Male Virgins, Blood Covenants & Family Values

Male Virgins, Blood Covenants & Family Values

by John Stoltenberg

Heresy raises hell — like when Copernicus said, “The sun does not revolve around the earth.” So imagine the heat when feminists declare, “Men are not superior to women.” The babel has begun and even God Him/Herself is up for grabs. Join OTI as we “Eve”-drop on a conference of fired-up fundamentalist men, the still-hot Saint Joan, and some insurgent Christian feminists (cooling their heels).


The man shouting is seasoned revivalist Dr. Ed Cole. He is revving up a crowd of 45,000 men, who do as he bids. They are gathered in Texas Stadium near Dallas on a beatific morning one Saturday last October to participate in a phenomenon called Promise Keepers, a major new men’s movement that has burst upon the U.S. scene, born of Christian fundamentalism.

Across the land, men by the tens of thousands are flocking to such arenas, where they listen to sermons for hours, confess their sins with all their hearts, sing hymns with all their lungs, and shed tears of salvation and joy with no women around. They renew their vows to their wives if they are married, to their virginity if they are not, and to “secondary virginity” (a quaintly restorative notion) if they need to. Above all, they reiterate their submission to a divine Father and Son and reconnect to true godhead and true manhood in one fell swoon.

A hushed fervor fills the Texas Stadium stands, becoming an audience reaction like none other: men weeping openly, raising their arms in an ecstasy of praise and supplication. As birds fly blithely in the sunny blue sky, soaring above the blue-tarp-covered playing field that the Dallas Cowboys call home, these men appear to be collectively experiencing a profound personal catharsis.

Watching from the press box at about the 50-yard line, I ask Bill Pemberton, a fund-raiser for Promise Keepers, why he thinks these men feel safe to feel so deeply among so many other men who are complete strangers. “I think it’s location,” he says. A sports arena is “one of the few places that men can ever be emotional about anything and be OK without being softies.”

“I think it’s also mass validation,” Pemberton continues. “A man could not accept a woman telling him he needed to be this sort of man. But when men get out here with 50,000 men, and see the consensus, it gives them the stamp of approval from their peers, and from people they respect in the sense of ‘Well, he’s a man, he knows.’ I think God in His sovereign grace put men in an environment where they naturally could relate to each other and be more open to releasing emotion.”

This burgeoning religious men’s movement is an unprecedented mass abreaction to modern feminism. It’s as if within the church generic (what Christians call the body of Christ), smart new antibodies, bioengineered by men, had emerged to forestall a viral invasion of sexual equality. The premise of Promise Keepers is “a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to be godly influences in their world.” The original Promise Keepers gathering in 1991 (see bar graph) was called by founder Bill McCartney, head football coach at the University of Colorado. By 1994 Promise Keepers held gatherings at seven separate sites, totaling 278,600 men.

But those numbers will soon pale, because Promise Keepers plans to amass a million men in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1996. “We’re going to our nation’s capital,” president Randy Phillips tells a press conference at Texas Stadium, “for the explicit purpose of”–and here he pauses, choosing his words carefully–“a time of prayer and renewal, from a personal standpoint.” The elections are “not the reason why we’re going,” he explains earnestly, “but that will probably be before the elections.”

As pollsters noted after the mid-term 1994 Democratic debacle, 62 percent of white men voted for conservative and Republican candidates, and 33 percent of the electorate were Evangelical Christians. This sect-and- gender trend piques speculation as to what electoral impact Promise Keepers might have.

“We have a general policy that we’re not endorsing political candidates,” treasurer Sid Overton tells me. “That’s not what we’re about.” A business lawyer, Overton helped set up Promise Keepers as a nonprofit tax-exempt Colorado corporation. Its revenues come from registration fees ($55 to $65 each), merchandize (books, recordings, caps, shirts, mugs), and offerings and pledges. “We’re not about lobbying,” he says. “We’re not about political party supporting.”

