By Adam Langer
"No, you're wrong, sir. You're wrong!" a man in a short-sleeved shirt and khaki slacks snarls at another man who's sporting a T-shirt that reads "Life is short. Eternity is long. Hope you know Jesus." He shouts, "Repent! You need to repent! Call yourself a Christian? Start preaching the gospel to them! Preach the gospel to them or else they're going to the Lake of Fire."
He points in the direction of a group of 20 protesters who are standing in front of a fence by Soldier Field. They're beating empty paint drums and carrying signs reading "Jesus, Protect Me From Your Followers!" and "Submission Is Not Equality." A sea of men in baseball caps, football jackets, and Jesus T-shirts flows past them. The protesters chant, "Racist, sexist, antigay. Promise Keepers change your ways."
"Any one of those people dies tonight, they're headed straight for the Lake of Fire, and you're saying their souls aren't worth it?" the man bellows. "Let me tell you about a savior who hung on the cross, whose blood was shed for them. And you tell me it's not worth it?"
"It's not worth arguing," the other man tells him.
"I'm not arguing. I'm telling them to repent. What did Paul do? Why did Paul get arrested? Because he loved the sinner but said it's not worth it?"
"But your tone. You speak in anger, not in love."
"Let me ask you something. When God wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, did he seem hateful? Was that preaching with love? Was God love when he brought AIDS?"
"I'm not talking about what you say. I'm talking about the tone you're using."
"You're telling me AIDS isn't from God?" the man demands. "I didn't come down here to preach to lesbians, but nobody is preaching to them and somebody's gotta."
Willie McBain, a Streetwise vendor, is strolling back and forth in front of the stadium, hawking newspapers and smiling. "I'm glad they're here," he says, gesturing to the protesters. "You know why? Because that makes me know how strong I am that I can accept them and walk right over there and shake their hands and love them. But I'm still gonna give them the gospel, the good news. You hear them saying, 'We're happy. We're queer?' You hear that? They're not happy. They're miserable in their sin. They just don't realize it."
Two young men in black leather jackets and Mohawks have joined the protesters, and now someone with a megaphone is chanting, "We're here! We're queer! We're better dressed than you!"
A man with curly Harpo hair and a big bushy mustache walks through the stadium gate, turns around, and yells, "We're praying for you in here!"
"We're laughing at you," one of the protesters shouts back.
"You can," the man says. "But I'm not the one headed for the Lake of Fire."
Above an end zone at Soldier Field, the scoreboard reads "Bears 0, Chargers 0. Ball on Jesus." Another banner has been positioned so an ad for Montgomery Ward's Electric Avenue reads "Jesus Won't Be Beat. Guaranteed." It's 8:30 in the morning and the stands are a third full of men, about 80 percent of them white. Most have their hands raised in the air as the PA system blares out "Holy, Holy, Holy!"
These are the Promise Keepers, the right-wing men's religious group that has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to its stadium events, which are part revival meeting, part football game, and part motivational seminar. Founded by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, the Denver-based organization has a reported annual budget of $115 million and bills itself as "a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world." For 70 bucks a pop, men get to bond, sing, pray, and hear pep talks on the importance of family, purity, and financial integrity. No women allowed, though. It's a guy thing; chicks wouldn't understand.
The Promise Keepers have filled the Pontiac Silverdome, the Los Angeles Coliseum, and Seattle's Kingdome. Last year's Chicago conference filled Soldier Field. Though this year's Memorial Day weekend crowd of 20,000 suggests that the Promise Keepers are about one-ninth as popular as U2, the organization is still attracting a lot of attention as both the newest and fastest-growing men's and Christian movement.
Inside Soldier Field, the tone is more benign, bordering on a touchy-feely, beat-the-drum-in-the-forest get-together. The men give whoops of approval as "vice president of worship" Rick Klingham implores the men to lead a life based on humility and repentance. They give tearful nods of affirmation as Billy Kim of the Far East Broadcasting Company decries the disintegration of the American family and asserts the need to be free of material influences. They stare thoughtfully at the public service announcements about "mastering your money" that are projected on the video screen above the stage. And they join in when the Maranthal Promise Band and Choir breaks into "Lord I Lift Your Name."
