A man's man is a godly man who should bring his wife to splendour in Christ: or so, at least, says Bill McCartney, a former football coach whose 'Iron John meets Jesus' movement has close to a million followers
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AS STORM clouds gather above the Rocky Mountains, the 70,000 Christian men filling Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado, are exhorted to pray for meteorological mercy.

"There's a 40 per cent chance of severe thunderstorms here in Denver this afternoon," confides a commentator to the vast, unseen radio audience listening to a "play-by-play" broadcast of the meeting. "Would you pray about that, too? Pray that God's spirit would not be hindered because of weather."

The 70,000 have travelled far and wide to be at Mile High: from Minnesota and from Kansas, from Nebraska and New Mexico, they have come this June weekend to what is normally the home of the Denver Broncos football team to participate in a weekend conference of Promise Keepers, one of America's most recent and most peculiar religious phenomena. The football stadium has been turned into an enormous revival tent, an arena for stirring God's spirit in the hearts of American males, males who respond to Promise Keepers' rousing slogan: "A man's man is a godly man."

By early evening, the skies have cleared, the prayers have apparently been answered. The men - or, as the Promise Keepers call themselves, "guys" - settle in their seats for what is expected to be a rousing finale to two days of preaching. No less a figure than the founder of Promise Keepers, the charismatic guy who once led the nearby University of Colorado to football glory, the man they know fondly as "Coach Bill", is scheduled to deliver the closing address.

At 7.30pm, a windcheater zipped over his Promise Keepers polo shirt, Coach Bill takes the stage to a rapturous ovation. But hardly has his deep, John Wayne-like voice begun booming over the stadium than the heavens open. Most of the guys - and Coach Bill - dash for cover, and it's not until some 90 minutes later that the coach takes the podium in the shelter of the Broncos' changing-room, crammed with about 60 Promise Keepers supporters. Outside, his image and words will be relayed to the faithful via two massive video screens. The coach is undaunted. "Almighty God orchestrated this," he says of the storm, prompting a ripple of "Amens" around the room. "He's going to use this vehicle to speak to our hearts."

It takes a lot to discourage Bill McCartney these days. In less than five years, an inspiration that came to him while he was driving on an interstate freeway has turned into a nationwide evangelical crusade that he calls the largest Christian men's movement in history. His premise is simple: American males have broken their promises to hearth and home, leaving wives dishonoured, children fatherless and society in a mess. They can put America back on track by keeping the Seven Promises: vowing to honour Jesus; to pursue "vital relationships" with a few other men; to practise spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity; to build strong marriages and families; to support their local church; to reach beyond racial and denominational barriers; and to influence their world. Above all, as Coach Bill tells his Denver audience to ecstatic cheers, "Almighty God has mandated that every man bring his wife to splendour in Jesus Christ." (To this end, the importance of marrying a virgin is stressed. "There is a glory to virginity," preaches Ed Cole, a fiery Dallas minister and associate of McCartney, explaining that when a woman's hymen breaks during intercourse and her "blood flows over the man's part", that seals the "marriage covenant" in the sight of God.)

Promise Keepers' message has tapped a major chord. In 1991, 4,200 guys met at the movement's first conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder; in 1994, 278,600 gathered at seven stadiums across the country; this year, some half a million are expected to attend conferences at 13 venues from Los Angeles to Atlanta, paying from $55 to $65 for a ticket. At the conferences, the only women present are Promise Keepers staff and volunteers.

From a full-time staff of 22 and a $4m budget in 1993, Promise Keepers has grown to 250 employees and a $62m budget in 1995. The movement has outgrown its cramped headquarters in suburban Denver and is moving to a $1m building near the centre of town. As well as the stadium conferences, it organises thousands of "wake-up calls" for men and produces literature and videos for local churches of all denominations. There's even an official magazine called New Man, featuring such articles as "How To Be A Radical Lover". For 1997, Promise Keepers is planning a rally in Washington DC for one million guys.