The Promise Keepers organization employs a staff of 120 at its Denver headquarters and 30 at various state offices. It is led by both clergy and laity, and Promise Keepers explicitly reaches out to all Christian men across racial and denominational lines. Dr. E. Glenn Wagner, vice president of national ministries, tells the crowd in Texas that Promise Keepers expects to identify a “Point Man” volunteer in each of the 400,000 churches in the United States, plus 40,000 “Ambassadors” who will network with 10 to 12 ministers in their communities. By the year 2000, according to Phillips, Promise Keepers is shooting to fill 50 stadiums, in each of the 50 states, connected by simulcasting.

Based on my observations and interviews at the Irving, Texas, conference, I see no ceiling in sight as to how far this “ministry to men” can go. Promise Keepers is a groundswell new cult of masculinity. It reveals in microcosm-as if under laboratory conditions-exactly how patriarchy operates through male bonding, which simultaneously propels men’s public policies and impacts on men’s private relations with women.

Liberals and progressives often caricature Christian fundamentalism and dismiss it as “antiabortion, antigay, antismut,” but this simplistic underestimation may be a political blunder. As the Promise Keepers phenomenon demonstrates, religious conservatives have actually been paying quite close attention to radical feminism, and learning a lot.

The Sins of the Fathers and Sons

It is 6:30 p.m. Friday night. The conference will start soon. I’m driving to Irving from the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on highway 183E-passing motels, car lots, churches, and fast-food steak houses flying Texas flags-and abruptly the car slows to a crawl for a good half hour. It dawns on me that this traffic is backed up all the way to the stadium exit.

Finally parked at a roadside restaurant, I follow long lines of men of all ages and sizes dressed in sneakers and colorful windbreakers and jogging suits. Teens and twentysomethings wear hip, printed T-shirts: a real man is a godly man and fear not know god and his pain is our gain (illustrated with a heavy metal spike through the palm of a hand). Many are carrying Bibles. The worn binding of at least one is held together with gaffer tape. And one man’s red hero jacket is embroidered FISHERS OF MEN CHRISTIAN MOTORCYCLIST ASSOCIATION.

Outside the stadium, a bunch of angry men are pamphleteering and protesting. The official position of Promise Keepers is that “homosexuality violates God’s creative design for a husband and a wife” and “it is a sin”; yet Promise Keepers supports homosexuals “being included and welcomed in all our events.” The protesters, citing their own scriptural authorities, are outraged by the laxness of this policy; thus they scream: “There are queers and homos in there!” This more-fundamentalist-than-thou demo is politely ignored.

It’s nearly 8:00 p.m. and the stadium interior is still filling. Erected near one end zone is a TV-studio stage. There’s a platform for cameras, and jumbo-tron screens hang from the rafters. The video feed to these screens includes shots from the stage, hand-held candids of men in the crowd, and hymn lyrics.

From the top tiers on down, the crowd sings with gusto: “Rise up O men of God! / The church for you doth wait / Her strength unequal to the task.” The church is she and all the guys here are he. Their voices resounding, high tenor to deep bass, they renounce en masse any taint of feminization that their religiosity might imply.

As the event begins, men are exhorted to approach the front of the stage in an altar call, a public act of spiritual commitment that is a commonplace of Christian revivals. I am reminded of a Billy Graham Crusade I attended as a teenager in a baseball stadium near Minneapolis around 1960. Not much is different, I note, except here the repentants are exclusively male. The worship leader elaborates on the meaning of sin and confession. His line “I have sinned!” brings forth astonishing applause-and the words, echoed by thousands of fathers and sons, suggest what feminists have been saying for decades: There are many, many transgressions that are particular to the lives of men.

The audience sings softly: “Forgive me, O Lord, forgive me / And I will be clean.” There is evidence of great grief followed by unspeakable relief. A close-up of a man’s face, his eyes welling with tears, fills the huge stadium video screens as hundreds advance toward the stage. Soulful, mournful music plays under plaints of “Thank you, Jesus!” Finally a folk-rock group sings a buoyant ballad, and the newly celebratory crowd-its built-up guilt expunged-returns to its seats and sings and claps along.

