Promise Keepers Tried to End Racism 25 Years Ago. It Almost Worked.

Written by on July 7, 2021

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andy Phillips didn’t want to watch the video of a Black man being killed by police, but his son asked if he had.

“No,” Phillips said, “but I’ve read a bunch of articles.”

He knew the details—both of this specific deadly encounter between Derek Chauvin and George Floyd and the larger context of racial division in America. He knew too the history of christian efforts to combat racism and bring about reconciliation. He had, in fact, been president of Promise Keepers 25 years before, when the leadership decided that racial reconciliation would be its No. 1 priority and then the men’s ministry almost immediately started to flounder.

“Honestly, son, I’m not going to watch it,” he said. “It’s just too painful.”

“Dad,” said Tim Phillips. “You need to feel it.”

When Phillips watched the video, he was overwhelmed by the pain of Floyd’s slow death. He felt the Holy Spirit show him a tornado over Chauvin’s head, as if the police officer were the pinpoint of the destructive, swirling evil as it touched down. And he wondered: If he had let God change him 25 or 26 years ago, and let God shift Promise Keepers the way it was supposed to shift, maybe none of this would have happened.

America could have been different. God could have used Promise Keepers to reconcile Floyd and Chauvin and help Chauvin see Floyd how God saw him—as someone so deeply and impossibly loved that God would send his only Son to die just for him.

Promise Keepers was, after all, the largest movement in modern America pushing white people to reckon with racism and the most significant since the civil rights marches resulted in legislation, assassination, and riots. Yet even as Promise Keepers gathered tens of thousands of men, in city after city after city, to repent and reconcile, the ministry ran into its own limits. In retrospect, it felt like it just ran out of gas.

“I just couldn’t connect the dots on some deep, deep-down issues where God was trying to transition me and transition Promise Keepers,” Phillips said. “I didn’t get it. We didn’t get it. And soon after, it was over.”

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acial reconciliation was part of Promise Keepers from the start. Though the ministry is remembered more for promoting an ideal of christian manhood and encouraging men to be the spiritual leaders in their homes, promise No. 6 (out of seven) was a commitment to reach beyond racial barriers.

People who were there at the beginning recall this as the peculiar passion of Bill McCartney, the University of Colorado Boulder football coach who had the vision for the organization.

“It was just him,” said Bob Horner, a Campus Crusade for Christ minister at Boulder in 1990. “There was no energy on my part or the part of other white people. It was just Coach McCartney. We weren’t saying, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what needs to happen.’ We were saying, ‘All right, it’s his vision, and if he wants racial reconciliation to be part of it, that’s fine.’ ”

McCartney has dementia and stopped giving interviews in 2017. But he explained the history of his commitment to racial reconciliation to everyone who worked with him. First, he spent a lot of time in the homes of young Black men as he recruited football players. The experience convinced him that racial inequality was real and that segregation, though it wasn’t mandated by law anymore, was still a problem. Just as he became convinced that America was experiencing a crisis of fatherlessness, and that the significant spiritual problem in the country was irresponsible men with misplaced priorities, he thought the problems were exacerbated by racism.

Then his daughter Kristy had a child with quarterback Sal Aunese, a Samoan player from California, and McCartney’s theoretical concerns became the fears he had for his grandson.

But what really changed him, McCartney’s friends and colleagues say, was a religious experience he had at a Black church in Boulder. He was at a funeral, and it wasn’t for someone he particularly knew. He might have been there to support a player. He was sitting in a pew. Listening to the music. And he felt the Holy Spirit come upon him.

“He told me that he just began to weep,” said Bob Swenson, a former linebacker for the Denver Broncos who was the fifth person to join the staff at Promise Keepers. “He didn’t know what was going on. He just felt this pain. And this joy. And it was a profound spiritual awakening.”

McCartney left that funeral convicted that racism was a great sin and that the church was responsible for letting the cultural division continue. He believed it grieved God and that no movement—no christian endeavor—would prosper unless racial reconciliation was a priority.

When he started Promise Keepers, it was.

At the first event, with 4,200 men in a basketball arena in July 1991, McCartney concluded the gathering by committing to racial diversity. He said God told him if African Americans and other minorities weren’t part of Promise Keepers, God would withhold his presence and favor.

“The Vineyard church he was a part of was very strong, at that time, in the prophetic movement,” Swenson said. “People would look at Coach McCartney and say, ‘That is one weird dude,’ but he had a charismatic experience, and those in that movement were very confident in hearing God.”

All future events would feature a diverse lineup of speakers, including Black preachers such as Tony Evans, E. V. Hill, Crawford Loritts, Wellington Boone, and A. R. Bernard. At least one speaker would be assigned the task of addressing racism and leading the crowds in a prayer of repentance and a commitment to reconciliation.

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romise Keepers was a ministry of big events. The first had 4,200 attendees, and the second more than 10 times that, with 52,000. After that, Promise Keepers counted men in the tens of thousands.