Both the secular and the religious media have been struggling to explain the movement's success. Promise Keepers, they suggest, offer an identity to men confused by changing gender roles; it's "Iron John" meets Jesus, a potent mixture of New Age marketing and religious ideology; it's a form of mass hysteria. For McCartney, such theorising is meaningless. "This is a providential move of God's spirit," he announces in the locker-room. "Our God has decided He's calling out the real men of God to stand up and be counted."

And Promise Keepers could be coming to a sports stadium near you: "We will go all over the world as time unfolds," McCartney promises - and judging by the South African rugby team's prayer huddle after its World Cup victory in June, that time may have arrived already. All this became clear to Coach Bill a year ago when he was "praying and asking the Lord for the direction of Promise Keepers". The Lord, he says, pointed him to a verse in the Bible: "And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts."

"WE'RE all flawed, we're all sinners," McCartney tells me. "We all fall short, especially me."

We are sitting in an office underneath Mile High's South Stand. McCartney is not an easy man to get to; Promise Keepers spokesmen insist that "We don't want this to be a cult of personality," and it has taken several weeks of negotiation to be granted an interview with the 54-year-old coach. Now he's explaining why it is wrong to portray Promise Keepers as his movement. "When you look at this man, you're going to get disappointed," he says. "I'm very average... It's more appropriate to say, 'Look what God is doing. He'll even use a football coach. He'll even use McCartney, who wouldn't even have been your first choice as a football coach.' "

But there's no question that Bill is Promise Keepers' marquee attraction, "their star", in the words of Mark Wolf, a columnist on the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Tall, tanned, slim, athletic and ruggedly handsome, McCartney has a larger-than-life presence and a charisma that puts colleagues in his shadow. Promise Keepers president Randy Phillips, for example, is a colourless man with a grey moustache and an inability to frame coherent sentences: "We deal with specifically men's issues that are helpful to deal with in a context of a men-only gathering that would be uncomfortable which leads to the emotional freedom that men can have of not feeling inhibited from that perspective," for example. But McCartney is articulate, his voice hypnotic, his rhetorical and motivational skills honed by years of grabbing the attention of college athletes. He is also disarmingly polite. "I don't mean to offend you," he tells me. "I'm just trying to explain that it's hard for us to talk on the same level because you don't have God's spirit."

There's also no question that Promise Keepers is cast in McCartney's muscular, born-again Christian image. In person, his intensity and conviction are almost overwhelming. He is a zealot and proud of it. "I have strong convictions about the gospel of Jesus Christ and I'm eager to share them," he says. "I see myself as militant for the gospel." And he was certainly not your average football coach.

McCartney, whose father was a former Marine and a strict Catholic, comes from Michigan and was a good enough player to win a football scholarship to the University of Missouri. He first coached as an assistant at the University of Michigan, moving on to the head coaching job with Colorado's "Buffaloes" in 1982. He inherited a moribund football programme, and his first three teams had losing records. The 1984 team's effort - a one win, 10-loss debacle - had some supporters calling for his dismissal. But the next year, the Buffaloes won seven and lost just four, and by the late Eighties they were one of the most talented teams in the nation. After defeating the fearsome Notre Dame team in the Orange Bowl, a key fixture in the college football season, they were named joint national champions for 1990.

McCartney won national fame, and extraordinary job security: in 1990, the university signed him to a 15-year contract with a basic salary of $140,000. In a profession that prizes salesmanship, he was a brilliant recruiter of high school athletes. "He was great in the living-room, he was great with selling parents [on the University of Colorado]," says Wolf. He was also a supremely effective motivator. Players used to say that tapes of his pep talks should be played before wars. But, along the way, McCartney seemed to attract as many critics as he did admirers. What rankled was his habit of mixing sport with religion.

Bill had been "born again" while coaching in Michigan, the catalyst being an invitation from one of his own players to attend a meeting of Christian athletes. The message took, and, at Colorado, he had the Buffaloes finishing every practice in a prayer huddle. Players were suspended for living with a woman unless the player's mother called the coach with her permission. Bill claimed he treated Christians and non-Christians alike - he was just a "Christian who coaches". The American Civil Liberties Union, however, protested that he was trying to impose his beliefs on his team.

