away.


Poewe, Karla; Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture, University of South Carolina Press, 1994).

Seven Promises

  1. A Promise Keeper is committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God's Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
  3. A Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.
  4. A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.
  5. A Promise Keeper is committed to supporting the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources.
  6. A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.
  7. A Promise Keeper is committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (see Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:19-20 ).

Mark 12:30-31:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. (NIV)

Matthew 28:19-20

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (NIV)

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