Servanthood or Soft Patriarchy? A Christian Feminist Looks at the Promise Keepers Movement

By Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart | The Journal of Men's Studies, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Servanthood or Soft Patriarchy? A Christian Feminist Looks at the Promise Keepers Movement


Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart, The Journal of Men's Studies


In 1992, well before the Christian men's movement known as Promise Keepers became front-cover news for American journalists, Gloria Steinem--the founding editor of Ms. magazine--wrote the following:

Make no mistake about it: Women want a men's movement.

We are literally dying for it. If you doubt that, just

listen to women's desperate testimonies of hope that the

men in our lives will become more nurturing towards

children, more able to talk about emotions, less hooked on a

spectrum of control that extends from not listening through

to violence, and [that they will become] less repressive of

their own human qualities that are called "feminine." ...

Perhaps the psychic leap of twenty years ago [when feminists

announced that] women can do what men can do,

must now be followed by [the announcement that] men can

do what women can do.(1)

In the years following Steinem's exhortation, religiously-slanted men's gatherings, such as Promise Keepers and the 1995 Million Man March, have caught the public's eye. These are two recent additions to a North American men's movement that now has almost as many faces as are found within feminism. It includes conservative voices who still regard the 1950s middle-class version of family life as normative, or who feel that feminism has resulted in reverse discrimination against men in everything from job opportunities to child-custody decisions. It includes men who wish to explore the more "feminine" emotions Gloria Steinem referred tO, or who want to grieve the actual or psychological absence of father figures in their lives. And it includes self-consciously feminist men who campaign against pornography and male violence, and even run no-nonsense rehabilitation programs for men who abuse their partners.(2)

Where does the evangelically-oriented Promise Keepers movement fit into this picture? Why has it emerged at this time in North American history? What reactions has it received from cultural analysts, both secular and Christian? And how should it be evaluated by Christian women and men committed to mutual submission and the full use of women's as well as men's gifts in society, church, and home? The rest of this paper addresses these questions in turn.

A PROFILE OF PROMISE KEEPERS

The most public and media-covered feature of Promise Keepers is its two-day sports stadium rallies held annually throughout the United States. Beginning in 1991 with a single gathering of 4,200, the rallies expanded over six years to 22 weekends and over a million attendees. In the same time period, the organization's paid staff more than doubled yearly to over 400, its budget rose to $115 million, and its branch offices expanded to include over 30 states and provinces.(3) Indeed, sociologist David Blankenhorn, author of the 1995 best-seller Fatherless America, has characterized Promise Keepers as "the largest and most important men's movement in the United States today."(4)

Promise Keepers rallies are targeted to men. Women registrants are not turned away from stadium rallies but they are not encouraged to come, since the organization believes that men at least sometimes need an all-male space in order to come to terms with God. As of this writing women's best options for attending are to obtain a press pass, to become a token woman speaker by marrying a Promise Keepers officer, or to go in disguise as a male. I have managed to take advantage of the first option (covering the 1996 Pittsburgh rally for the periodical Books & Culture), my husband questions the feasibility of the second, and the third has already been successfully attempted by a thirty-something Jewish lesbian, who reported it in Ms. magazine as a surprisingly positive experience.(5) In addition to attending a rally and having discussions with men involved in the movement, I have consulted written sources--and of these there are plenty. …

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