With his high public profile and strict moral views, McCartney soon became a flag-waver for conservative causes. In 1989, for example, he attended an anti-abortion rally, proclaiming that "Satan has unleashed his fury against the unborn." But most controversial of all was the stand he took on homosexuality in 1992, when he endorsed an anti-gay rights constitutional amendment being voted on in Colorado. Homosexuality, he told a campus news conference, was "an abomination of Almighty God".

In the tumult that followed, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, a Democrat from Denver, called McCartney a "self-anointed ayatollah", and the University reprimanded him for appearing to use his position at a state-funded institution to promote his personal beliefs. McCartney was unrepentant: "I didn't do any more than quote Scripture," he said.

The coach also ran into accusations of hypocrisy. For one thing, many of his players were not exactly living the Christian ideal. From 1986 to 1988, two dozen of them were charged with, or convicted of, crimes ranging from disorderly conduct and brawling to rape. Were his moral standards not quite so tough after all? And he wasn't always sensitivity incarnate. After two players were accused of date rape, he said that rape was "an act whereby there's real physical violence involved. And so I don't think that's what we're talking about here."

There were also problems at home. In 1989 and 1993, his daughter Kristy - one of four children he and his wife Lyndi have had - presented him with two grandchildren. Unfortunately, both were born out of wedlock, and their fathers were both players on his team.

All the scandal and controversy led some to say that McCartney had turned into an embarrassment for the university. But he had his long-term contract, and he kept delivering the most important thing: victories on the football field. As the 1994-95 season began, all the signs were that the coach would remain at Colorado for many years to come.

Then came the shock. In November 1994, McCartney announced that in January, at the end of the season, he would resign, just walk away from his contract with 10 years still left on it. On campus, they could hardly believe it. "People were pretty taken aback," recalls Dr Karen Raforth, a psychologist at the university.

The coach's explanation is quite simple. He wanted to spend more time with his wife; he had, he says, been neglecting her. "In our marriage, I discovered that my wife wasn't being brought to splendour," he tells me. "She wasn't all the things that God birthed in her. The gifts that she had, many of them were suppressed as a result of me chasing my dreams."

And he wanted to devote himself to Promise Keepers, to help other men in their marriages. The "Christian who coaches" would be coaching for Christ. "Because God gave me the vision initially, I felt called to continue to be available to serve the movement any way that I can."

THE VISION came to McCartney on Interstate 25 in March 1990, the annus mirabilis in which his Buffaloes won the national championship. He and his friend, Dave Wardell, the Colorado Chairman of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, were on a long drive to southern Colorado. What would Wardell do in life if he could do anything he wanted, the coach asked? He would talk to men, one-on-one, about salvation through Jesus Christ, Wardell replied. Bill went one better: he said that he would like to see Folsom Field, the Buffaloes' stadium, filled with men honouring Christ and learning about how to become "men of integrity", men who keep their promises. In his travels as a coach, he recalls, "I noticed there was a dynamic at work whenever men and boys would come together in the name of Jesus of Nazareth that was very, very powerful."

The sexual exclusivity of its stadium conferences is the movement's unique selling point and its bread and butter. Last year, Promise Keepers grossed $14.5m in conference attendance fees, over half the movement's total revenue, compared with the $5.4m it received from donations. Another $300,000 or so came from sales of Promise Keepers merchandise. At the stadiums, you can buy a sweatshirt for $38, a polo shirt for $28, or a hat for $10, a demure PK logo surmounting the legend "Promise Keepers Men Of Integrity" on the most popular model. The record attendance so far: over 72,000 in May at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

If you wandered into one of the conferences by mistake, you might think you were at a major sports event. Generally wholesome-looking, mostly white, the guys are a cross-section of middle America. They chant, roar, sing, do the "wave", and feast on nachos, hot dogs and other unhealthy food. Each of them has what looks like a sports programme, except that the programme has space in it to write down "Action Points" and coupons offering the book Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper for only $5. And the guys are not cheering on the Broncos or the Raiders. "We want Jesus, yes we do! We want Jesus, how 'bout you?" goes one of their favourite chants. This isn't the Super Bowl; it's the Jesus Bowl.