Phillips, a Vineyard pastor from California who led the organization day to day, said the gatherings were conceived as catalytic. They were supposed to be big and overwhelming and transformative. In a football stadium full of men with their arms raised in worship, individuals could have experiences they wouldn’t normally have, and that could change them.

These were revivals, really—similar to what Billy Graham had done, and before him Billy Sunday, Dwight Moody, Charles Finney, George Whitefield, and countless other less famous men and women who threw up tents, gathered crowds, and created an experience that moved hearts. Sometimes the change wrought in a sinner at an altar call would fade after a day or two. But other times, the decision made at a meeting would change a life forever, and the event would be recalled as the hinge point in a personal history, the moment eternally dividing before and after.

Promise Keepers was that for a lot of people.

“Men were really being changed by the grace of God,” said Louis Lee, Promise Keepers’ Asian American outreach coordinator in the mid-1990s. “There were literally thousands of notes and personal letters that came into the Promise Keepers’ headquarters from women talking about the actual changes they saw in the men in their lives. Men being more loving. Being more patient. Just being better men.”

The emphasis on men set Promise Keepers apart.

Some have accused the organization of promoting patriarchy and see the movement as a kind of reactionary backlash to feminism. But as historian Seth Dowland has argued, the organization was more complex than its critics believed.

The Promise Keepers ideal of “manliness” cut against popular American ideas about what it meant to be a man. Promise Keepers encouraged men to feel emotions other than anger, cry, apologize, communicate, and be humble. A man’s man, speakers said from the Promise Keepers stage, should be a godly man, sensitive to spiritual things, tenderhearted, and broken by the sins that grieve the Spirit.

“An event would take you on this journey through a full range of emotions,” said Ed Gilbreath, then the editor of Promise Keepers’ New Man magazine and currently vice president of strategic partnerships at Christianity Today.

“It would start off with excitement about what God is going to do, then anger at how the Devil was destroying our communities,” he said. “It was the first time many of these white Christians were exposed to Black preaching, and that could be really powerful. I remember E. V. Hill telling us we should hit the Devil with Scripture and 50,000 men chanting with him, ‘Hit him! Hit him!’ … Then it would move to lament, crying and saying you were sorry.”

As men were carried along that emotional journey toward catharsis, they were also confronted with racism. They were told to take personal responsibility for America’s besetting sin and make a commitment to reconciliation. McCartney believed that in the emotional experience, change was possible. God could use Promise Keepers to bring about reconciliation, and the nation could be free, finally, from racial injustice.

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nd yet, to some in Promise Keepers, the events didn’t seem like enough. Too many people left events thinking they had accomplished reconciliation. It was complete now, as far as they were personally concerned, and any further issues with inequality and injustice in the country did not involve them.

If a man in a stadium became convinced that he had failed to honor God in worship—the Promise Keepers’ first promise—he could lift his hands right then, weep, ask for forgiveness, and commit himself to church and prayer and Bible reading when he returned home. The same with Promise No. 2, to build better relationships with christian brothers; or No. 4, to take care of his marriage; or No. 5, to lift up the nation in prayer. The emotional moment in the crowd at a big Promise Keepers event was understood as just the start.

But with No. 6—racial reconciliation—no one left with a plan to address the effects of white flight on their community, or inequities in education, employment, or policing—though there were voices in the church raising such discussions at the time. Men had an emotional experience, listened to a Black preacher, and hugged a minority brother. That seemed to be that.

Black speakers at Promise Keepers events started regularly talking about “mountaintop experiences” and urging the stadiums of men to make plans for how they were going to change. What happened at an event was just a start.

Anthony Moore, a Black pastor in Baltimore, said that’s all he hoped Promise Keepers would be: a start. When he first saw the advertisements, with pictures of African Americans praying hand in hand with white men, he felt a hunger for that kind of integration in christian community. He believed a revival could be the beginning of new relationships between christian
men, and that could be the foundation of social transformation.

Moore took about 60 men from his church to preparatory Promise Keepers events with other churches, working together on service projects and forming relationships across racial lines. He realized, pretty quickly, that everything Promise Keepers was doing was designed to lead to the big event. There was a stage set for repentance but no structures in place for lasting transformation. Moore wishes, in retrospect, that there had been some plan to connect Black and white men in Baltimore in the months and years afterward.

At some events, men were asked to pray for forgiveness for racial divisions right before lunch. The white men were told to find a minority and hug him—sending the 80- to 95-percent white crowd scrambling, each white person intent on giving a big, sweaty hug to the first person of color he could find. Then lunch was called, and it was over.

“What is racial reconciliation? There was such an ambiguous explanation for it. What does it look like? Who gets to set the terms?” Moore said. “Reconciliation—I don’t think we ever came to a clear path forward.”

In fact, speakers at Promise Keepers events didn’t all conceive of the problem of racism the same way.

Some were less troubled by inequality and injustice than they were by minority identities. They urged Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans to stop identifying themselves by their race or ethnicity.

