Old Ways, New Men

updated 07/31/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/31/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DOWN ON THE FLOOR OF THE HOUSTON Astrodome, where Oilers and Astros usually ply their manly trades, several hundred grown men, cheeks damp from tears, are hugging each other. As the sound system blasts the amplified harmonies of a gospel band, another 40,000 men in the stands cheer and sing and chant in a crescendo of all-male frenzy usually associated with major sports events or Iron John weekends.

"This," gasps Chad Gore, 20, "is the Super Bowl of Christianity—and there's no doubt who's going to win this game." Gore, red-faced and choked with emotions he can barely voice, has driven in from suburban Baytown, Texas, with his brother Clay, 23, to bear witness that he and the other men have indeed given their lives to Jesus and dedicated themselves to the seven tenets of the Promise Keepers—the fast-growing, evangelical Christian phenomenon—whose unlikely male-only rallies are packing stadiums around the country this summer.

The Promise Keepers, founded just five years ago by Bill McCartney, former head football coach at the University of Colorado, preaches a regimen of marital responsibility, sexual purity and racial harmony. (Those are three of the Keepers' seven promises—the rest being commitments to honor Jesus, support their church, influence the world and enlist the help of other men to keep the promises.) "The guy that has Christ in his heart," says McCartney, whose 14-year tenure at Colorado ended in January, "he understands and comprehends and thirsts for what is being presented. The guy that doesn't have Christ in his heart, he doesn't get it. It goes right over his head."

For many in attendance at the Astrodome, Promise Keepers fills a spiritual void. "I had all the cocaine and beer and women in the world," says Paul Gabbard, a 27-year-old oil-company worker, "but something was missing. Now I am preaching the word of God." And the Rev. Emanuel Jones, 47, pastor of the Progressive Chapel Baptist Church in Lake Providence, La., praises the movement's promise of racial harmony. "I have seen men with deep prejudices from growing up in the South," he says, "and I have watched them unite. I see it in the grocery stores in our town—black and white men greeting each other and hugging each other. Promise Keepers seems to be the place where men can first open up about this."

But if their Bible-based message of patriarchies in the family, church and community seems a bit out of step these days, the Promise Keepers don't see it that way. "There is an order to it," insists Freddy O'Bry, 51, a financial adviser from Richmond, Texas. "This is how the family should be: God, man, wife and children."

Not surprisingly, though, this orderly view of the world provides no role for gay men. McCartney claims that gays are welcome at Promise Keepers rallies, but in 1992, when Colorado was debating a measure to bar municipalities from enacting gay-rights laws, he called the gay lifestyle "an abomination." He also described homosexuals as "a group of people who don't reproduce yet want to be compared to people who do." Those remarks prompted Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) to call McCartney "a self-appointed ayatollah."

Women's groups detect a similar antipathy. "These views on male supremacy set this country back 50 years," says Rosemary Dempsey, a vice president of the National Organization for Women. "They are saying great things, but they mix in this notion that women can't make decisions, that they can't lead the family."

McCartney, an unsalaried member of the board, does not agree that the Promise Keepers are antiwoman. "If you take a guy who's been doing this, and you talk to his wife," he says, "she'll say she wants him here."

Lyndi McCartney, Bill's wife of 32 years, keeps a low profile, but to hear McCartney tell it, the first family that Promise Keepers saved was his own. Even as McCartney's Colorado team was winning a national championship—and a 15-year, $350,000-a-year contract for their head coach—just 4½ years ago, things were in crisis at home. In 1989, McCartney's unmarried daughter Kristy, then 20, had given birth to the son of Colorado quarterback Sal Aunese, who died five months later of cancer. In 1993 she gave birth to another out-of-wedlock child, this time by defensive tackle Shannon Clavelle. McCartney blamed his own ambition and inattentiveness for the family's problems.

"I looked at my wife, Lyndi, and I tell you what I saw," he tells the crowd in the Astrodome. "I didn't see a woman who was content. I didn't see a woman who was fulfilled. I got down on my knees, and I said, 'For 32 years I have been taking. We have been chasing my dreams. Will you forgive me?' " Lyndi did forgive him, and he and Kristy, who moved away from the family's hometown of Boulder and is living as a single mother with her two children, are on good terms. This year, McCartney shocked the world of college football by walking away from his coaching career to give his full attention to Promise Keepers, which he had started as a ministry to cultivate "godly men."

Since then, Promise Keepers, headquartered in Boulder, has burgeoned. Its annual budget—$22 million last year—is funded in part by the sale of books, videotapes, T-shirts and coffee mugs at the rallies.

Inside the Astrodome the men of Promise Keepers are more concerned with God than with money. Jim Alise, 40, a phone-company executive from Gonzales, La., is there with his 7-year-old son Dustin. "He has already accepted Christ," Alise beams proudly. "I just want to provide the right example. Fathers and sons go to football games together, so why can't they go to something like this?"

DAN McGRAW in Houston

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