For 131/2 hours spread over two days, the guys are fed an almost non- stop diet of fundamentalism. There's Christian pop music pumped out by the 13-member Maranatha! Promise Band from a stage worthy of the Rolling Stones; there are videos on the Diamond Vision, featuring testimonials from men whose lives have been transformed by Promise Keepers; and, most importantly, there is preaching.

With various styles and emphases, eight different preachers hammer home the same message: America is in a moral decline fuelled by citizens turning away from the teachings of Jesus Christ. As a result, men are suffering from "confused identities" and have abdicated their responsibilities to their wives and children. "Fatherlessness" has become an epidemic. The solution is to "rebirth" men in Christ and send them home with a renewed commitment to their loved ones. "The American dream has lost sight of the American family," McCartney says.

Some in the media have accused Promise Keepers of being anti-feminist and harbouring a radical right-wing political agenda. Sports Illustrated, for example, called McCartney's beliefs "a stew of ideas that combines ultraconservative politics with idealised concepts of marriage". Promise Keepers, it went on, was "thriving on what is clearly an anti-feminist backlash". But at the conferences, officials take pains to lay such perceptions to rest. "We have no candidates to promote, no legislation to advance," Randy Phillips, the syntactically-challenged Promise Keepers' president, tells reporters in one of his more cogent moments. When I ask McCartney what he would do if a right-wing presidential candidate came calling for his endorsement, he replies, "I'd say, 'Kneel with me and let's worship Jesus together.' "

Speakers stress that they aren't talking about turning the clock back and restoring male supremacy in the home. As Ed Cole preaches, the father is "prophet, priest and king", but only in a spiritual sense, as the family's main conduit to God. "You do not own your wife," he tells the guys. "You're only the steward of her love."

Gary Smalley, president of a Missouri ministry, invites the guys to list ways in which they can honour their wives. "Open car door", "Hold hand in public", "Make dinner", "Buy her flowers", I see my neighbours write. Then they jot down ways in which they have dishonoured their wives: "No housework", "No physical affection", "Pay attention to other women", "Not tell her you love her". Smalley says that his wife now fines him $10 every time he says or does anything that dishonours her.

The preachers make it very clear that they're talking about husbands and wives. Co-habitation or even premarital sex is out of the question. And McCartney hasn't softened his stand on gay rights. "Homosexuality is called a sin in the Bible and so that's what we believe," he says, matter of factly.

During the "messages", as the sermons are called, the guys raise their arms skywards, weep, embrace and "high-five" each other. "The spirit of God, that's what you see," McCartney explains. "If that spirit were inside you right now, you know what you'd be feeling? Excitement, energy." Those receiving the spirit for the first time are invited to gather at the front of the stage, where "spiritual" counsellors greet them and hand them a pack of material that includes a Promise Keepers "decision card".

As a climax, the guys may get to see "Coach Bill" live and in person. Although McCartney likes to present himself as one of the guys - he receives no salary from the organisation, and since leaving Colorado University has been working as a consultant for a Denver water-bed manufacturer - he doesn't mingle with them. At Mile High, he watched the conference from a luxury box, the door guarded by an imposing, bald man wearing aviator sunglasses.

This year, he's scheduled to close eight of the 13 conferences. In Denver, despite the improvised locker-room setting, he gives a virtuoso pep talk, one any trained preacher would be proud of. The mellifluous voice soars and breaks with emotion, the hands rise up and the arms flail; he rattles off biblical quotations as he once did football moves; he has his audience riveted. At one point, to dramatise Promise Keepers' commitment to "racial reconciliation", he calls the movement's chairman, a black Pentecostal bishop, out of the audience. "When I look into his eyes, I see the pain, I see the oppression!" he yells, embracing the portly cleric.

