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    God's Mighty Men:

    The Promise Keepers Rise UP
Conrad F. Goeringer
Their prayer rallies in stadiums now implore hundreds of thousands of men each year to “Take responsibility” in their god-mandated roles as husbands, fathers, heads of households, and leaders in society. They define their organization as a “Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world.” The PROMISE KEEPERS movement is the nation’s fastest-growing religious group - and is promoting a reactionary theocratic social agenda. 

With its theological roots and links to extreme charismatic, apocalyptic beliefs, its penchant for spectacle, and its promotion of a totalistic ideology which seeks to manipulate and control the psyches of its followers, Promise Keepers is precariously close to being a cult.

The images have become familiar ones in the pages of news papers and magazines and in the glow of the televised evening news - throngs of men packed into stadiums and other sports venues raising their arms in unison, praying, embracing each other, crying, and listening to hours of preaching. The crowd is mostly white. Many are men who have brought their sons for this emotion-laden spectacle. There are no women to be seen, except those operating the concession areas. There are hours of emotional preaching, exhortations for the men to humble themselves and submit their wills to Jesus Christ. The speeches are often laced with sports rhetoric: "crossing the goal line," "carrying the ball." At the end of it all - sometimes after two days of wrenching prayer, confession, crying, grieving, and sermonizing - the men are told to go back to their families, churches, and communities and make a determined "commitment to godliness." 

Sidebar: Promise Keepers and the Dominionist Mandate.

It is a rally staged by Promise Keepers, the nation's fastest growing religious movement - which to some resembles a bastard child of the religious right and the NFL Superbowl. The sports metaphors are no accident. Promise Keepers began seven years ago, when University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney supposedly had a vision of males flocking together in stadiums "to honor Jesus Christ and learn more about becoming men of integrity." The vision came at an opportune, if ironic time in McCartney's own life. It was in shambles. "Coach" McCartney - as his players and, now, his Promise Keepers devotees enthusiastically call him - admits as much in his autobiography From Ashes to Glory. His daughter became pregnant due to a liaison with his star quarterback. On top of that, McCartney's climb to the pinnacle of football collegiate coaching had been at the cost of years of neglect of his own wife and family. Years later, his autobiographical musings would describe battles with drugs and his own inner demons. From Ashes to Glory - a hot seller at Promise Keepers rallies and in Christian bookstores - was his attempt to "open up, to expose myself to the world for what I really am... I'm an ordinary guy with an extraordinary God."  

In 1990, the "ordinary guy" with a handful of supporters and key religious-right leaders started a movement known as Promise Keepers.  

From vision to reality

Years later, McCartney's "vision" of throngs of "men at risk" - turning their lives over to Jesus in a charismatic soap-opera drama of spectacular proportions - had become a reality. In 1991, McCartney attracted a mere 4,200 men to a prayer rally in a basketball arena. The following year, 22,000 shows up for a Promise Keepers meeting in Boulder's Folsom Stadium. Six stadium rallies took place in 1994, including a prayer-fest at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis which attracted 62,000 of the cheering faithful. In 1997, Promise Keepers events - not even including a monster "Solemn Assembly" scheduled for October in Washington, D.C. - will probably draw over one million participants. 

In all of these stadium spectacles, the few women permitted into Promise Keepers events maintain their status as a "ladies auxiliary" staffing the concession and sales areas. After plunking down $50-$60 for registration, PK-ers can still keep their wallets open for copies of the group's manifesto, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper. Written by a minister named Tony Evans, it exhorts men to: 

    Sit down with your wife and say something like this: "Honey, I've made a terrible mistake. I've given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role." 

    ...I'm not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back... there can be no compromise here. If you're going to lead, you must lead... Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead! 

    (From the chapter: "Reclaiming your manhood")

The Seven Promises is published on behalf of the organization by James Dobson's Focus on the Family group. Dobson is one of a number of religious gurus tied to the Promise Keepers movement. Focus, with its $100 million annual budget and estimated 600,000 supporters, remains a key force on behalf of "family values," combating gay and abortion rights and defending the need for prayer and corporal punishment in the schools. 

