Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Promise of Promise Keepers



October 13, 1997

"Dear Brother in Christ," began the letter I received from Promise Keepers after registering for the October 4 "Stand in the Gap" rally. One of the least-broadcast facts about this men's revival movement is that it doesn't track event registrations by sex. I just happen to be a sister in Christ who decided it was time to go shoulder to shoulder with the "weekend weepers."

The registration packet I received included a Stand in the Gap iron-on decal for my T-shirt, so I could be identified at a glance as one of the Spirit-led guys trekking towards the Capitol. I didn't go as one of the guys, but neither did I go as a PK-basher from NOW. As a Christian feminist with a high view of the Bible, I consider myself a friendly critic of the movement.

First the good news: as even the critics from NOW should realize, PK is responding to two of the strongest challenges of second wave feminism. The first challenge is to eliminate the gendered public (male)/private (female) dichotomy, a task only half-finished by liberal feminists in opening the public sphere to women. To the extent that PK gets men to be hands-on caregivers to their children and a reliable, working presence in their homes, PK is helping advance a key goal of almost every feminist's agenda.

The second challenge is to deconstruct a certain stereotype of masculinity. PK is actually appropriating the feminist critique of the stereotype that keeps men from expressing their emotions, nurturing their children, and showing other qualities that are often mislabled as exclusively feminine. PK enjoins followers to reject the image of the friendless American male and instead adopt biblical virtues like encouragement, forgiveness, mutual confession, and mutual aid. Don't be fooled by the stadium trappings; the sports symbols are there to make men feel safe about crying and confessing their sexual addictions and other self-centered ways.

Now the bad news: Promise Keepers equivocates about the nature of gender reconciliation in a way not paralleled by its consistent message on racial reconciliation. PK has made racial reconciliation a non-negotiable promise. There is no such clear and strong message when it comes to the relation between men and women.

When questioned, for example, about the fact that some speakers advocate full equality between marriage partners while others endorse a husband's benevolent paternalism, PK representatives claim the organization has no formal position on male headship. It is, they note, an issue on which Evangelicals with equally high views of the Bible disagree. But when PK founder Bill McCartney publicly proclaims, as he did on N.P.R., that God almighty has proclaimed husbands to be the spiritual leaders at home, why should anyone not assume that this is PK's official position? On such a core issue, P.K. should make a choice. Mutuality should be the message.

Not every issue of human affairs is political, and every organization need not take a stance on all public issues. But an organization that mounts a huge national rally in Washington, D.C. to pray for men, husbands, families, and the nation may not long withhold clarification of its views of family life and of important public policy issues concerning gender relations and the family.

—Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Professor
   Center for Christian Women in Leadership, Eastern College

[Adapted from an op-ed article originally published in The New York Times.]

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”