Born-again husbands - a promise or a threat?

The Promise Keepers' march in Washington DC last weekend was 600,000 men rededicating themselves to their wives and children in the name of religion. It was billed as an act of humility. But, asks David Cohen, was it really a bid for mastery? His lip started to quiver, his face reddened, he held out his arms to the heavens in a posture of abject surrender. Then Dan Sharpless, a tattooed, 31-year-old builder from Florida, began to weep: tears rolled down his face and plopped onto the baking hot sand of the Washington Mall. All around him, hundreds of thousands of Christian men were either on their knees, foreheads on the ground, or leaning on each other in impromptu prayer circles.

"We men have sinned grievously, we have abandoned our families," the speaker on the stage was saying from the Capitol Hill end of the mile- long gathering, his voice carried to the assembled men over giant loudspeakers and his image relayed by ten-storey-high video-screens. "We have wounded our wives and created disappointment after disappointment. We have pushed our children away and abandoned them. Oh God, we have caused so much pain ..."

Between sniffs, Dan Sharpless explained his tears, his voice creaky with emotion: "I have been married 10 years. For nine-and-half of those years I neglected my wife and sons. I put work before family. I worked 78 hours a week. I was never there. But six months ago, following my wife's promptings, I joined the Promise Keepers and I got saved. I am crying because I am overcome with gratitude that I have shifted the focus of my life. I work a 40-hour week, I help at home, I am attentive to my wife's emotions, I watch my boys play baseball, I'm involved in their lives."

A few paces away, Biff Lee, a 49-year-old policeman from Delaware with two children, reflected soberly on his divorce after 17 years of marriage. "When I was married, I wasn't totally faithful," he said. "As a state police officer, I spent a lot of time away from home. I had more than a couple of affairs, I can tell you. I neglected my wife ... I have shed some tears today. If I get married again, I'd like to be a better husband."

Over the loudspeaker, to rapturous applause from the crowd, the next charismatic Promise Keeper speaker boomed out his message: "Remember men, when you go home after a hard day's work in the office, you go home to your second job - as a husband and father."

If for a moment, you closed your eyes, forgot where you were and listened closely to the words of the speakers, you could have imagined you were at a rally addressed by finger-wagging feminists. Yet the Promise Keepers, an all-male evangelical movement, and their "do the right thing" revivalist message are denounced by the National Organisation for Women (NOW), America's leading feminist group, who passed a resolution declaring Promise Keepers "the greatest danger to women's rights". You may wonder: why should men rededicating themselves to their wives and their children (as well as to fighting racism) constitute a threat to women? Surely they would be pleased at the prospect of a male moral revolution?

Therein lies an intriguing tale of our times and an eyeview into the new terrain of the sex war as it is currently being played out in America. The debate which raged in the US press last week was this: If this is the new model of manhood for our times, as some social commentators suggest, then is it a progressive model that regards women as equals? Or is it a reactionary one, contrived to subjugate women and reaffirm men as patriarchal heads of their households? As Time magazine, who featured the Promise Keepers on their cover, put it: should these men be cheered - or feared?

President Clinton, in his weekly radio address, gave his endorsement to the Promise Keepers when he said: "No one can question the sincerity of the hundreds of thousands of men who have filled football stadiums across our country and who are willing to resume their responsibilities to the families and to their children and therefore to our future." Hillary Clinton had praised the Promise Keepers in her book, It Takes a Village, but was cautious about its leadership.

Much of the public distrust of the Promise Keepers stems from doubts over the leadership and fears that they are a Trojan horse for the religious right. The Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney, a spectacularly successful University of Colorado football coach who felt guilty that he had chased his career at the expense of his family: his wife had fallen into depression and his daughter had had a child out-of-wedlock after sleeping with one of the football players on his team. One day he had a vision of men coming together in large numbers to repent in stadiums around the country. The first public gathering in Denver drew 4,200 men, whom he asked to commit to the seven promises which, among other things, involve building strong marriages and reaching beyond racial discrimination. The movement grew rapidly, but only after it had received initial funding from the religious right. Today McCartney likes to distance himself from the religious right and insists that the movement is not political.