“No more games…no more double life!” says Pastor Greg Laurie (Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California) as he takes the crowd from remorse and redemption to moral resolve. Like all subsequent speakers, he wears a sporty purple polo embroidered with the PK logo (men of integrity). Decrying “the spiraling rate of crime,” Laurie identifies “abortion” as part of it; and he issues the first of several entreaties for “sexual purity,” urging his hearers to “get God back in our lives…and in our culture.”

Next, explaining “how to let God mentor us,” Pastor A. Louis Patterson Jr. (lecturer, National Sunday School and B.T.U. Congress, National Baptist Convention) takes as his biblical text a relatively obscure story from the book of Numbers. “Caleb let Moses send him,” Patterson intones, in orotund, black-church cadences. “Caleb had an attitude of submission without it being a threat to his masculinity.” Slowly and surely, Patterson’s down-home homily explicates the gender-specific subtext of Promise Keepers’ message: “Every man has a Coach…. Submit to God’s divine plan for your life…. Total dependence on God does not compromise masculinity…. The prerequisite for being a leader in my home is to have followed leadership in my Father’s house.” Then Patterson leads the mostly white crowd in a rousing call-and-response: “Somebody oughta say amen!”


Not only does the jock-friendly venue reduce these men’s gender anxiety; so does Promise Keepers’ cock-friendly theology, a familiar theory of gender identity through patriarchal prerogative: God commands man, and man submits-but lo and behold, man is not thereby feminized, because man in turn commands wife. This “role definition” channels a guy’s divinely ordained masculinity, which trickles down from God.

But the next two preachers take this gender legend to a visceral level that I’ve never heard plumbed before.

The Roots of Carnal Knowledge

Saturday morning, Pastor Jack Hayford (Church On The Way, Van Nuys, California) explains how the Old Testament God entered into a “covenant” with Abraham through circumcision, because “the cutting of the flesh of that organ of Abraham’s body was God’s way of saying, ‘Sir, I want to cut to the core of your identity as a man. I want to cut to the core of your creativity.’ There is nothing more dynamic or incredible,” Hayford jubilates, than the fact that he and his hearers “have the capacity to literally–in partnership with our spouse–create a human being by the gift power of God in our bodies.”

Then Dr. Ed Cole (founder and president, Christian Men’s Network) propounds his own paean to procreation: “God gave us creatures power in our loins…. When a man and woman who are married engage in an intimate physical relationship, they are actually celebrating the covenant of marriage…. Why does God want a man and a woman to be virgins at the time of marriage?”

The crowd hangs on Cole’s every syllable as he graphically describes how a virginal young man and woman “consummate their marriage with sexual intimacy, and in that act, when she is a virgin, when her hymen is broken, and it causes the shedding of blood, when that blood flows over the man’s part, in that act of intercourse, when that blood flows over the man’s part, to God that is a sign that they have entered into the sacred covenant….”

The heady mix of patriarchal social contract and carnality rarely gets more pulse-pounding than this mental gang-bang: a sixtyish man of the cloth inviting 45,000 other men to picture the coital puncturing of a woman’s hymen in their mind’s eye simultaneously.

Evidently feeling flush, Cole goes on to his big finish: “Marriage was meant to be a blood covenant! We’re not trying to put young people in bondage by teaching them virginity; we’re trying to keep them from killing themselves!” Explicating the diameter of pores in latex vis-a-vis the size of spermatozoa versus deadly HIV, Cole gets another round of applause: “There is no such thing as safe sex with a condom!”

Drama is palpable in this topless silver dome as the balding Cole begins exhorting teenage men to stand and vow virginity. “What a thing for a man on his wedding night!–to take his wife in his arms, standing in that hotel room, she in her white satin nightgown, he in his blue silk pajamas…and say, ‘Darlin’, I love you, you’re God’s gift to me; tonight I want to give you something no other woman in the whole world will have. Tonight I want to give you the gift of my manhood. Tonight I want to give you the sign of the covenant relationship so that until death do us part you will know that I love you and you alone. Tonight I give you the glory of my virginity.’ What a way to start a marriage!” The crowd goes wild with cheering and whistling, not so much at a hearts-and-flowers evocation of romance as at a spectacular reassurance of gender hierarchy.