Promise Keepers enthusiasts can also subscribe to the organization's magazine New Man, or pick up other books or pamphlets including Coach McCartney's autobiography. They can also wander back to the packed stands, where PK speakers declare that wives should "submit" to the will of their husbands, or urge men to "build strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values." There is also plenty of what The Nation describes as "warm and fuzzy rhetoric" where the mostly white audience is urged to move toward "reconciliation" with blacks and other ethnic groups. 

Predictably, the reaction to the Promise Keepers phenomenon runs the gamut from the effusive support of Pat Robertson's 700 Club to the more critical insights in The Nation, or even The New York Times. For investigative writers Joe Conanson, Alfred Ross, and Lee Cokorinos, Promise Keepers represents "The Third wave of the religious right," the fruition of a process that began with Jerry Falwell's now-dormant Moral Majority movement (the First Wave) and continued as the more politically sophisticated efforts of the Christian coalition (the second Wave). Indeed, many of the movers-and-shakers behind Promise Keepers represent a less pragmatic approach to the political gamesmanship carried out of Capitol Hill and in state and municipal bodies as well. The Christian Coalition has come under fire from some former religious allies who feel that it has "sold out" to professional politicians inside the Republican Party. James Dobson has expressed his reservations about the Christian Coalition strategy of working within the "big tent" of GOP politics. 

But most of mainstream journalism has dealt only with the most superficial aspects of the Promise keepers phenomenon, ignoring nagging questions about the group's potential involvement in mass politics, or minimizing the homophobic, antiwoman rhetoric of the group and its leadership. Laura Flanders took her fellow journalists to task in a recent issue of Extra! contrasting the different coverage of Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March (a hidden agenda? racist manipulation?) with the more credulous observations made about the Promise Keepers, such as claims about racial "reconciliation" or the statement that the group had a "chivalrous" attitude about women. Even less is understood or unearthed about the ideological and theological roots of the Promise Keepers, or the kinship of its leadership with some of the most extreme Dominionist, Reconstructionist, and bizarre charismatic movements on the religious landscape today.


Cultic Qualities and the Dominionist Mandate

In researching the theological foundation, structure, and origins of the Promise Keepers movement, it became apparent that the typical categorizations that abounded in mainstream media did not adequately describe what this organization truly is. Promise Keepers is more than a fundamentalist or evangelical reaction against the rise of feminism in modern culture and the changing nature of gender and families. It is something beyond the scope of previous politicized religious movements, something more than a Third Wave of the religious right. While groups such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition made no bones about their political character, Promise Keepers vehemently eschews such a label.  The organization has certainly attracted the support and interest of traditional religious right stalwarts like James Dobson and Pat Robertson; but the leadership of this movement is, in a way, more dangerous. It is firmly identified with extreme evangelical charismatic sectarianism, where the polished political savvy of a Ralph Reed and the Coalition are sacrificed for a more blatant, even martial "spiritual warfare." The structure of Promise Keepers, by its own admission, is that of an army of God. If this is indeed a "Third Wave" of religious righteousness, Promise Keepers then isn't so much an open and inclusive political movement, but an aggressive "army" which in its rhetoric, totalistic philosophy, and theological roots borders precariously close to cultism. 

I have coined the term paracultic to describe the essential traits, the deep structure of the Promise Keepers movement- which I believe comes very close to being a cult. What paramilitary organizations are to military organizations, paracultic organizations are to cults. In the case of Promise Keepers, there are several characteristics or assumptions which, in my opinion, constitute compelling evidence of a dangerous paracultism. 

• Cultish admiration and worship of a strong leader 

Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney began making his public career not simply as a religious-right rabble rouser, but as a football coach. He is referred to throughout the movement by the label Coach, and his success as the organization's founder led to his being named "person of the Week" last year on ABC News. At Promise Keepers, McCartney's persona often eclipses other speakers. Not surprisingly, his charged rhetoric is laced with sports metaphors, undoubtedly a holdover from his days as one of the most successful coaches in college football prior to his 1994 decision to resign from the game and proselytize full time. 

