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Participants, Doubters Ponder Premise of Promise Keepers Movement

As huge gathering nears, leaders of Christian group consider ways to broaden impact. Critics fear a return to restrictive roles for women.

September 30, 1997|MARLENE CIMONS and KASPER ZEUTHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — It was Karen Turner who first decided her husband should get involved with Promise Keepers. "I looked at it as a way for him to build more intimate relationships with men in a healthy way--the way women relate to other women," she recalled recently. "Men are just not as good at building relationships as women are."

Now, three years later, "because he's finally able to share things with men, he's better able to communicate with me," she said.

Throughout this decade, men like Kevin Turner have been flocking to Promise Keepers, the Christian men's movement with revivalist overtones, as a balm for what they see as a morally wounded nation. Since its first small assembly of 72 men in 1990, it has grown to an operation with eight regional offices and an annual budget last year of $96 million.

More to its point, the group has drawn a total of 2.6 million men to gatherings in stadiums and rallies at which the participants come to pray, sing, weep and pledge to honor Jesus Christ by practicing moral and sexual purity and devoting themselves more fully to their wives and children.

What is being described as the group's largest meeting ever is planned for this Saturday, with as many as 700,000 men expected to stream into the nation's capital for a six-hour rally on the Mall, the vast expanse of land that stretches between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial.

Unlike its stadium rallies, which carry an admission fee, Saturday's event, titled "Stand in the Gap," is free and open to all men who wish to come. The gathering looms as an opportunity for Promise Keepers--founded by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney--to dramatically imprint itself in the public consciousness.

"We're trying to show the nation that there are men who pray, and who pray for repentance," said Jim Frederick, 49, a public accountant from Roaring Spring, Pa., who plans to attend. "We are trying to bring people to their knees, so the Lord looks at the nation more as a Christian nation than as the heathen nation we have become."

The rally will be a six-hour program of prayers, music and speeches. Organizers said there is no political agenda; Washington was simply chosen because it is the "emotional heart of America, set apart as a piece of land for all people."

The event, inevitably, has evoked comparisons with the "Million Man March" by African Americans here two years ago. But the leaders of Promise Keepers, which recently has been making distinct overtures to attract and include more minorities, does not agree with the comparison--nor do many of those planning to attend.

Turner, a Baltimore financial analyst who is African American, refused to participate in the Million Man event because he believed its leadership preached "a distrust and hatred for whites and other groups," he said. "Promise Keepers has none of that."

Promise Keepers, he added, has welcomed him as an African American, not just as a fellow Christian. "The organization is totally committed to full involvement in the black community," Turner said. "The leadership knows that, without it, the movement will be a total flop."

Increasingly, however, Promise Keepers has come under bitter attack by feminists and other liberal groups who view the movement not as the dawn of a new age--but as an attempt to return to the Dark Ages.

"The leaders of Promise Keepers would like all of us--women, people of color, abortion-rights supporters, lesbians and gays--to believe that Promise Keepers are harmless advocates for the family and their responsibility," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.

In response to the upcoming rally, NOW vowed a campaign to counter Promise Keepers. "These same leaders are the elite of the religious right, those who devise the oppressive agenda and intolerant policies that we've been against for so long," Ireland said.

To be sure, the philosophy of Promise Keepers does reject abortion and homosexuality. But to dismiss the organization as chauvinistic and reactionary is too simplistic, some observers say.

"In my view, it is a mistake on the part of the left to vilify and attack Promise Keepers," said Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner's Magazine who has been studying the group's evolution. "They don't understand the people, the players or the territory."

Mark W. Muesse, professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, believes that the roots of Promise Keepers' appeal lie in "the process by which men grow into cultural manhood," which is "repressive," he said.

"Promise Keepers has tapped into some deeply felt needs, as the men who come together seek personal healing and self-growth," he said.

Wallis and others--including the organization's leaders--believe the group has to confront its growing pains by moving beyond its current inspiration mission into social action.

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