But most emotional of all is his own soul-baring. In the old days, he whispers, "I was a guy that when I was home, I wasn't really home." Then, one day, he got down on his knees before Lyndi and begged her to forgive him. "I was broken before her, I was laid bare before her, exposed before her." He was forgiven, and Lyndi has been rejuvenated. After the Detroit conference in April, he says, she told him: "The glow has returned, the radiance is coming back, the bounce is back in my step."

LYNDI IS NOT the only wife to have started glowing again because of Promise Keepers, according to McCartney. "It's translating into changed lives," he says. "Guys that have been coming to these things, if you talk to their wives... they've experienced a transformation." In an age of 50 per cent divorce rates, it's hard to argue with such results. Promise Keepers' critics, the coach says, are usually those "who don't listen. They go to the press conference, they don't have time to listen to the message." But judging by the two full conferences I sat through, and some of McCartney's own comments, the critics may be on to something.

The message is not overtly anti-feminist, but you could easily leave a Promise Keepers conference believing that women have barely emerged from the Fifties stereotype - less educated than their husbands, certainly not as well-paid even if they have a job outside the home, and waiting anxiously in their aprons for their men to take care of them and "bring them to splendour". "They're using God to prop up patriarchy," says Vanessa Salinas, state co-ordinator for Colorado NOW (National Organisation for Women). "They are devaluing what women have achieved so that they can feel good about themselves again. The only thing they are valuing is the fact that they can take care of their wives. Why can't their wives take care of themselves?"

"It seems like a very patriarchal perspective," agrees Sue Anderson, executive director of Equality Colorado, a gay and lesbian civil rights group. "It's really about men asserting their dominance in the family." A protest banner trailed behind a plane over Mile High Stadium during the Denver conference put it bluntly: "Women Aren't That Stupid."

As for politics, McCartney and his colleagues are, at the very least, disingenuous when they say they have no agenda. They have taken conservative positions on political issues, notably homosexual rights and abortion; such high-profile right-wing groups as Focus on the Family have set up promotional booths at Promise Keepers conferences. "What Promise Keepers does is bring people in and connect them to that [right-wing] political agenda," says Anderson.

And while McCartney may not be an "ayatollah", he is a theocrat. In his America, there is no separation of church and state. Government, he says, "is subservient to the kingdom of God. If you serve the kingdom of God, and you had a nation of people who did that, your nation would run very effectively and very smoothly. The solution to all the political problems that are out there is the gospel of Jesus Christ." That non-Christians might have a problem with such ideas simply does not enter into McCartney's equation. "Either get in and let's go," he says, "or stay on shore, but don't straddle the shore and the boat. You're either in or you're out."

This hard line may ultimately be self-defeating; for the movement to make a real impact on America, or anywhere else, it will have to go beyond its core, fundamentalist constituency. As Salinas says: "I don't think the evangelical movement is for everybody. They may top out at a million men in Washington."

But perhaps the biggest question mark over Promise Keepers is the future of its star. Recently, McCartney was rumoured to be a candidate for the head coaching job back at the University of Michigan, and many observers believe he will return to football in a few years. If he doesn't, that could affect Promise Keepers' box-office appeal: "I would think Bill McCartney's name as a national draw would diminish the longer he stays away from football," says Mark Wolf, the Denver columnist. On the other hand, if McCartney were to go back to coaching and all its pressures, could that jeopardise the renewed glow in his own household?

In his current state of certainty, McCartney is not worrying about such dilemmas. He's too busy thinking about new worlds to conquer, new nations to shake. "The spirit that is in a man anywhere in this country that receives Jesus as lord of his life, that's the same spirit that's in a man overseas," he says. "We only need to be together for about five seconds and we connect."

He won't even have any regrets when the Buffaloes take the field without him this autumn. Coaching just doesn't compare with his new life. "I don't believe it's going to matter a lot how many games I have won," he says. "I believe that one day I'm going to have to give an account of whether I helped bring my wife to splendour in Jesus Christ." !