• The use of mass spectacle as an instrument of proselytization 

The fact that Promise keepers stages its events in athletic venues like stadiums has evinced surprisingly little curiosity from the media, other than to suggest that the athletic ambiance is a familiar one to many American males. Mass spectacles of any kind alter the psychology and behavior patterns of participants. Individuals become part of the mass. Stadium spectacles can suppress any critical faculty in persons who have become anonymous components of a massive group. Albert Speer recognized the compelling potency of mass spectacle in orchestrating the Nuremberg rallies for Hitler and the Nazi Party. Mass spectacles ranging from tedious mechanical parades to enormous stadium and arena rallies have become a perfected art form for totalitarian regimes. One thinks of the choreographed performances honoring "the great leader" not only from the Nazi era, but in later authoritarian and totalistic societies such as Stalinist Russia, China, Korea, or Albania. Regardless of the explicit ideology, such mass spectacles inevitably carry an implicit message of suspension of individual consciousness, subordination to "the greater," and induce a sense of being immersed - or swept along - in a cause, program, ideology or belief greater and more important than one's self. One is humbled both literally and metaphorically before "the greater" - be it an ideology, god, movement, or all three. 

• Construction of a "totalistic" ideology 

Promise Keepers shares with many fundamentalist and evangelical Christian groups the premise that the Bible is an absolute and total guide in governing all aspects of individual and group behavior. The frenzied spectacle of Promise keepers rallies with hours of chanting, praying, and near-belligerent calls for repentance and submission serve to "break down the walls" (a famous PK slogan) of individual resistance in order to construct a "godly man." The totalistic ideology, however, continues in follow-up environments. Promise Keepers "huddles" continue the process of "breaking down" and "constructing" by pressuring members to participate in "accountability groups." Journalist Russ Bellant ("Promise Keepers, Christian Soldiers for Theocracy," Front Lines Research, May, 1995) notes that in such groups, these "godly men" are "expected to submit all aspects of their lives to review and rebuke. Each member must answer any probes concerning his marriage, family, finances, sexuality, or business activity." 

A Promise Keepers national coordinator in charge of these "accountability groups" has noted, "I can go home and maybe still be the same guy after a [Promise Keepers] conference. But if I have another guy calling up, holding me accountable, asking 'How are you treating your wife? Are you still cheating on your income taxes? Are you looking at your secretaries with lust?' it makes a difference. I don't think a woman would get in my face, go toe to toe with a guy, whereas a guy could tell me, 'I don't like it. And if you don't listen to me, I'll punch your lights out.' Something like that." 

• A Manichaean division of the world 

Promise Keepers is more than a revolt against the blurring and disintegration of traditional gender stereotypes. It is a reaction against the problematic and conditional aspects of modernity itself. The movement's ideology bifurcates the world into moral absolutes based on a literal interpretation of doctrine. Despite the claims of Promise Keepers leaders that their movement is "spiritual," there are distinct social and political implications of such a Weltanshauung, where the religious doctrine of Dominionism compels followers to become "spiritual warriors" in "renewal" and "taking back" the institutions of society. PK evangelist Tony Brown, for instance, tells the godly men that there is to be "no compromise" on authority in the home, and that women should submit "for the survival of our culture." 

• Suspension of skepticism, critical judgment, and disbelief, and the pressure to conform 

Along with the rhetorical bombardment of rallies and "accountability groups" (a feature found in paracultic groups like the Vineyard Movement and the "Shepherding-Discipleship" sects), Promise Keepers submerges followers in a closed system of belief which offers simplistic, vague solutions to complex problems. Nowhere is critical judgment or thinking emphasized: rational thought is replaced with slogans and terminology borrowed from tent-evangelism and mass media advertising. "Mega Wake-Up Calls," "Everything You Need to Know" seminars, calls for "reconciliation" or "Building Men of Integrity," and fixation with "the mystery of the Gospel" are substituted for reasoned discourse. Followers are implored to Stand in the Gap! or Break Down the Walls - phrases supported with Bible verse rather than clear, definitive explanations for what they supposedly (or really) could mean. 

• Fabrication of a "Crisis" or "Last-Days" Mentality which defines the actions of the group. 