“Surely in this building, there’s gotta be one young single man, one young teenager, that’ll say, ‘I want to be a part of a new generation to bring back what another generation threw away.’ Can I find even one single man in this building that will say, ‘Brother Cole, I heard what you said, and I want to stand up and be one of those men.’ Let me see them today!” There are peals of applause and cheers as hundreds of young men rise from their seats and stand and see how many hundreds of other young men have done the same.

And therein lies a high-voltage power line in Promise Keepers’ electromagnetic appeal: no threat of other men’s sexual prowess. Here there are no comparisons to be made, no goading standards of sexual conquest that a man might not measure up to.

“Peer affirmation from Joe Camel on down has been ‘Real men do it and do it a lot.’ And if not then you’re probably a wimp,” fund-raiser Pemberton tells me. “If 50,000 guys tell you as a 15-year-old guy, ‘We think you’re a man’s man if you wait till you’re married,’ that may be the first time that kid’s heard that, and since he’s been 12 he’s been under all this pressure to get a girl pregnant or to show that he’s a stud.”

During a lunch break I talk in the stands to a 13-year-old who traveled here from a small town in Texas with a church group that includes his father. “He’s been to Promise Keepers more than I have,” says the youth, a gangly fawn among stags. “He was thinking of not bringing me this time, but I kept on begging him and begging him to bring me.” Then he says, in a quavering voice with tears in his eyes: “Here you see kids your age. You don’t have to act like you’re all macho and everything. You can act like yourself, ’cause you have your brothers here with you.”

Promise Keepers has created safe public space for males to feel like real men within a veritable shrine to machismo–but stripped of incessant comparisons to other men’s judgment on their sexual performance, orientation, and identity. Promise Keepers has fundamentally transformed genderizing peer pressure–away from the relativistic world’s to that of an absolutist religion (or, as they might put it, away from “Sodom and Gomorrah” to “Bible-based Christian values”). This predictably safe social cohesion is based on each man’s promise (to his God and to his brethren) to be strictly nonsexual with one another and to have sex solely with his own wife in private.

These guys have discovered that conservative “sexual purity” is a better basis for male bonding than the “sexual revolution” could ever be (what with liberals fronting for pornographers and extolling hot sex with virtually anything that moves). And these guys have discovered that unless males are reliably in league as men, male supremacy can no longer claim credible authority over females one-on-one.

The Blessings of the Wives

“We have literally thousands of letters, boxes and boxes, from men, from their wives, from their children, from their parents, describing profound life changes,” president Phillips tells reporters mid-day. “We’re seeing that men are making profound decisions and are following through with them.”

One such letter, quoted in a promotional brochure, is from Judy in Iowa: “I knew that all of the spiritual benefits my husband received at Promise Keepers would overflow to me. How could they not? Is not his honor my honor? His integrity my integrity? Are not his blessings my blessings?”

When Promise Keepers leaders claim that what they are doing is “for women” not “against women,” they say so with reasonable accuracy, because from the point of view of any married woman in their social universe, neither men’s talk nor men’s walk ever gets much better than this: Keep your promises to your wife and kids, be a man of your word.

The entire stock of Strategies for a Successful Marriage, a handbook by Dr. E. Glenn Wagner, sells out in the promise keepers product tent by mid-afternoon. Another motivational tome, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, published by Focus on the Family, has sold over 200,000 copies at previous Promise Keepers gatherings. It contains, among other preachments, practical strategies for avoiding the temptation of pornography while traveling alone, as on in-room TV. The passage is not anti-smut; it’s pro-loyalty: It calls men’s pornography use “emotional adultery.”