But leadership integrity aside, it is the sheer numerical weight of the Promise Keepers rank-and-file support that has forced this issue onto the public agenda. On Friday and Saturday, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 Christian men chartered planes, trains, buses and automobiles to attend the Promise Keepers prayer gathering on the Washington Mall. The airport ran out of parking space for privately chartered airplanes and additional trains were laid on. The Park Police said it ranked with the largest events held on the Mall, including the anti-Vietnam and civil rights marches of the Sixties and the Million Man March organised by Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam two years ago.

Throughout last week, as more than one million men registered their intent via the Internet to attend the rally, speculation centred on whether it would surpass the Million Man March for sheer size. But more significant than the squabble over headcount is the uncannily similar message the two events gave out on the subject of responsible fatherhood. At both rallies, the leadership issued a clarion call for fathers to take on their financial and nurturing responsibilities to their wives and children. "Deadbeat dads," they said, would not be tolerated.

The striking thing about this informal fatherhood "alliance" is that it cuts across age, race, religion and class. The Nation of Islam appeals mainly to young, low income black Muslims, whereas according to a poll conducted for the Washington Post, men attending the Promise Keepers rally were predominantly white, middle-aged (30 to 50), middle-income (median income $48,000) husbands and fathers. But statistics can conceal as well as reveal, and what was striking to the naked eye was the sheer diversity of the men attending: there were doctors, lawyers, builders and businessmen, teenage dads and granddads, men in wheelchairs and on rollerblades. There was also a diverse racial mix, with blacks, Hispanics and Asians comprising approximately 20 per cent of the crowd. The only overwhelming likeness was that almost to a man, they were evangelical born-again Christians. As one black man's T-shirt read: "It's not a black thing, it's not a white thing, it's a Jesus thing." Pollsters estimated 46 per cent of the men to be Republican, 15 per cent Democrats and only half calling themselves "conservative".

So what makes 600,000 men travel 14 hours, cramped in a bus in order to have a collective sob? The reasons why individual men become Promise Keepers are complex (cynics suggest they are just lonely, disenfranchised sad-sacks looking for friends), but it seems also to reflect a deep concern at a moral malaise they perceive both in themselves and in society.

Their starting point seems to be the same one taken by feminists - that men are responsible for most of the ills in modern society. Only their solutions are different. The feminist's solution is for a woman to take back her power in the home and in society. The Promise Keepers solution is for men to repent and to change their behaviour, to become loving and devoted servants to their wives and in return, take their place as the spiritual head of their household.

It's at the mention of the words "head of the household" that feminists go ballistic. When McCartney is asked whether a man and woman have equal power in a marriage, his answer is "yes, but if the husband and wife cannot agree, the man must take responsibility". What kind of an equality is that?

The wives of the Promise Keepers have come out zealously in defence of their reformed husbands. When your husband does the right thing and is truly considerate of your needs, crude issues of "who has the final say" fall by the wayside. More than 60 per cent of the Promise Keepers have wives who are working and pursuing their own careers. Many of their husbands only went to Promise Keepers because their wives told them to go. So what does that say about who has the power in their relationships? These women are calling for a more sophisticated debate about sexual politics in relationships.

"I am one of those `submissive wives' that all those liberal groups are so worried about," said one wife, Noreen Hanson. "In the year that my husband has been involved in Promise Keepers, I have been `forced' to `submit' to a husband who has begun to appreciate what I do. I have had to `submit' to flowers, help around the house, a day off from the children once in a while, a man who wants to wash and massage my feet. My children have had to `submit' to a dad who has become involved in their lives. He now does homework with them, helps them with music lessons and is involved in their school programs. He has begun to know them. I'll take the Promise Keeper I have now and leave the husband I had 18 months ago behind."

Another "wife", Laura Garvey, one of the few who attended the rally with her husband, said that if women's libbers had to see how her husband gets up at night for the baby and changes the nappies, "they would put a crown on him". It seemed that the tide of feminism had washed over at least some of these men, imbuing them with a sense of wanting to be progressive, rather than patriarchal fathers.

Some dyed-in-the-wool feminists were clearly caught unawares by this unexpectedly enlightened male attitude. "It's not good enough. Men should honour all women, not just the woman they fuck," insisted Katie, who along with her colleagues had removed her bra and T-shirt in order to make a visual statement as well as a verbal one.

Sure, said the Promise Keepers. But honouring the women they "had sex with" seemed not a bad place to start.

David Cohen is a regular contributor to `The Independent'. At present he is doing research into gender politics in the US on a Harkness Fellowship, supported by The Commonwealth Foundation.