I was at the Metrodome last Friday night, along with 50,000 men. Promise Keepers was in town, controversy was in the air, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Heading for the press box, I joined a milling crowd of men — old and young, fathers and sons, black and white. I noticed a smiling woman, children in tow, standing in the rain and holding aloft a sign: “Thank God for PK.” Inside, I scanned the program, noting the characteristics of a “godly man: purity, devotion, reconciliation, repentance, humility, servanthood and perseverance.” And then, all around me, the Metrodome exploded with the words of a hymn: “All I once thought gain, I have counted loss, compared to this — Knowing you, Jesus.”
To my surprise, I found myself repeatedly and profoundly moved as the evening wore on. The climax — following two powerful speeches on self-sacrificing love — was an awesome sight. Tens of thousands of men knelt in ardent prayer, some weeping, arms around each others’ shoulders, praying fervently for sexual purity and single-minded devotion to their wives and children.
“We may wear size XXXL, but we’re still little boys,” cried Bishop T. G. Benjamin, of Indianapolis’ Light of the World Church. “Throw away those magazines, those videos, those phone numbers. Be responsible, be accountable. Loose the chains of sin and selfishness, and become truly free!”
It was a memorable evening, unlike any I’d ever witnessed. The only part that wasn’t so great was the walk to my car in the dark when it was over. “If I were doing this an hour from now,” I thought, “I’d worry whenever I heard footsteps behind me.” Whom would I fear? Young men — mostly fatherless — who’ve never heard the things I’d just heard; who have to join a gang to find a family, and whose selfish — often violent — behavior likely renders them a curse, rather than a blessing, to the women and children in their lives.
How strange, I reflected, that the National Organization for Women has denounced Promise Keepers as a “militaristic, anti-women organization,” which poses “the greatest danger to women’s rights.” In fact, NOW has launched an all-out campaign (“whatever steps are necessary”) to denounce and defeat PK’s agenda across the nation.
Now, Promise Keepers isn’t for everyone. But in a society whose most fundamental problem may be men’s abandonment of their responsibilities, isn’t it a positive development? Why has NOW fingered Promise Keepers as Public Enemy No. 1?
The answer, I think, is that NOW’s leadership profoundly misunderstands Promise Keepers. And having read the seminal works of contemporary establishment feminism — Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem — I have an idea why.
The fact is, NOW and Promise Keepers have radically different views of life, and the nature of human relationships. As a result, the two groups use words like “leadership,” “power” and “freedom” to mean very different things.
Take NOW’s primary gripe against Promise Keepers — that it advocates men’s becoming “spiritual leaders” in their families. NOW interprets this balefully — as a raw power grab. Promise Keepers’ “real” ambition, NOW insists, is nothing less than “overturn[ing] the gains that women have made in the last century.'” Beth Anderson, Minnesota NOW president, even suggests that Promise Keepers seeks to establish a family “power structure” that — by relegating women to a “subordinate position” — may actually “set the stage” for domestic abuse.
Why do NOW leaders jump to such outlandish conclusions? Because — as readers of Steinem and Co. know — post-60’s feminism views all of life through the one-dimensional lens of power dynamics. Feminist theory treats relations between men and women as a zero sum game: if one has more, the other — by definition — has less.
Promise Keepers couldn’t see things more differently — as a multitude of PK wives will attest. In the context of faith, to lead is to be first in service: to follow the example of Christ, who washed his disciples’ feet. Chuck Knapp, of Minneapolis Promise Keepers, explains: “We are calling men to become servants of their wives, to live up to the commitments they made to them.” A man I met at the Metrodome concurred. “I used to be distant and disengaged from my family,” he said. “Now I try to set the example of serving, and my goal is to earn the respect of my wife and children so they’ll believe me.”
But NOW has another bone to pick with Promise Keepers. One of post-60’s feminism’s articles of faith is that “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” — in other words, who needs a man? In the context of the family, Promise Keepers begs to disagree.
Promise Keepers challenges feminist orthodoxy on the subject of “generic” parenthood — the idea that mothers and fathers are somehow interchangeable. Promise Keepers maintains that men and women need and complement each other, and that children need both. Men — vis a vis their maleness — have something unique and vital to contribute to the family. As one speaker put it on Friday night, “My grandmother, who raised me, deserves a medal of honor. But she couldn’t teach me about sexual purity, because it takes a godly man to raise a godly son.”
Surely NOW agrees that too many men are abandoning their families, or exploiting women as sex objects. NOW may object to Promise Keepers’ program for reform, but can it offer an alternative vision capable of inspiring men to change their ways? Sadly, post-60’s feminist theory — with its emphasis on “self-actualization,” and its willingness to “tolerate” any behavior but racism and sexism — doesn’t provide much of a model.
Where, then, are men to turn for guidance, as they struggle to overcome the selfish habits of a lifetime? Our popular culture is an ethical wasteland — a continual celebration of self-gratification. Employers, it goes without saying, are unlikely to urge men to devote more time to their families.
What’s needed — at least, by many — is what Christians call “metanoia” — a life-transforming change of heart. Promise Keepers understands this, but NOW doesn’t have a clue.
— Katherine Kersten is chairman of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and a commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”