Promise Keepers rhetoric and materials are laced with terms and ideas popular in the "spiritual warfare" circles of fervid evangelical and charismatic groups. Apocalyptic thinking - the sense that one must labor frantically as a predetermined timetable of events unfolds - often serves to unify tight-knit religious groups. Varying degrees of such "end times" phobias have been found in cults as diverse as Peoples Temple, Aum "Supreme Truth" (Japan), Church Universal and Triumphant, and the Order of the Solar Temple. Members are instructed to filter all events in the outside world through a "lens" which reveals a deeper level of truth. Within the ur-cultism of Promise Keepers, this truth coincides with a "signs and wonders" tradition found in charismatics and extreme evangelicals.

The "Word of God" and James Ryle

Few mainstream journalists have inquired about the ideological roots of the Promise Keepers movement; but such an excavation is necessary if we are to understand what this group is and the danger it poses. The foundation of paracultism in the Promise Keepers essentially begins with "Coach" McCartney, and his own theological journey through the backwaters of Christian theology, specifically the "Word of God" and "Vineyard" movements. 

McCartney has claimed the two individuals who most influenced his life (interestingly, he does not mention Jesus Christ...) are James Berlucci (a leader of the Word-of-God community) and the Rev. James Ryle. Both are linked to fringe, charismatic tendencies. 

Word of God is a small movement which is based upon the shepherding-discipleship tendency found in extremist Christian sects. The basis of this practice is total submission to an individual within the church who supposedly "shepherds the disciple" through a training regimen. Russ Bellant notes in his PUBLIC EYE article that in shepherding-discipleship sects like Word of God, "members were required to submit their schedules in advance and account for every hour of every day. Marriage partner, movie choices, jobs, and other decisions also had to be approved by (the) leader." Bellant also reveals that within the Word of God community, questioning of authority - particularly by women - resulted in "traumatic 'exorcisms'," and members were "trained to see the world with suspicion and contempt - as an enemy." 

"Shepherding" is an extreme tendency within the charismatic Christian movement. Sara Diamond, writing in Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, observed in 1989 (well before Promise Keepers was close to getting onto the political radar screen) that shepherding "involves an emphasis on the designation of 'spiritual authority' by one group of Christians over another." She added that "Other terms used by this subset of the charismatic movement include: headship, discipleship, covenant relationships, cell groups, and accountability groups." For inspiration, the shepherding movement drew upon the passage Ephesians 4:11, which refers to a five-fold ministry mandated by God to preserve the Body of Christ until the Second Coming: 

    And these were his gifts: some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip God's people for work in his service, to the building up of the body of Christ.
McCartney was already involved in the authoritarian Word of God movement when he was hired by the University of Colorado. There, according to Bellant and others, he was introduced to a "vineyard" church where he fell further under the influence of discipleship-shepherding luminaries, including John Wimber. Wimber referred to the Vineyard activity as "power evangelism," where sect members are self-conscious members of God's army, sent to do battle against the forces of the kingdom of darkness." But another vineyard leader would have perhaps the most influence in shaping both McCartney's increasingly fervid commitment to "spiritual warfare"1 and the ideology underpinning the Promise Keepers movement. That man was the Rev. James Ryle. 

Ryle's own testaments and writings, along with his admittedly profound influence on both Coach McCartney and the Promise keepers movement, is usually the basis of charges from other Christian groups that PK is doctrinally suspect, and conceals a hidden agenda. But the record of Vineyard leaders such as James Ryle is not concealed, merely ignored. By his own admission, Ryle is a fervent believer in charismatic mysteries such as direct revelation from god, and even the revelational potency of dreams. His 1993 book Hippo in the Garden drew its name from a dream that he allegedly experienced in 1989. (McCartney is somewhat more restrained, speaking instead of having a "vision" of men packed into stadiums, submitting and surrendering their lives to god.) For Ryle, god communicates with human beings through scriptures, the evidence of creation itself, conscience, and the imaginative tapestry of the dream state. in Hippo he uses terminology rampant in Promise Keepers literature when he challenges Christians to "get past the barriers of unbelief" through acceptance of such hallucinatory unfoldings. 