But as the Promise Keepers plan for their own million man march on Washington this September, some of the organization's goals and practices have caused alarm. Founder McCartney, a born-again Christian, has spoken out in favor of antigay initiatives in Colorado, and he's a supporter of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. While still a football coach, he gained notoriety for his cavalier attitude towards allegations that some of his players had committed date rape. An October 7, 1996, article in the Nation, which labeled the Promise Keepers "the third wave of the religious right," identified among their leadership supporters of Pat Buchanan, the U.S. Taxpayer's Party, and the Family Research Council, described as "to the right of the Christian Coalition." Then there's the second-class position given to women by the organization, which only allows them to participate as volunteers by ushering, serving refreshments, and working the cash registers in the merchandise tent. That's where you can shell out $17 for a gold cap, $24 for a straw hat, $12 for a "Making of a Godly Man" CD, and $38 for a golf shirt. There are books like "Real Men Have Feelings Too" ($13), "Support Your Local Pastor" ($7), and "What Does She Want From Me?" ($14).
"Antiwoman?" Dave Lowry asks me as he stands outside Soldier Field. "I don't see how you can say we're antiwoman. We love everybody." Lowry is a volunteer usher from Indiana attending his fourth Promise Keepers conference. "The all-man format is good because it allows men to get on the stadium floor and cry for all their sins, and they wouldn't do that when their girlfriend is sitting next to them. I'll tell you a story about Promise Keepers. It helped me to get over my sin and it helped my brother. I was in sales and I was turning on porn videos and going to Promise Keepers helped me take my life back. God helped me get through my sin, and at that point I wanted to help another person. My brother is a surgeon and he had no interest in religion until I took him to a Promise Keeper in Florida. Now since then, he has made a promise to spend a half an hour a week with each one of his kids. It may not sound like a lot, but he works 70 hours a week and he spends a half an hour alone with each one of his kids and he has four of them. Before that, he was an absentee father, but now Promise Keepers has straightened out his life."
Inside the merchandise tent, Deb, a volunteer from Chicago, shrugs off allegations of sexism within the membership.
"The Bible says men are supposed to take a leadership role," she says. "I think this is great because it gives them somewhere they can go and pray and make decisions and they don't have to worry about whether they're looking good in front of women."
Rich Williams and Matt Harvey, two men in their early 20s, have come here with their fathers and their church to "get a stronger relationship with God."
"They think we're a bunch of sexists, but they're bashing us without even knowing what we're doing," Williams says. "The only reason women aren't allowed to participate is because we're trying to reach men directly and say, 'Hey. Be one. Be a man!"
"It's kind of like male bonding," Harvey says. "There are things that men have to talk about that women wouldn't feel comfortable discussing."
"Right. There are things that don't affect them," Williams says. "Women aren't going to be comfortable sitting through the issues we discuss. Just like I'm not comfortable listening to a bunch of tampon commercials."
Amy Carlton, a member of the Women's Action Coalition, which has organized a small protest outside Soldier Field, is engaged in a heated argument with Tom Mooncotch, a member of the Promise Keepers' production crew. He's involved with the conference's audio-visual presentations.
"What are you guys marching against?" Mooncotch asks Carlton, who's standing alongside five other protesters, including Elizabeth Rublev and Roxanne Betke.
"Promise Keepers," Carlton says. "Anyone who wants to dominate women."
"Why do you feel they want to dominate?" Mooncotch asks.
"Because a lot of their literature says that women have to submit for the survival of our culture," says Carlton. "What the hell's that about?"
"Christian men were invited to participate," Betke says. "Their wives were invited to work the volunteer booths and help serve refreshments because that's their place in the world."