Others, such as Wellington Boone, a Black pastor from Indianapolis, wanted to use slavery as a helpful spiritual metaphor. He told a mostly white audience in Indiana that slavery was good, in some ways, because it teaches us what our relationship to God should be like. He said in his church, the deacons were given the title “slave.”

Others wanted to challenge the church to break racism’s hold on America. When A. R. Bernard was asked to speak about racism and reconciliation, he asked organizers if they were sure. Delicately, he told them he thought that there was a way to talk about racism that didn’t challenge the status quo, but if he was going to talk about it, it would challenge white evangelicals.

When he spoke at Promise Keepers events, Bernard condemned white Christians for “speaking hypocritical irrelevancies in the middle of a call of God to rid the nation of racial and economic injustice,” and asked the crowds again and again if they were committed to change.

“Are you committed? Are you committed?” he said. “Are we going to rid the church of Jesus Christ of this poison?”

For some white people, it was too much. One told a doctoral student writing about the social ethics of christian men’s movements that he understood reconciliation was important but they didn’t need to “beat the white guy to death over it.” Another said, “Maybe this just shows you how sinful I am, but I didn’t like it. It felt like the Black community that was being included and invited was shouting against the white people and telling us we were not good people. It got out of hand.”

One nonwhite staff member said he was frustrated by the emphasis on generational sin—asking white men to take responsibility for things that happened 130 or 150 years before, when they hadn’t dealt with issues in their own lives. From a ministry perspective, at least, it seemed ineffective.

Mark Pollard, a special associate of Promise Keepers in the 1990s, remembers that major donors started to back away, saying they weren’t interested if Promise Keepers was going to be a civil rights organization. As he traveled the country with McCartney planning and promoting events, Pollard, who is Black, was also asked again and again why race should be an issue at all. Wasn’t the gospel colorblind?

Increasingly, white leaders told him that preaching against the sin of racism was a distraction from the message of the gospel.

“Awareness of sin, that’s where you start,” Pollard said. “And of course it’s not enough. You can’t have a reconciliation moment without a reconciliation process. When you first came to know Christ, were you there yet? Had you arrived? No. It’s the start of something.”

Members of Promise Keepers pray at the National Mall October 4, 1997, in Washington, DC.

Image: Photo by Porter Gifford / Hulton Archive / Getty

Members of Promise Keepers pray at the National Mall October 4, 1997, in Washington, DC.

The division between the people in Promise Keepers who thought racial reconciliation was being overemphasized and the people who thought it was a good start was just one of the tensions straining the organization around 1995. The ministry had rapidly expanded, with 22 stadium events planned for the following year, each costing about $1 million to put on. There was a push to have events in all 50 states. In the process, internal differences became real divisions.

Part of the issue was that top leaders had decided that God’s favor would only be on Promise Keepers for a season, so sustainability wasn’t a priority. The movement wasn’t built to last.

Another issue was the charismatic leadership. Since McCartney, in particular, believed he was hearing directly from God, he often didn’t discuss decisions with his board or listen to those around him. This meant he ignored people who told him there was too much focus on racial reconciliation.

But it also meant he ignored people who told him that a storm was forecast to hit a Texas event and he should postpone to protect the audio equipment. He decided not to, and it was badly damaged in the thundershower. At least one board member—and more staffers—quit because they didn’t feel like their advice mattered at Promise Keepers.

Then, also in 1995, the leadership went on a retreat and started discussing another problem. Too much of their teaching was about setting standards and calling men to live up to them. They were telling men what to do, not what God had done for them.

Phillips, looking back now, thinks that retreat was a spiritual fork in the road. It was a moment when God was offering to do something powerful, and they didn’t hear it and didn’t understand.

He thinks there was an opportunity to completely overhaul Promise Keepers’ message to focus on God’s promises. Men, trapped by their insecurities and fear of their inadequacies, could have learned to see themselves as God saw them. Then, free of guilt and shame, they could have been empowered to be better men.

Promise Keepers could have pursued racial reconciliation out of Sabbath rest.

“Guilt and shame are empty,” he said. “No true reconciliation can start out of a starting point of guilt and shame.”

If people know how God sees them, Phillips said, then it’s possible for them to see other people—across racial lines and cultural differences—as beloved children of God. It’s possible to love your neighbor sacrificially. But that takes discipleship and participation in a local church.

“That’s where life is lived out. That’s where real change takes place,” Phillips said. “Promise Keepers needed to be more about empowering the local church and less about getting people to catalytic events. But the gravitational pull, deep down in me, is that I was being validated by what I did.”

Promise Keepers didn’t pivot in 1995. Instead, the organization planned more events, bigger ones, and doubled down on diversity and racial reconciliation without putting any more effort into thinking about what should happen after all those men went home.

In 1997, the organization had its biggest, boldest event with the “Stand in the Gap” gathering on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and racism and reconciliation were a central focus. The next year, it all but

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