Ryle, in his turn to identify the forces shaping his views, cites the influence of James Wimber, the "power evangelist" of the Vineyard movement, whom he met in 1984. Wimber began the Association of Vineyard Churches as a network of "new churches" promoting a charismatic, revelational ideology true to the Vineyard vision of biblical scripture and revelation, Ryle noted in another book published in 1995, A Dream Come True, that: 

    "A few of our less illustrious seminary professors have molded the minds of zealous young ministers with their own biased traditions... so that dreams and visions, along with other miraculous phenomena, are no longer regarded with any measure of credence..."
Prophets of Latter Rain Cult Theology and Doom

James Ryle and other Promise Keepers luminaries represent a confluence of theological tendencies and schisms which remain little understood, or even examined, by outside observers. Along with Ryle's beliefs in the power of direct revelation during dream states, though, is a wide acceptance of the paracultic theology known as Latter Rain Doctrine.2 The god of this theology reaches churches by means of a vast prophetic movement "and a validated prophetic message through the church in the midst of the world resulting in an evangelic ingathering." 
[Bill McCartney Image] 

Bill McCartney, a man “saved by Grace.” “Grace who?” you may ask. We don't know, but Amazing Grace says she didn’t do it.

For Ryle, McCartney, and other shepherding cultists, this "vast prophetic movement" obviously is the Promise Keepers. It is a church within a church. 

Sara Diamond (Spiritual Warfare) locates the "Latter Rain" movement as a Pentecostal trend in the 1940s and 1950s. Along with direct revelation and dream states, "the word" would unfold through holy-roller experiences, gossolalia (speaking in tongues), prophetic visions, and other mysterious "gifts of the spirit." 

Latter-Rain Doctrine has been personified in the flamboyant evangelical outreaches of men like Oral Robers, William Branham, and Gordon Lindsay. More contemporary figures include signs-and-wonders preachers such as Morris Cerullo, Marilyn Hickey, Kenneth Copeland, George Otis, and Benny Hinn. All preach a message which emphasizes direct revelation, ecstatic experiences ("feeling the presence of the Spirit"), and apocalyptic doom. Any political content apprears to emphasize a distrust of homosexuals, feminism, and popular media, and the need for greater religious involvement in public life.3 

Jack Hayford and the Toronto Blessing

Another example of the cultish Latter-Rain doctrines resonating throughout the Promise Keepers agenda is Jack Hayford of the Church On The Way in Van Nuys, California. Hayford sits on the Board of Promise Keepers and is a frequent speaker at the group's rallies and stadium events. He is also an official in groups like National Religious Broadcasters and World Impact, and has written more than twenty books, along with "hundreds of hymns and songs" according to his biography released by Promise Keepers. 

Hayford, too, is tied to the Vineyard movement and even more extreme charismatic activities and beliefs. Most curious is his enthusiastic endoresement of the so-called "Toronto Blessing," an event which began in January of 1994 at the Toronto (Canada) Airport Christian Fellowship, a sect affiliated at the time with the Vineyard movement. The "Blessing" remains to this day a point of division among those caught in the fever swamp of sign-and-wonders Christianity. For so-called discernment Christians, including some fundamentalists and evangelicals, the Toronto Blessing is either false doctrine or outright deception by Satan. For Hayford and the Promise Keepers inside leadership, it is another example of "breaking down walls." 

The "Blessing" is described as a "transferable anointing" characterized by emotive outbursts of laughter, convulsions, groaning, uncontrollable weeping, and other behaviors. It appeared to be an even more intense emotional experience for both onlookers and those receiving the "anointing" than the traditional sensations and activities which characterize Pentecostal, charismatic gatherings. Even more remarkable was the belief that the Blessing had a virus-like property, and could be spread or transferred to other locations. Similar outbursts of religious frenzy soon followed, and now the Toronto Blessing has spread to England, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Holland, Japan, South Africa, Taiwan and - some insist - to Mainland China. 

The Toronto Blessing soon attracted a spat of media coverage, and a mixed reception from other religious groups. For the senior pastor at the Toronto Vineyard sect, there was a rush of public enthusiasm, and the group soon left its old building right beyond a runway at the toronto International Airport for more spacious accomodations. It has been estimated that over 300,000 have made the pilgimage to Toronto; of these, ten percent have come from Britain.

Joel's Army

[Randy Phillips Image]In announcing plans for the Promise Keepers October, 1997, gathering in Washington, D.C., the group's President, Randy Phillips (like Ryle, a product of the Jesus-People Movement) referred to it as Stand In The Gap: A Sacred Assembly Of Men. He cited Ezekiel 22:30 as an inspiration: "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none." 

