The great wave of Christian fundamentalism that has been building in small towns and cities across America for more than a decade surged into the nation’s capital Saturday as the evangelical men’s movement called Promise Keepers staged one of the largest religious rallies in the history of the United States.
A crowd that appeared to number well over half a million people packed the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond for six hours of hymns, prayer, repentance and pledges to cleanse their personal lives, rededicate themselves to their families and work for racial reconciliation.
The gathering, which appeared to exceed in size any previous rally or assemblage in Washington, contained large numbers of blacks and other minorities, as well as wives and other women supporting the movement. And in keeping with the day’s emphasis on ethnic reconciliation, the huge podium just west of the Capitol dome was filled with blacks, Latinos, Asians, native Americans and Messianic Jews, or Jews for Jesus.
Like the Promise Keepers movement itself, however, the crowd was composed predominantly of white men.
The Promise Keepers founder, former University of Colorado football coach William McCartney, said his group focused on men because “men have been irresponsible. Men have not stood strong for their convictions. Men have not been men of their word. The reason we see a downward spiral in morality in this nation is because the men of God have not stood together.”
In an appearance near the end of the rally, McCartney called upon the crowd to heal the racial divide in America and bring others to Jesus. “We want you to bring the lost,” he exhorted with the zeal he once used to mold championship football teams. “We want you to bring the lukewarm. . . . Go out and bring them.”
The U.S. Park Police and National Park Service, stung by the controversy that followed their relatively low crowd estimates for the Million Man March that drew hundreds of thousands of black men to Washington in October 1995, refused to offer official crowd estimates for Saturday’s event.
But the crowd seemed at least comparable to, and by some estimates larger than, the crowd assembled during the Million Man March. And it seemed to surpass that at the civil rights rally led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 or the Vietnam Moratorium antiwar protest in 1969.
For their part, Promise Keepers officials insisted that they were not overly concerned about crowd size. “It’s not that we don’t care how many are here, but we care more about what is in their hearts,” said Steve Ruppe, director of public relations for Promise Keepers.
The sheer scale of the crowd seemed to overwhelm many of the men who had come from around the country, often traveling in caravans of buses from their local churches.
“I think it’s fantastic to see this many men--you could not get this many people if it was not for the Lord,” said Don Tuinstra, a 45-year-old father of three from Zeeland, Mich. After arriving in Washington by bus with other members of his small evangelical church, Tuinstra camped out overnight in a private Christian school in suburban Maryland before attending Saturday’s event.
“I think a lot of men will go home with a renewal of their hearts,” he said. “I think they will go home on fire for the Lord.”
Others who had been skeptical of whether the Promise Keepers movement would be exploited for political purposes--as McCartney had insisted it would not--said they were pleased that the focus of Saturday’s rally was kept on spiritual renewal.
“I was skeptical at first because these kinds of things have often been used for political ends, but this really is different,” said Richard Moore, an evangelical pastor from Howard City, Mich.
Promise Keepers has come under fire from feminists and other groups who charge that its call for men to take control of their households is a thinly veiled effort to force women to give up their rights and submit to traditional male authority. And a small number of women’s groups and others protested peacefully Saturday near the rally.
The crowd was extraordinarily peaceable, especially considering its size. District of Columbia and U.S. Park Police arrested 24 people for illegal vending--chiefly food and T-shirts--and two arrests were made for disorderly conduct, but police said the individuals were not involved with the event.
Founded seven years ago by McCartney in Boulder, Colo., Promise Keepers has grown geometrically in America’s fundamentalist grass roots, from an initial prayer group of 72 men to mammoth stadium events that have been attended by a total of 2.6 million men.
Ready to replicate the experience across the country, McCartney set Jan. 1, 2000, for rallies at every state capitol to “take roll call” for Jesus Christ. And in a departure from the group’s $60-a-head stadium rallies of the past, McCartney pledged to hold 37 free events over the next two years and make plans beyond that to spread the ministry globally.
But as Promise Keepers has exploded onto the national scene, both McCartney and the group have come under increasing scrutiny for possible ties to right-wing causes.
“If this is about men getting together embracing Jesus, that’s wonderful,” said Julie Carr, a protester from Washington, D.C. “But Promise Keepers leaders say that men should go home, sit their wives down and say they are taking control of their lives. That’s what scares me.”
Throughout the day, many men interviewed struggled to explain why they think feminists and the national media misunderstand their vision of the proper relationship between husband and wife.
“It is not a desire to dominate. It is a desire to reflect the image of God,” said Tracy Wright, children’s pastor at the East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis.
“Promise Keepers has changed my heart and my approach to my own home. What we are saying is that too often women have been pulling their weight in the household, but men have not. We have got to do more. Promise Keepers has called me to examine myself, and to ask if I am honoring my wife.”
While some religious-right political leaders appeared to try to take advantage of the huge influx of fundamentalists into Washington, Promise Keepers officials claimed they had made a concerted effort to keep politics out of Saturday’s official events. And in fact, there were no addresses from politicians.
Promise Keepers did place a strong emphasis on racial healing and reconciliation. But in at least one instance their efforts may have backfired.
Wearing traditional Jewish skullcaps and prayer shawls, a group of Messianic Jews brought long curled ram’s horns, or shofar, to the stage to launch the event just before noon. In a ceremony that would have startled and offended many traditional Jews, who never blow the shofar on Saturday, the Sabbath, the messianic Jews blew four blasts, using the Hebrew words to call the notes that are used in traditional Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services.
There was a fairly significant number of blacks in the crowd, many of whom came from evangelical Christian churches. Several said they felt comfortable in the predominantly white setting of Promise Keepers rallies because they believe that the group is earnest in its call for racial healing.
In fact, some of the white speakers acknowledged their past racist attitudes, while black speakers used their turn at the podium to speak candidly of the hypocrisy of Southern white fundamentalists in the 1960s, when they opposed political involvement to support the civil rights movement.
“It [racial reconciliation among evangelical Christians] is something that should have been done a long time ago,” said Morris Ransom, a black pastor from Columbus, Ohio. “I believe Promise Keepers is living up to its rhetoric.”
Yet the day was largely a white Protestant fundamentalist prayer meeting for men, and up and down the Mall, small clusters of men gathered in circles to pray among themselves and at their own pace, while loudspeakers and Jumbo-Tron stadium television screens blared sermons from the main stage. The prayer groups would have looked familiar to anyone who had ever been to an evangelical or charismatic Christian church.
When not praying among themselves, they were following the Promise Keepers speakers in prayer and song, swaying with arms outstretched above them, praying with Bibles in hand, or singing along to old-time gospel music.
“There is nothing like this!” exclaimed Doug Camp, a young evangelical from Oneonta, Ala., as he looked across the vast sea of praying and swaying men. Camp traveled overnight by bus in a group of 42 men from his small church, and was planning to return home immediately after the rally for another overnight ride.
“But this is one thing you couldn’t miss,” he said joyously. “You just had to be here.”
Times staff writers Jodi Wilgoren and Sam Fulwood III contributed to this story.
* SOUTHLAND PRESENCE: Skid row and suburban congregants gathered at rally. A24
* PERSONAL JOURNEYS: Men share the stories leading up to their pilgrimage. A24
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The Seven Promises
Promise Keepers are expected to keep seven promises. Each man is to:
1. Honor Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God’s word.
2. Pursue vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
3. Practice spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity.
4. Build strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.
5. Support the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and actively giving his time and resources.
6. Reach beyond any racial and denominational barrier.
7. Influence his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31), to love the Lord and one’s neighbor, and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), to teach all nations about Christianity.