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Promise Keepers Stake Male Claim to Moral and Political Power

by Jamie L. Bronstein on Oct 15, 1997

A group of intense Christian believers gathers, heads bent in earnest prayer. At their head is a man who scoffed at religion until his own dramatic conversion experience convinced him to dedicate his life to converting others. He begs his hearers to give up drinking and other vices. He encourages them to restore proper relationships within the home. He urges them to convert the sinner.

1997? No — nor is this on the Mall in Washington D.C., nor are we watching a Promise Keepers meeting. Instead, it is 1834, and Reverend Charles Grandison Finney, the most popular evangelist of nineteenth-century America, is instructing an audience of women, as well as men, on the meaning of a revival of religion.

On the surface, it seems, nothing is more American than a religious revival. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s, Americans are renowned for combining “separation of church and state” with intense, public, expressions of religious faith.

American revivalism follows chronological cycles. It often becomes especially strong when shifts in the economy or in a society’s reigning values occur. Religious revivals have had far-reaching consequences. They have appealed and granted power to groups which found themselves on the margins of society.

The First Great Awakening, a revival which began in the 1730s in Massachusetts, helped to give young men and women the power to break away from the authoritarian theology of their parents’ generation. The revival created discussion about government, social order, morality, and corruption, preparing colonists to declare their independence from Great Britain.

Beginning in the 1790s and picking up speed throughout the first third of the nineteenth century, the Second Great Awakening swept from the urban Northeast to the frontier. This even-more-dramatic revival changed everything in its path, promoting reforms: temperance in the consumption of alcohol; reverence for the sabbath; the abolition of slavery.

The Second Great Awakening conferred a particularly large role upon women. Although middle-class women were encouraged to confine their concerns to their homes and families, their church membership during the 1830s revival encouraged them to leave their homes. Women’s connection with the revival also allowed them to claim the moral high ground. They became leaders of moral reform movements and speakers from public platforms, positions from which they had traditionally been excluded. Their reforming activities later allowed them to challenge their exclusion from politics.

Thus, although revivalism is constant, its most recent form, the wildly popular group Promise Keepers, represents a significant break with revivals past. Promise Keepers excludes the women who were so instrumental in previous revivals. It attempts to claim the moral high ground for men, preventing women from using their moral superiority to call for equal partnership within the home. In addition, even though Promise Keepers officially promotes cooperation among men from varied ethnic backgrounds, the group is aimed at white men. Ethnic minorities do not participate on their own terms.

Many white men feel marginal in a pluralistic society, as recent backlashes against affirmative action and feminism show. Yet these same men still have a strong voice — by far the most powerful voice — in politics. Many white men feel marginal in an economy whose basis has shifted. Yet most are part of the middle class which politicians feel compelled to cater to in almost every piece of legislation.

The potential of Promise Keepers to mix religion with politics is clear, since its leaders chose Washington D.C. for their recent mass meeting. Responding to the siren call of moral superiority, legislators came out to meet and greet their religious, male constituents, thus blending church and state in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Few, if any, women members of Congress were to be seen. Clearly the lesson that moral power confers political power has not been lost on the Promise Keepers. We should not let the continuity of American revivalism blind us to the potential divisiveness of America’s most recent revival.

Jamie Bronstein is an assistant professor of history at New Mexico State University and a writer for the History News Service.