Promise Keepers literature, including the official Stand In The Gap proclamation also quotes Joel 2:15, "Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a sacred assembly," and adds a comment by Dale Schlafer, national PK director for the "Sacred Assembly": "The corporate act of contrition is perhaps the only thing left to stay God's hand of judgement of His people." Schlafer paraphrases Billy Graham that if God does not judge us, He owes Sodom and Gomorrah an apology. "The time has come for godly men in the Church to stand up and say, 'We're going to be accountable for our generation'." 

While references to Joel about blowing trumpets or calling sacred gatherings may appear to be so much evangelical propoganda, they actually reveal important theological inspirations crafting the Promise Keepers movement and defining its role as a paracultic, apocalyptic movement. 

In truth, Joel is about far more than calling an "Assembly." Joel, in fact, discusses the "Lord's Army," which in the final days executes "God's terrible judgement" upon a land while the sun is "turned to darkness and the moon into blood before the great and terrible day of the LORD come..."4  

Paul Cain, a vineyard preacher who some believe originated the idea of a men's group "training" in stadiums, is even more blunt about the eschatological significance of Joel's Army: 

    We call it "the last days ministry,"...I believe we're on the threshold of it... And I know the Lord is coming to His Church and he's going to prepare us... We're closer than we've ever been before. Who would think that there would be a group like Promise Keepers who'd already be setting the stage and filling stadiums... They'll be over 100,000 in no time, and maybe they already are. So, what if God shows up at just one of those meetings? That could just be the kickoff for "last days minstry." Think about that... What if 120,000 get together and then the fire comes from heaven and the glory of God...
  After The Rally What Lies Ahead For the Promise Keepers?

History suggests that periodic waves of end-times hysteria and impassioned, charismatic revivalism are difficult to sustain. Even the earlier form of muscular Christianity typified by evangelist Billy Sunday or the revivalist tradition of the nineteenth century produced mixed results in terms of long-term commitment to a faith. Indeed, there has never been a time in American history - from Colonial times through the Great Revival and into the current era of religious fundamentalism - when a majority of the nation's people were regular church attendees. Even in an era when Promise Keepers is filling stadiums, most Americans are "un-churched." The religious profile suggests that doctrinal and denominational pluralism is widespread. While groups like the Christian Coalition attempt to reach out to Catholics and Jews with mixed results, Promise Keepers - with its distrust of denominational boundaries - may find that task even more daunting. 

The Promise Keepers are certainly indicative of widespread Angst concering issues such as the changing role of women in society, efforts to gain rights for gays and lesbians, and the erosion of traditional bastions once considered secure for men. It is wrong, however, to say that Promise Keepers is just a misogynist movement, or simply a male backlash. At least in its origins, and in the group's higher ranks, it is a revolt against secular modernity and the affirmation of an apocalyptic, charismatic religious impulse. It is a paracult. 

Despite rhetoric about reconciliation, it is also a creation of individuals and groups identified with religious-right politics in America. Promise Keepers may not endorse candidates like the Christian Coalition, and it may not be as clear in its agenda as, say, Focus on the Family, Christian Voice, or the Traditional Values Coalition. The group's leadership may choose to fixate instead on the religious apocalyptic climate as we approach 2000, seeing the new millennium not as an election to win, but a spiritual battleground to proslytize in. Even so, much of the language emanating from Promise Keepers suggests a political agenda. Promise Keepers may become the spiritual boot camp for a politicised version of Joel's Army. 

It may also fail. 

Biblical fundamentalists worry about the emergence of a "one-world church," whether under the leadership of the Pope, the Anti-Christ, or some other figure out of the carnival tapestry of Revelation. Unity and ecumenism are buzz-words now in both the Vatican, and the ruling circles of groups such as the National Council of Churches. Coach McCartney's goal (and that of the individuals behind him) of breaking down the walls between denominations expresses the same impulse. 

The world and human nature may have other plans, though. Promise Keepers, or any other religious movement, is fighting not only the postmodernist trend of ideological balkanaization - a proliferation rather than unification of sects and ideas - but the same kinds of dysfunctions and tendencies which prompted Martin Luther to nail his 95 Theses to the door of a church at Wittenberg in 1517 and commence a historic split with the "One Church" of his era. Denominational walls seem impervious, whether to the Pope or a stadium of exuberant men performing a "wave" for Jesus Christ. 

