It draws very different reactions. Liberals see it as a dangerous move by the religious right. The National Organization for Women in the U.S. calls it “the greatest danger to women’s rights.”

Thousands of other women praise it. Tens of thousands of men flock to its gatherings where they weep tears of repentance and pledge to rejoin family and church. What is Promise Keepers and what’s to be said about it?

Promise Keepers is an ideology, a spirituality, a program and an organization (all wrapped into one) that is sweeping North America and attracting thousands of men (from every Christian denomination). The men gather, usually in football stadiums, to spend whole weekends praying, reading Scripture, listening to biblical exhortation, weeping, confessing their sins to each other and promising to begin to live life anew, mainly by giving up habits of infidelity and returning to their families and churches and assuming responsibility and leadership there.

The concept of Promise Keepers was conceived and developed by Bill McCartney, a former football coach and an Evangelical Protestant, who feels that many men can be helped religiously by “a masculine context that allows them to come clean.” Thus, the all-male rallies are designed precisely as a type of communal penitential service where men will admit their sins to each other and then pledge to keep the promises they once made.

Analogous to 12-step programs, the men make a series of seven promises which themselves should not make anyone anxious. However, underlying those promises is the concept that as men return to their families and their churches they should return there as leaders, as heads, as the ultimate authority within the family (as St. Paul once prescribed this). This is the part that makes some critics nervous.

So what’s to be said for Promise Keepers?

My own view is that it is a good starting point for many men and is both potentially a very good and a very important religious movement. The worries of its critics are more legitimate within the circles those critics move than it is in the cities from which Promise Keepers draws its adherents. What is meant by this?

Malcolm X, although very sympathetic to the teachings of Christ, once explained that one reason he became a Muslim was because he felt that, given the state of most inner cities, the harsher, clearer disciple of Mohammed had more of a chance to work some transformation (in that particular context) than did the gentler dictates of Jesus. Most people who have ever worked at overcoming an addiction have a good idea of what he meant. Gentle persuasion, challenges to a higher sensitivity and liberal idealism, however good in themselves, will not get an addict to kick a habit. A strong, clear, fundamentally-based discipline (like Alcoholics Anonymous or like Promise Keepers) has a better chance.

Hence, Promise Keepers is not a program for ministers, theologians, feminists, persons writing books and newspaper columns on spirituality, and those who already have the habit of fidelity to family and church. It is not a program for its critics, just as Alcoholics Anonymous is not for those who do not have a drinking problem.

Moreover, those of us who do not have a drinking problem should not criticize Alcoholics Anonymous for its rather harsh, simple and uncompromising discipline, nor fear that this discipline will, by virtue of its success in this circle, become normative for everyone. The rigor, simplicity and clarity of that discipline is meant to do a specific job, bring one to sobriety – an important first step (without which all other steps are superfluous).

Promise Keepers should be understood in that light.

Thus, the spirituality that I write about might well have its place in the circles wherein it is read, but I doubt it will be very helpful in socially transforming our inner cities. Bill McCartney, I suspect, will be more helpful there than Ron Rolheiser – and virtually everyone else who moves in the social, ideological and ecclesial circles that the critics of Promise Keepers move within.

If Bill McCartney were ever to write a treatise criticizing current social and theological theory, I suspect he would miss the point rather badly. Most criticisms of his movement from those forging those theories are equally off the mark.