American Atheist Home

Magazine Home

Print Edition

On Target!



Web Supplement

American Atheists

Flash Line


What's New


On Target gif.

Web Posted: November 5, 2020
Bill McCartney
Is there any sin that the angst-ridden founder of Promise Keepers isn't pleading "guilty" to?
    With marches and rallies, Americans seem increasingly drawn to the tear-wrenching forum of the public confessional, a venue which often has strong religious or quasi-religious overtones. "Confession is good for the soul," tells only part of the tale. The full quote, based on an old Scottish proverb according to the Dictionary of Quotations (Evans, 1963) admonishes us that, "Public confession is good for the soul." So, it's out of the hushed environment of the church confessional box and into the stadium or TV studio to bare one's soul and display transgressions to the types of audiences that like to watch Jenny Jones, or buy black velvet paintings of Elvis or poorly executed commemorative stamps of Princess Diana.

    Think of public confession and who comes to mind? Jimmy Swaggart crying hysterically after revelations that he was only a one-man band with a hooker in some cheap hotel room? Jim Bakker, from whom few orifices and bank accounts were safe? Let's be a bit more contemporary. Susan Powter, that pushy and obnoxious, type-A power coach and fitness guru is back in the news, telling us that behind the facade of diets, pumped-up muscle and washboard abs, she was REALLY a boozer who has again serendipitously stumbled back on the True Path, and found a cure for alcoholism which happens to have eluded the National Institutes of Health and a bevy of scientists all these years. Consider that a form of secular salvationism.

"Men wept, prayed, knelt and even prostrated themselves in supplication for hours on end as hard-shell evangelicals and charismatics pounded away with verbal salvos to their reptilian brain stems..."
    But in a more religious vein, there is a coach of a different sort, football's Bill McCartney who traded in a career on the college gridiron to found the men's ministry that has mushroomed into the Promise Keepers movement. Just last month, the PK's million man march on the Capital Mall in Washington one-upped Louis Farrakhan's Day of Atonement, and tapped into most of the same cultural currents that still run deep in the American psyche. Men wept, prayed, knelt, and even prostrated themselves in supplication for hours on end as hard-shell evangelicals and charismatics pounded away with verbal salvos at their reptilian brain stems. Then came "Coach" Bill, with his call for "prayer intercessors" and "prayer networks." Would the aliens of Carl Sagan's "Contact" have thought of all of this, had they tuned into CNN that day?

    McCartney is now back in the news, dragging his wife, family and his own past through the mud of public confession, admitting that he was a philandering cheater two decades ago when his marriage was in tailspin mode. This latest revelation broke early last week, just as McCartney's much-hyped autobiography is due out for release on bookstore and library shelves. Coincidentally, the book doesn't touch on the adulterous affair of nearly a quarter century ago, but Promise Keepers headquarters confirmed that McCartney had admitted his wandering ways to his wife in 1993.

    We wonder how the crowd that delights in dragging Bill Clinton to the metaphorical public stockade each day on talk radio for his alleged dalliances with Jennifer Flowers or, perhaps, Paula Jones will react to this latest revelation. Incredibly, in the case of "Coach" McCartney, who has made a business and altar calling of religious self-abasement, the 57-year-old salvation hustler may have turned another lemon into lemonade. The story broke in the New York Times, when Rev. James Ryle -- a Christian Charismatic who many see as the greatest influence on McCartney's bizarre, apocalyptic theological beliefs -- admitted that his friend's wife, Lyndi, suffered an emotional breakdown when she heard the bad news. But, assures Promise Keepers spin doctor and spokesman Mark DeMoss, the coupled reconciled their marriage. "This is what the Promise Keepers are all about, making a renewed commitment to the family... It just shows that Bill has been down that road of hardships," said DeMoss.

    There's plenty of good 'ol American sleaziness apparently coming our way from McCartney's autobiography, though much of it has already been unearthed in articles about the Promise Keepers movement and its founder. McCartney's only daughter, Kristyn, became pregnant twice thanks to romps with football players on the coach's University of Colorado team. That kicked off a romp with another interesting American past time, bulimia. Lyndi McCartney contributes to the autobiography, saying that she and her husband, "both turned away from our marriage... Bill turned to the Lord, and I turned toward the children.."

    We may question whether McCartney's life and marriage really are much improved since he traded in a 16-hours-a-day lifestyle of coaching linebackers and quarterbacks, for a different sort of all-consuming game whipping up men into emotional frenzies and blathering away like some kind of possessed fiend about "prayer networks" and "crossing the line" for Jesus. Incredibly, the pundits who watch Promise Keepers say that publication of McCartney's book, "Sold Out: Becoming Man Enough to Make a Difference," may even help his public credibility and stature. They're probably right.

    Ironically, the kind of religious self righteousness and self-inflated puffery about "becoming a godly man" or "taking back responsibility as head of the household" seems to depend on the underbelly of American culture for its very survival. To be redeemed, one must first fail; and that failure must now be held up high for public scrutiny and confession before one is "worthy." In this respect, McCartney -- the guy who built a $90 million-a-year evangelical road show -- isn't much different from those people who grab 15 minutes of fame and a few hundred bucks for a stint on the afternoon talk shows as "guests" where they allow themselves to be subjected to the hoots and snotty catcalls of indignant studio audiences and the prying questions of hosts. "How did you feel about cheating on your wife while you were sleeping with her sister, molesting her children, and serving as high priest in a satanic cult?" It now seems to be a requirement that before one is perceived as a good and decent sort of fellow, one must first sin, transgress and cast off the mantle of public grace and then make orations of repentance and "atonement" on the public confessional stage.

    For the religious power brokers behind the Promise Keepers movement, it is a stroke of genius. The American cultural stampede is toward this public confessional. We grovel in scandal and risque revelation, which accounts for the rise of the "tabloidization" of our news media, and our giddy fascination with the peccadillos of celebrities, sports heroes and government leaders. Bill McCartney is just the latest proof that flirtation with vice, coupled with self-exoneration and public confession is a sure ticket on the road to success, redemption, and becoming a "godly man."

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.