The question remains, though: How much damange can Joel's Army and the godly men of Promise Keepers do if they are mobilized in the service of religious-political causes? Would the group's role as a spiritual boot camp for precinct-level prayer warriors continue to fuel groups like Christian Coalition, or the more fanatical ranks of Operation Rescue, in their continued assaults on civil liberties and state-church separation? That prospect seems very likely. Such an overt political agenda could undermine Promise Keepers support. But for the men who perceive the quest for political Dominionism as part of a wider theological mandate, it is a risk they may well be willing to take. 

After all, they are all thinking, "God is with us." [top] 

Promise Keepers and The Dominionist Mandate 

Just as most of the godly men pouring into stadiums are unaware of the charismtatic influences within the Promise Keepers movement, or the backgrounds and associations of their own leadership, they and other Ameicans are similarly oblivious to a religious-political tenet known as "Dominion Theology" or Dominionism. It is the integration of religious doctrines into political conservatism that distinguishes the agenda of groups like the Coalition on Revival or the Christian Coaltion from the economic, laissez-faire teachings of secular conservatives or even libertarians found in groups like the Cato Institute. 

Simply put, Dominionism teaches that Christians are commandec by god to occupy and govern all institutions in anticipation of the "final days" and the Second Coming. It teaches that biblical principles must be applied to every aspect of individual, social, and political lives. So-called "Bible law" must govern the person, families, and governmental institutions. In a Dominionist culture, there is no separation of state and church. If anything, the police powers of the state are harnessed to ensure that Bible laws are enforced. 

Nevertheless, Dominionists (especially the Christian Reconstructionists) will insist on defending a peculiar version of state-church separation. "The Creed of Christian Reconstructionism," drafted by Rev. Andrew Sandlin of the Chalcedon Foundation, insists that the Reconstructionist "firmly believes in the separation of church and state, but not the separation of the state - or anything else - from God." Variants of this disingenuous argument are found throughout religious fundamentalist and evangelical political movements. David Barton, author of the 1989 book The Myth of Separation and head of the fundamentalist "Wallbuilders," has promoted the notion that the Wall of Separation is "one-directional" or intended to prevent the government from interfering in the affairs of religion. This position is fashionable in religious-right materials and often repeated by Ralph Reed, James Dobson, and Pat Buchanan. 

To varying degrees, groups like Promise Keepers, Christian Coalition, Operation Rescue, and Coalaition on Revival are Dominionist in that they accept the primacy of Biblical doctrine in the governance of society. But there can be, and are differences. Ralph Reed is more of a political pragmatist, and may be uncomfortable in both theory and practice with hard-core Christian Reconstructionists who reach the death penalty for homosexuals and adulterers. A reconstructionist, though, like Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony can rub shoulders at meetings of the semisecret Council for National Policy (CNP) with Christian Coalition boy wonder Ralph Reed, or schmooze with other religious-right gurus such as Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, Rev. Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, Howard Phillips of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, or antiabortion maven Phyllis Schlafly. It is within the confines of groups like CNP where Dominionist doctrines are most effectively transmitted. There is also a trend where individuals once associated with religious-right or political conservative movements gravitate toward even more extreme positions and adopt a Reconstructionist-Dominionist Theology perspective. The most pronounced form of Dominionist Theology is Christian Reconstructionism, identified closely with R.J. Rhushdoony and the Chalcedon Foundation movement. Reconstructionism has become a vibrant doctrinal force on the religious right. Its advocacy of "theonomy," the application of Bible law to all areas of life, has appealed to those religious conservatives eager to shape the nation's cultural destiny. Reconstructionists advocate the death penalty for a wide range of transgressions, including abortion, homosexuality, witchcraft, adultery, and even failure to obey the orders of parents. Reconstructionist writers have ground out a steady flow of books, tracts, and position papers - many of which concern arcane theological questions such as the exact sequence of events leading to the Second Coming of Christ. 

A number of Promise Keepers leaders including Wellington Boone, E.V. Hill, John Perkins, and Joseph Garlington embrace Reconstructionist views; all are associated with the Coalition on Revival (COR). 

