They call themselves the Promise Keepers, and they came to the capital to engage in a mass act of exorcism, a cleansing of their own and their nation's impurities. Glen from Arizona, clutching a Bible in his hand, explained it: "God calls his people to their capital for the good of the country, but for the country to be saved we must first atone for our sins."
The Promise Keepers, an organisation founded by a retired American football coach seven years ago, believe that America has deviated from the righteous path set out by the Puritan founders. Drugs, drink and sex have perverted the Utopian vision and only by picking up the fallen spear of Christ the Warrior - "the Big Guy" - will God's fallen people return once more to the light of His divine grace.
According to a survey, 62 per cent of Promise Keepers confess that they struggle with "sexual sin". Typically vast single-sex congregations of 50,000 or more gather in sports stadiums around the USA to fall on their knees, sob and beseech the Lord's forgiveness for having committed lust in their hearts or in the flesh, for having abused their minds and bodies through the medium of pornographic magazines.
Yesterday 10 times 50,000 men did the same thing, howling, wailing, singing, placing hands on their brothers' heads and pledging to rededicate themselves to their matrimonial vows, to making America pure again.
The T-shirts told a large part of the story. "Real Men Pray Every Day", "I Am a Life That Was Changed" and "Grateful Alive", presumably a riposte to the benighted souls of that other, lost America whose creed is to "do the good time thing", as preached by the Grateful Dead's late Jerry Garcia.
Yesterday's event catered to the seemingly universal human need to participate in huge tribal gatherings. Instead of an open- air rock concert, with its concomitant spiritual and carnal perils, the Promise Keepers staged what they called a Sacred Assembly of Men complete with giant video screens, speakers the size of houses and prayer tents. A dozen such tents had been erected on the Mall for men to enjoy a relatively private moment of communion with God.
Which seemed rather to defeat the point of what was essentially an act of mass exhibitionist confession of sins. Entering more into the spirit of things was a little group of middle-aged men in shorts huddled together in the October sunshine like a rugby maul shorn of evil intent; or a circle of a dozen younger men holding hands; or two men - one white, one black - quietly communing, the white man weeping on the black man's shoulder, the black man stroking his head and whispering words of consolation in his ear.
A handful of women were scattered among the throng. But, as if to make clear they were not interloping on the men's spiritual nourishment, they wore round stickers over their chests that read "Food" - an image that would be grist to the mill to the feminists who have denounced the Promise Keepers as a threat to the struggle for gender equality.
And, indeed, the Promise Keepers make no secret of their belief that men should assume "spiritual leadership" over their wives. They cherish the passage in St Paul that says: "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, and so to the Lord." Yet Bill McCartney, the former Michigan University football coach who heads the organisation, has made it plain that he intends his followers also to serve their wives.
"The heroes are not the guys scoring the most touchdowns," he says. "It's the guys who wash the dishes, change the diapers, take out the garbage."
The Promise Keepers' wives, questioned insistently by the press, have not been doing a great deal of complaining. So long as he washes the dishes and changes the baby's nappies, their attitude seems to be he can have all the spiritual leadership fantasies that he pleases.Reuse content