Mixed-up males flock to promises of salvation

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THE Promise Keepers, a controversial Christian movement for the empowerment of men, is the latest in a resurgence of evangelical groups seeking salvation and moral certainty across America. Last month, 70,000 members joined in worship at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado, in the largest gathering since the little-known organisation was founded five years ago by Bill McCartney a former football coach at the University of Colorado.

The rapidly growing group, which expects to attract 700,000 men over the course of 13 nationwide events this summer, believes it has tapped into a mass identity crisis among white middle-class men who fear for their future in a society experiencing rapid transition.

The aims of the group are allied to the designs of the Christian Right; to restore the values "that made America great", which have been lost in an abyss of crime, racial strife, divorce and "unwholesome" lifestyles. At stake, apparently, is the very future of the country and it is a message that is being carried across the nation through sports-stadium gatherings and small church-orientated groups designed to allow men to express their emotions. "We want men to be successes with their families first," explains McCartney, giving the essential credo."No success outside the home can make up for being a failure with one's family."

In 1990 McCartney and a friend had the idea of filling stadiums with Christian men dedicated to uniting their sex through "vital relationships to become godly influences in the world".

Later that year 72 men gathered to pray and fast for the concept of men coming together for the purpose of discipleship. A year later 4,000 came. Each year since the organisation has grown by 400 per cent.

In 1997 leaders hope to marshal a million men to march on Washington.There they will kneel in prayer, ask God for forgiveness as men and to restore America.

David Wardell, the group's co-founder and ambassador-at-large, blames many of America's problems on libertarian attitudes that took root in the Sixties. "We saw moral absolutism replaced with moral relativism, all these foreign countries and countless myriad [sic] of beliefs without unity."

The stringent "hierarchy of power" espoused by the group - namely, God, Jesus, man, woman and children - is causing concern to many commentators, particularly women and ethnic minorities, who see the group as intolerant toward abortion, non-Christian religions and gays .

"Their ideology is the same one the evangelicals have believed in for 300 years," says Diana Butler, a columnist for the New York Times."If you are not within that hierarchy of power you are seen to be causing disorder in the world." Despite lobbying, success in attracting minorities has not come easily - members attending the $55 per head weekend in Colorado were encouraged to pay the enrolment fees for Asians, Latinos and blacks. Few showed up.

The rapid growth of the organisation among white Christian men is in part due to the efficiency of proselytising the Promise Keepers have developed. Ninety per cent of the $3m each rally raises is used to pay for smaller groups and future events. So far there are more than 10,000 "ambassadors", men who go out to recruit and spread the word in local churches.

In many ways the Promise Keepers mirror the brotherly support of freemasonry. Lysle Carter, a 34-year-old repairman, joined the group in 1991. "The guys helped me to feel not so isolated and alone," he said. "They loaned me cars, got me jobs, and gave me money, food, a place to stay and someone who would listen."