Cover Story

Capital promises

After Promise Keepers' huge rally in Washington, D.C., participants vow they'll strive to close the gap between words and actions.

Issue: "Stand in the gap," Oct. 18, 1997

(In Washington)--Saturday's "Sacred Assembly" on the Washington Mall was over, and the Promise Keepers were headed home. An hour east of Indianapolis, Charles Paxton, 54, pastor of Camby (Ind.) Community Church, stepped to the front of the bus and took the microphone. "If we go back and don't do anything, this will have been just a trip. We need to close the gap between our words and actions," he said.

Many of the 43 men, mostly his but several from other churches as well, nodded agreement. "If we do that, God will change us, our family, our churches, and our community. This weekend will have been the beginning of true revival."

A little behind schedule, the bus went straight to the Camby church, arriving after the sermon by Mr. Paxton's associate had begun. The men were unwashed, unshaved, and still in their grubby clothes, but it didn't matter.

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A sign at the door greeted them: welcome back promise keepers! As they filed in the congregation of 150 applauded. The associate shifted homiletic gears, and for the next half-hour men shared their thoughts and experiences. Mr. Paxton later spoke about the changes he already had seen arising from previous PK rallies: "Marriages have been healed. Men have gotten reexcited about the church. Their commitment to their family and Lord has grown. It has affected their work."

Other pastors are leery about elements of Promise Keepers-a parachurch usurping of church authority, the charismatic orientation of some leaders, and the putting aside of doctrinal distinctions (see sidebar).

But the bottom line for PK supporters is simple: The rallies are changing men, and changed men mean changed families, changed churches, and changed communities. This bottom-up, one-by-one style of change was hard to grasp for some of the pundits on the Sunday-after "talking head" network TV shows. Some tried to have it both ways: The only way communities really could be changed is if the men went home and got involved in politics and changed public policy, they argued. Yet, without offering proof, they repeatedly accused founder Bill McCartney and the Promise Keepers ministry of harboring a hidden political agenda. Clearly, they were fearful that any PK position on public-policy issues might be at variance with their own.

Elizabeth Toledo of the National Organization for Women (NOW) was starkly honest in explaining to ABC's This Week audience the opposition of NOW to Promise Keepers. She decried the emphasis on male headship within the family (Scripture "is no excuse for putting men in charge"), attacked an "agenda that is not tolerant to lesbians and gays," and complained that the large PK crowds "could affect our efforts to achieve equality for women."

In summing up, though, the anchors and panelists on several of the network programs seemed to agree the PK gathering had been a "good thing" for the country. Day-after media coverage of the PK gathering was heavy and largely positive. In all, more than 1,000 media people representing some 350 newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets were on hand. A broadcast coalition anchored by Moody Broadcasting Network beamed full coverage of the event to more than 600 radio stations. C-SPAN and other cable networks provided invocation-to-benediction coverage, and CNN offered breakaway reports.

Many major dailies assigned reporters to ride cross-country to the rally with PK participants on buses and trains. Other reporters joined the crush on the Metro subway trains to do their interviewing. Washington bureau reporters suddenly found themselves assigned to cover a religion story instead of politics. Big dailies deployed squads of reporters around the mall to buttonhole people there. As a result, hundreds of vignettes were published in newspapers across the country recounting how changes in individual lives had turned around families and affected churches and communities.

Time magazine devoted a cover story to Promise Keepers in advance of the rally. It seemed The Washington Post itself had gotten religion. For two weeks preceding the event, it published a series of major stories on PK, largely positive. Columnists wary of "the Religious Right" nevertheless urged readers to "give Promise Keepers a chance." Some took note of the nation's moral morass and suggested that since nothing else has worked to fix it, it might be worth trying prayer for a change.

Singing and praying and getting to know their travelmates en route, participants began arriving on the mall on Friday in picture-perfect weather. Hundreds bedded down for the night in the space closest to the platform. U.S. Park Police looked the other way; it is illegal to camp overnight on the mall. Thousands of men slept in private homes and on the floor in churches. Several churches reported accommodating 400 or more. Hotels and motels for miles around were almost entirely sold out.

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