A woman’s trade-off for this modicum of respect is to accept her husband’s unilateral authority, just as he submits to God’s. Dr. Tony Evans spells this out in Seven Promises under the rubric “Reclaiming Your Manhood”:

I’m not suggesting that you ask [your wife] for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back. If you simply ask for it, your wife is likely to say, “Look, for the last ten years, I’ve had to raise these kids, look after the house, and pay the bills. I’ve had to get a job and still keep up my duties in the home. I’ve had to do my job and yours. You think I’m just going to turn everything back over to you?”
Your wife’s concerns may be justified. Unfortunately, however, there can be no compromise here. If you’re going to lead, you must lead. Be sensitive. Listen. Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead!
I interview at random about two dozen attenders, and few can describe the personal meaning of this event without slightly choking up, tears visibly brimming. When I ask the men who are married what their wives think of Promise Keepers, or what their wives told them as they left home to attend, I hear only testimonials and stories of well-wishing. Two twentyish women employees of Promise Keepers tell me that they themselves would sure like to meet and marry a man of Promise Keepers caliber someday.

There are in fact many women at this gathering–several hundred young female volunteers, not in the stadium proper but staffing cash registers in the merchandize tents, serving soft drinks to press, and so forth. Also present are the wives of dozens of donors, board members, presenters, and officers-in restricted VIP areas where they are not visible to ordinary male registrants.

In the press room I ask president Randy Phillips: “What happens here that couldn’t happen if women were present?” Evidently tired from the responsibilities of this day, Phillips nevertheless gives me a lengthy and courteous answer. He mentions “issues concerning a man’s sexuality” and how dealing “with issues concerning the act of sex and such, it would make you very uncomfortable to have other women around [italics mine].” I am perplexed by his odd locution–why other women, not simply women?–until someone who has been overhearing accosts me. She is extremely enthusiastic and animated as she extemporizes on Phillips’s point that Promise Keepers should be viewed not as “a threat to women” but as “a great benefit to women.” Then she introduces herself. She is Holly Phillips. His wife. And she makes a formidable spin nurse-especially when she asks me forthrightly, “Do I look like a doormat kind of woman?”

No, I allow, she does not.

Throughout the day and a half, I detect no overtly misogynist slurs–neither from the Promise Keepers stage nor in the milling corridors. Rarely does a presenter even use the word woman, much less pronounce a loopy opinion about women’s ostensible nature. There is no tit-for-tat accusing of women; nor is there any pop-psych defense of the double standard, as in the secular mega-seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The Promise Keepers message is simpler: Men are from God. This obviates the sorts of gender-defender dramas that would-be real men are prone to-contests and put-downs to prove who’s got “manhood” and whose is “greater.” God’s manhood is greater–’nuff said. That tenet–combined with the physical exclusion of women from the premises–seems to put these men on equal footing (all benched sinners, all accountable to the same Coach). This in turn reduces peer-pressured urgency for put-downs of women in order to mark off “who are the real men here and am I among them?”

But the button is always there to be pushed. Once, for instance, Gary Smalley (president, Today’s Family) cracks an earthy joke about purported differentials in sexual arousal: Men are “microwaves,” he quips, and women are “crockpots.” The crowd is amused.

Men generally–whether dressing left or right–may indeed be incapable of making common cause without at least subtly deriding females. Men’s sense of public gender definition cannot feel real unless some third party to a male bond is treated inferiorly (a dynamic I’ve elaborated on in my book The End of Manhood). Conveniently, religious fundamentalism reminds each would-be-godly man of a common gender enemy outside the tribe, so that a brotherhood of male supremacists can thrive in contradistinction to it. And the bête noire that bonds Promise Keepers is code-named Canaanites: abortion- and homosexual-rights activists especially, but the lot of atheists and non-Christians as well.

When Tony Evans (chaplain to the Dallas Mavericks basketball team) declares Saturday evening, “It’s been too long that three percent of homosexuals control our moral majority,” the crowd breaks into loud approval.

“Gentlemen, we are going into battle,” says Dr. Charles Swindoll (president, Dallas Theological Seminary) later that night; “there is a war on.”