"I don't know if that's their place in the world," Mooncotch says. "I don't know if that's what they're saying. This is a time for men to come here and rub shoulders and get next to Christ, you follow me? We study the Bible and do life together. You guys have your relationships. You guys are all friends, right? You guys talk about different scenarios, right? They go home and they are taught to talk to their wives. They're taught to pray with their wives and kids."
"Then why aren't the wives and kids allowed to come?" asks Carlton.
"This is kind of like bonding," says Mooncotch. "You know, male bonding?"
"You've gotta give 75 bucks to a football coach to bond?"
"It's not to a football coach. It's to an organization, an organization that has allowed wives to see changes in their alcoholic husbands. They're not teaching men to go in there and rule over their wives and control them."
"That's what they're teaching, sir."
"They're teaching you to love
your wife in a Christ-like manner. Big difference."
"Because Christ had a wife?"
"Because Christ loved people. Because Christ loved Mary Magdalene. He loved consistently no matter what you were, no matter what the sin you practiced."
"Then why don't they do that? Why did Bill McCartney say homosexuality is an abomination? Why do they say that gay people shouldn't have civil rights because we can't reproduce. Why can't you be more Christ-like, Jesus boy?"
"I don't know what Bill McCartney is teaching."
"You're paying them money. Why don't you know?"
"Hold the show. Hold the show," Mooncotch says. "I came here because there's some good teaching. There's some good Bible. I just want to tell you what the Bible says. I have two sisters that are lesbians.
"Good for them."
"Now, I love my sisters. I love them a lot. I was an alcoholic. I was a whoremonger. I was out cruising women."
"You're not gonna compare your sister's lesbianism to alcoholism, are you?"
"What I'm asking is, do you believe the Bible?"
"No. It's acceptable for you to believe it, but don't try to legislate my life," Carlton says.
"I'm not trying to legislate your life," Mooncotch says. "I'm talking about the Bible. The one that was given by the god of this universe."
"But the United States is not a theocracy, and there are people who don't even have a religion," says Elizabeth Rublev.
"I'm talking about Jesus Christ. I'm talking about Christianity," says Mooncotch. "I'm not talking about religion."
"So do you accept your sisters as lesbians?" Carlton asks.
"If that's what they want, but I know what the Bible says about it," Mooncotch says.
"What does the Bible say about lesbians?"
"It's a sin. It's loving, but in a distorted way."
"You know what? I don't know even where to begin with you, sir," says Carlton.
"It's because you can't," Mooncotch says.
"No," says Carlton. "It's because you're a rockhead."
It's almost lunchtime, and the protesters outside Soldier Field are chanting, "We're here! We're queer! And some of us are Christian!" Three men with crew cuts and matching black cowboy boots wear T-shirts that read "Fix Your Eyes on Jesus." They're smoking and laughing. One boy of about 12 is asking his father, "Do we have to go inside? Can't we listen to the faggot rhymes?" Two men with Jews for Jesus shopping bags are glowering. And one man in a Promise Keepers golf cap drops to his knees and recites the Lord's Prayer as another in a Green Bay Packers shirt puts a hand on his shoulder.
"Please God. Please Jesus," the man says. "Please take these people away from us. Please make it so we can't see them. Please make them go. Please make them leave."
A security officer approaches the kneeling man. "Don't tell them," he says, nodding at the protesters. "God's inside. Tell him."
"But Satan brought them here," the man says, a tear rolling down his cheek.
"Well don't tell me; tell God."
"All right," the man says. The security officer helps the man up and leads him to the front gate of Soldier Field.
"God's in there," says the security officer. "You tell him now."
Inside Soldier Field, two women are working a kosher hot dog booth. Business is slow, and they're watching the parade go by.
"It's pretty much the same as a football game," one of the women says. "Except they don't ask for beer."
"Yeah," says the second one. "And then there's the other thing."
"What's that?" asks the first.
"They don't tip. You'd think that with all these Christians here, we'd be making some tips."
I hand her a buck.
"All right," says the second. She and the other woman slap five. "First tip of the day. Tips! Yeah!" o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Jon Randolph.