While COR is considred a Reconstructionist group, the group's founder Jay Grimstead prefers to call himself a "modern day Puritan." 

Reconstructionists and other Dominionist-Theology advocates maintain a lower profile than their religious fundamentalist and evangelical counterparts. The Reconstruction journal Chalcedon Report includes in its Creed: 

    A Christian Reconstructionist is a Dominionist. He takes seriously the Bible's commands to the godly to take dominion in the earth. This is the goal of the gospel and the Great Commission. The Christian Reconstructionist believes the earth and all its fulness is the Lord's - that every area dominated by sin must be "reconstructed" in terms of the Bible. This includes, first, the individual; second, the family; third, the church; and fourth, the wider society, including the state...
While Promise Keepers is not technically a Reconstructionst movement, it certainly embraces the spirit of Dominionist Theology. And the "Dominion Mandate" trickles down through the structure of Promise Keepers, where "team leaders" exercise an invasive, authoritarian, paracultic control over members of "accountability groups." 

Although Reconstructionists are Calvinists, who eschew the fervent "spirit-filled" shenanigans of charismatic Christianity, they do find themselves in common cause with Promise Keepers - especially with their heavy Dominionist theology environment and its authoritarian, almost martial structure. [top] 


1 In Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, the group's manifesto, McCartney declares "We're in a war, men, whether we acknowlege it or not. The enemy is real, and he doesn't like to see men of God take a stand for Jesus Christ and contest his lies." [back] 

2 "Latter-Rain" theology holds that Christian denominations will be unified as The Church prior to the Second Coming and will constitute a corporate body where all will experience the presence of The Lord at the same time. God comes into a church "filling" all individuals with the presence. There are visible manifestations of the spirit. 

Latter Rain defines a wide range of Pentecostals, including snake-handlers, the energetic Aimee Semple McPherson, and "signs-and-wonders" evangelists. It is significant that - in light of the identification of Promise Keepers leadership with "Joel's Army" - a reference to "Latter rain" is found in Joel 2:23: 

    Be glad then, ye children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God; for He has given you the former rain faithfully, and He will cause the rain to come down for you - the former rain, and the latter rain in the first month.
The Encyclopaedia Biblica (London, 1906) observes that "the rain is imagined as water which has been drawn from the great heavenly reservoirs..." Latter rain literally refers to the height of the rainy season in Palestine. Throughout the bible, rain is evidence prayer being ansered, and one of the fruits of piety. [back] 

3 This creates a virtual conspiracy mentality, where social and political developments are viewed in terms of an unfolding war between good (the true church, godly men, the "body of Christ") and evil. The latter is, literally, the work of the devil. A host of wicked characters, ranging from homosexuals and Atheists to evolutionists and secularists, is under the influence or control of Satan. There will be no Twinkie defense permitted, though. Come Judgement Day, the wicked will receive theri due by being cast into a fiery pit with Lucifer. [back] 

4 McCartney's vision of men packed into stadiums, girding themselves as Joel's Army may be traced back even further into the religious fever-swamps of Vineyards and other cult movement. In 1988, Kansas City Vineyard Pastor Paul Cain predicted an ecumenical unity, Joel's Army, an important teaching of the Latter-Rain belief. Christian Conscience (Feb. 1996) suggests that Cain, not McCartney, was the one with a "vision": 

    I told you about... this recurring (35-year-old) vision I had... The angel of the Lord said, "You're standing at the crossroads of life. What do you see?" And I saw a brilliantly lit billboard which reads, "Joel's Army now in training." ... I believe one day soon Joel's Army will be in training... until it graduates into the stadium... 

    According to McCatney, this army will have "one leadership": 

    We've got to have one leadership, one leadership only. We've got to have everybody hitting on all cylinders. There's only one race. It's the human race. There is only one culture. It's Christ before culture. Christ culture - that's all there is..." 

Could this become Ein Volk! Ein Fuhrer! Ein Reich!? [back] 

Conrad Goeringer is an antiquarian bookseller and freelance writer who lives on the cape of New Jersey. A frequent speaker at American Atheists national conventions, he is director of American Atheists On-line Services and a contributing editor of American Atheist. [top]