“Men, you’ve been in a war, but you have not been at war,” shouts football coach and founder McCartney on a take-home motivational audiotape. “We do fight, we do have weapons, but they’re not the world’s weapons. We have divine power!”


All day long I hear reverberations of the seismic shocks of feminists’ critique of men’s interpersonal behavior-as if even on the religious Right, women’s resentment about men’s epic fecklessness has reached critical mass. Within earshot of his wife Holly, for instance, Randy Phillips notes elliptically that “a lot of pain that exists in this country [is] by men who’ve misused their power, whether it’s physically, sexually, emotionally-there’s been a misuse.”

Ed Cole, a “spiritual forebear” of Promise Keepers, issues an eloquently coded warning that unless patriarchs clean up their act, their wives will dump them: “When a man marries a woman and she takes his name in marriage, she takes the character that goes along with that name. [But if] he doesn’t give her a character that she can be compatible with or pleased with or desire to identify with, then she no longer wants to bear the name. In our world today, many times divorce occurs simply because the man promises, promises, promises, promises, but unlike God–who watches over His Word to perform It–never performs it. Never performing his word teaches his wife not to trust him.”

Promise Keepers’ inspired solution is not to let men off the hook (that’s too big a job for anyone but the Redeemer) but rather–within what is essentially an ethical-rehab movement for conservative Christians–to model only the most respectful and trustworthy standards of interpersonal behavior: not cockfighting among men, not sexual exploitation of women. There is not a drop of alcohol for sale here either. In the parking lot I ask an Irving cop whether he has seen anyone sneaking any in. “No,” he tells me. “People don’t bring beer to church.”

Through its emphasis on worship and forgiveness, Promise Keepers has created a shimmering, airy sanctuary where a man, as if hovering in free-fall, can expose his human soul without a care or conniption-because he knows that he is always working with a net of social gender. The possibility of being perceived as a real man and at the same time not feeling so damned ashamed for what he has done to become one-that’s the real high in this inner sanctum; that’s the promise that’s a keeper. Fixed social gender remains the ground of their being, but release from its intrinsic sins is their emotional antigravity. Even their recreation is lightsome: During a break Saturday afternoon, they toss paper airplanes, foam gliders, and Nerf balls.

“What they begin to sense here is the Spirit of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ, which is diametrically opposite to the sports analogy,” fund-raiser Pemberton tells me. “Sports is all conditional, but here you’re OK if you’re oh-and-ten. Performance is a nonissue in terms of God’s love.”

“What we’re trying to tell men is that masculinity, and manhood, is not defined by how many people you’ve slept with. And men are finally saying, ‘Oh, thank God!’ ” vice president Wagner tells me after his closed leadership meeting adjourns in the Tejas Room. “We’re not opposed to sex; we’re all for it. God basically says that any man and woman married can have all the sex they can physically stand, and that’s holy in His sight…. And we want everyone to be able to experience the love and forgiveness of Christ that we believe enhances an understanding of masculinity rather than detracting from it.”

The political genius of Promise Keepers is that it communicates at a gut level to men who–feeling adrift on a sea of gender relativism now roiling from a radical feminist tidal wave–need to find firm pilings and dissuade their wives from setting sail. Without a patriarch in every home port, after all, there can’t be much of a religious Right. And these days there can’t be much of a patriarch without a wife who devoutly docks him.

Yet these are men who acknowledge that they do have promises to keep. To a man, they seem more polite, pleasant, and personable than I have ever encountered among large numbers of other men in public space. Their shared sense of common decency in everyday ethics is not to be sneered at (I know of no secular equivalent any better, no movement of “men of conscience” anywhere leftward politically.) They dash my preconceptions that they might be robotic zealots in a twilight zone all their own. They seem sincerely desirous of getting back on track as men who don’t betray their commitments, not to mention the people they love. And they are supremely oblivious to the possibility that God’s gender may have been created in the image of men, not the other way around.

Executive editor John Stoltenberg (M.Div., Union Theological Seminary) is author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice (Meridian) and The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience (Plume).