This year, a million men will attend rallies organised by the Promise Keepers, America's fastest growing religious group. Their message for manhood is simple - Real Men Love Jesus. Rupert Cornwell reports
It is just before noon and under a leaden Washington sky, Isaac Canales is revving up for his peroration. The speech by the Hispanic pastor from Los Angeles has been a real stemwinder about children, parental guidance, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. "Go tell the teenagers," he thunders, "'You don't need a condom, you need a Bible, man.'" Suddenly, the gates of RFK Stadium are thrown open. Thousands of boys rush into the arena, kicking up the dust of a Texas cattle stampede as they mass in front of the speaker's rostrum. They are of all ages, from teenagers verging on adulthood to infants barely old enough for kindergarten. But each of them holds a tiny white cross, clenched in his raised right hand. "WE WILL TAKE A STAND," they chant, and from the throats of an assembled 50,000 men rises the answer, rending the very heavens, "WE LOVE YOU KIDS".

Here in a stadium where the normal spectacle is of men in shoulder pads and protective helmets crashing into each other in ritualised sporting warfare, a very different kind of man is on display. He is a husband and a father who cherishes children. He is elated yet gentle - almost contrite. His mind is fixed on the theme of the rally, which is "Break Down the Walls", a summons to reconciliation within families, within communities and between the races. And he believes he can save America. He is a Promise Keeper, a guy for God, part of the surging men's Christian movement that is a spearhead of America's great search for moral renewal.

This weekend at RFK, everything is so familiar - yet so strange. The place is packed as for a sporting event. But where vendors usually peddle Washington Redskins souvenirs stands an "information tent", a blue and white canvas marquee itself as long as a football pitch. Inside is a supermarket for the soul, a hundred or more stalls offering every material or spiritual prop a Promise Keeper could dream of. There are T-Shirts proclaiming "Real Men Love Jesus" and "Real Men Sing Real Loud" and "Proud to be a Dad" baseball caps. There are books and videos with titles like "How To Dad". Experts are on hand to advise on "Christian Financial Concepts" and "The Biblical Way of Managing Money" and ministries for the "Relationally and Sexually Broken".

And sometimes sport and the Almighty unabashedly merge. A book expounds on "Life Lessons from Little League," while an organisation called Links Players, led by such titans of the sport as Bernhard Langer and Paul Azinger, invites golfing Promise Keepers "to use their golf for the glory of God".

Inside the stadium the juxtaposition verges on the surreal. The group's founder is a former college football coach, and at times the occasion could be a loosening-up session at the local jocks' club. "Morning, guys, we're going to worship the Lord today," the master of ceremonies Chuck Bolte proclaims as he gets proceedings underway at 8.20am. "The Lord is a great God ... Is he greater than the Redskins?" A roof-raising "Yeah" billows forth in response (though the question, if truth be told, is not difficult: the team is so bad these days that divine intervention may be the only solution).

But when men-only crowds pack huge athletics stadiums to worship, and when the air reeks of french fries and hot dogs, distinctions blur between veneration of the local football team and veneration of the Almighty. Has God taken over the Superbowl, or the other way around? Either way, the Promise Keepers are now America's fastest growing religious organisation. Its roots and trappings are of the church, but its real strength lies in reaching into an identity crisis gripping American manhood.

Society is in transition, say the Promise Keepers, and men are adrift. Pressures for career success are fiercer than ever - just when a man's traditional role as head of the family is being eroded by the advent of the working woman and the two-income household, by more frequent divorce and diminishing job security. But it is men who are overwhelmingly blamed for the breakdown of the family and the ills that follow: out-of-wedlock births, crime, widening drug use, violence. Increasingly, they cannot cope. Hence the goal of the Promise Keepers, "to unite men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world".

The organisation was founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney, a former head football coach at the University of Colorado. A year later, 4,200 men attended the first rally. In 1995, more than 727,000 went to 13 stadium events; this year 22 are scheduled, attendance at which will easily exceed a million people, paying $60 apiece for an exercise in bonding and group therapy. And this at a time when ordinary church attendance in the country is at an 11-year low.

Not surprisingly, sniping at the Promise Keepers grows in step with their popularity. Their rallies are said to be less spiritual events than touchy- feely mass happenings. The movement is accused by the left-leaning and liberal-minded of being rabidly anti-homosexual and anti-feminist, the mass embodiment of Pat Buchanan and the militant Christian political right at prayer.

