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Promise Keepers considered // Beware this army that marches to a right-wing beat

For any fan of the New York Mets, there is nothing extraordinary about the sight of men praying at Shea Stadium. But the praying I saw there Saturday was beyond major league. Some 35,000 standing, waving guys shouted their love to Jesus at a decibel level unknown even in Shea's occasional brushes with a pennant race. During a marathon rally of sermonizing, singing and praying, the men also repeatedly sobbed and hugged each other _ or, more joyously, slapped high-fives while repeating the chant "Thank God I'm a man!"

What I was witnessing was the New York City debut of Promise Keepers, possibly the fastest-growing spiritual phenomenon in America. Founded by the former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney in 1990, this all-male, all-Christian movement, which attracted 4,200 participants to its first rally in 1991, now has a $115-million annual budget and expects to draw a million men to its stadium rallies this year.

In February, Promise Keepers staged what is believed to be the largest meeting ever of American clergy (some 39,000, again men-only) in Atlanta, prompting McCartney to be named "Person of the Week" by ABC News. In the fall of '97, PK, as its members call it, will stage its own "million man march" on Washington.

Avowedly apolitical, PK says it aspires only to bring men to God, to make them better husbands and fathers and to further racial reconciliation. How noncontroversial can you get? But of late PK has aroused the concern of many who monitor the far right.

Alfred Ross, who researched Planned Parenthood's early, pre-Oklahoma City warnings about the militia movement, says that PK is the heir to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition as "the third wave of the religious right's assault on American democracy and values" _ a view he airs in the current issue of The Nation. The journalist Fred Clarkson writes in his forthcoming book, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, that PK is "the most dynamic element of the Christian right of the mid 1990s" and "a front and recruiting agency" for its political ambitions.

These and other critics cite PK's anti-feminist call for men to "take back" power from women, its cult-like psychology and its authoritarian, military-modeled organization, with its proliferating network of local cells. Particularly ominous are the many ideological and financial links between the PK hierarchy and organizations pushing the full religious-right agenda of outlawing abortion, demonizing homosexuals and bringing prayer and creationism to public schools.

Though some Christian groups have decried PK for its "generic," nondenominational Christianity, Falwell and Robertson are enthusiastic supporters. McCartney himself has addressed the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and called homosexuals "an abomination of almighty God" while campaigning for the passage of Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2, thrown out by the Supreme Court this year.

The main PK texts are not only endorsed but also published by James Dobson's Focus on the Family, the powerful, radio-driven theocratic crusade that is to the right of the Christian Coalition and has twice its membership.

The Promise Keepers I met at Shea seemed more motivated by a Robert Bly-esque hunger to overcome macho inhibitions and reconnect with God than by any desire to enlist in a political army.

But an army PK most certainly is. Its preachers sound more like generals and hard-charging motivational cheerleaders than clergy. The show's split-second precision suggests a Radio City religious pageant staged by George Patton. The Rockettes, so to speak, are uniformed female "PK volunteers" who run the cash registers and supervise garbage collection at lunch.

The mainstream media, meanwhile, mainly cover PK as a human-interest story. But if the press was right (and it was) to ask how the leader of the last, black Million Man March might exploit that event's honorable goals and participants for his own insidious political aims, surely it's past time to apply the same scrutiny to a mostly white million man march of equally controversial provenance and potentially far greater political force.

New York Times News Service