But if a weekend at RFK is any guide, the charges are unfair. Although the Promise Keeper's insistence on church, family, and wholesome living - enshrined in the seven promises he makes to God - read like socially conservative Republicanism, the group shuns politics. Not a word is to be heard about the new Supreme Court ruling striking down state laws discriminating against homosexuals, or the controversy raging over gay marriages. There are no tirades against abortion, and amid all the paraphernalia on sale, there is not a single flier from Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, the driving force of the political religious right. Indeed, the Promise Keepers have postponed until 1997 a Million Man March planned to be held in Washington this summer for fear it would be misinterpreted in an election year.

Once McCartney described homosexuality as "an abomination against Almighty God", but here Randy Phillips, the Promise Keepers' president, strikes a different note. Gays, he says, will find a message "not of condemnation, but of compassion, and hope for change". In the information tent you find such brochures as A Compassionate Approach to Parenting The Homosexual. The goal is not to isolate gays, but to enlist God's help to lead them back to heterosexuality. Arrogant and condescending certainly, but not exactly an excommunication.

Nor is RFK the last stand of the Angry White Male. Women are discouraged from attending but not prevented. "If we did," scoffs Phillips, "we'd be sued." Rather, it seems an attempt to turn the clock back to that imagined American Golden Age of the 1940s and 1950s whose patron saint is Norman Rockwell, an ordered and simple universe in which everything seemed certain, when jobs were safe for life, men were breadwinners and women kept house, and such modern aberrations as feminism, working wives and single-parent families did not exist.

Charlie Goodwin, sitting across from the "Prayer Booth" tent set up where the halfway line would normally be, is attending his second Promise Keepers' conference. He has brought a friend from church, John Damba. They are in their late forties and come from nearby white suburban Maryland: in short, typical Promise Keepers, even though this year 10 to 15 per cent of the crowd is black.

Goodwin has no doubt of the benefits of the occasion. "It helps you refresh your mind, and to realise what's important. Men are programmed differently from women, they'll open up before another guy in a way they won't do in a mixed setting. These meetings are a macho thing, but also not a macho thing. They encourage people to go back to their churches and start Promise Keeper groups. And you look on your family differently." His wife had encouraged him to go last year. "I got home and she asked, 'What happened?' She saw a real change, that I was trying to get through to her."

Indeed, a premise of a Promise Keeper's creed is that as a husband and father, he has lost contact with his family. A pencil-written note pinned to RFK's main message board could be a metaphor of the occasion: "Dad, I'm in section 122, where are you? Your son, Andy." But in this politically correct age, the concept of the dominant male head of household is one to be avoided. The preferred formulation is of a man's "leader-servant" role at home. Bishop Phillip Porter, the Promise Keepers' chairman and a prominent civil rights activist, acknowledges that confusion at the increasing prominence of women in society is "a factor in the growth of our movement. But women have stepped forward because we men left a vacuum."

So where next for the Promise Keepers? The immediate geographical answer is, abroad. Canada and Britain are leading candidates for their own Promise Keeper organisations, but preliminary contacts have taken place with churches in a score of other countries. It is possible, but unlikely, that a women's Promise Keepers will be set up. Least clear of all is the movement's longer term future. Will it become just another of the noisy revivalist groups that have always studded America's search for God, or a catalyst for something truly new?

But in the end, sheer spectacle sweeps away such musings. Gary Smalley, a TV marriage and family guru and best-selling author of Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships, is on stage, urging his all-male audience to tell each other what they most appreciate in their wives and families. For an instant, participants are sheepish, then the barriers break. Two by two they pair off and a sprinkling of conversations broadens into a soft hum, then a loud surging buzz that envelops the stadium as a myriad men exchange family photos with complete strangers - black or white, Hispanic or Caucasian, it makes no difference - just talking to each other.

"Let's never get used to this moment," urges Randy Phillips from the podium, "this is a miracle." And for a moment at least, as 50,000 male voices intone "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty" barely a stone's throw from some of the most violent neighbourhoods in the country, it is hard to disagree. Even in America, maybe the meek really will inherit the earth.

THE SEVEN PROMISES

A Promise Keeper is committed to...

1. Honouring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God's word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. Pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.

3. Practising spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity.

4. Building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.

5. Supporting the mission of his church by honouring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources.

6. Reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.

7. Influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (see Mark 12: 30-31) and the Great Commission (see Matthew 28: 19-20).

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