In Search of Men Who Are in Search of Commitment

The Washington Post, Sunday, September 7, 1997
By Stephanie Coontz

At a recent talk in Chicago I gave about the dangers of romanticizing "traditional" families, a young man asked me if I didn't think the mass rallies of the men's group Promise Keepers in football stadiums across the country represented "potential fascism." I argued, to considerable skepticism from my audience, that however disturbing the ideology of the leaders, the motivations that bring thousands of men together for these events are not fascist, or even explicitly right-wing. Men show up to promise service, fidelity and humility, not only to God (a formula that has historically been all too compatible with abuse of power toward mere humans) but also to community and family. The pleas they hear for racial reconciliation may not produce much concrete action, but are certainly not fascist slogans.

Critics of the Promise Keepers should not fall into the trap of demonizing the men to whom these rallies appeal. Many of the men who attend are searching for an anchor that will keep them committed to their wives in a world where other men are contemptuous of such values. They are looking for alternative models of manhood to those presented by Rambo or Donald Trump. At the rallies they hear that it is not. weak to express emotions, that manliness isn't about power or financial success or domination.

In fact the Promise Keepers movement seems to me a response to the failure of patriarchy. It reflects a recognition that the flip side of male domination within families is male desertion OF families. While Promise Keepers does not support male-female equality, neither does it call for a revival of the kind of patriarchy that right up to the 1950s created two budgets in many families--one for the wife and children, and a second, with more recreational income, for the husband. Videos and clips of Promise Keepers rallies remind me more of a wake than a wake-up call. They involve mourning for sins committed, humble self-reflection and, finally, joyful dedication to re-envisioning shared values. I would call those shared values benevolent paternalism, not patriarchy.

After the meeting, three men approached me, identifying themselves as members of the Promise Keepers and wanted to talk about my reservations about the group. While this was a tiny, self-selected sample, the men (two in their early forties and one in his late thirties) provided fascinating insight into the complex bundle of aspirations and fears to which the Promise Keepers appeal. They were almost painfully sincere about improving their behavior as husbands and fathers.

Don, a salesman who is frequently on the road, told me that he had caused his wife "immeasurable pain" before he realized that lie had to recommit to their marriage; since that time he had been trying to "make it up to her." His friend Bruce described the "wave of love" that engulfed him once he realized that his wife was not a competitor but instead needed his protection and cherishing."

Jim, the youngest, said family obligations were, "too easy, nowadays, to abandon."

These men grew up in a world where clear-cut gender roles and rigid marital norms were the first (and sometimes the only) line of defense against the me-first individualism of a market society in which they believed but also found dangerously seductive. "The free enterprise system is a great thing," Don said, "but you have to find the inner strength not to let yourself be ruled by the pursuit of money And the secret is to remember your family obligations."

They said they had been taught to ground their masculine identity and moral obligations in a particular kind of family bargain, in which husbands received status as breadwinners and family heads in return for taking care of their wives and children. As gender roles blurred in the 1970s and '80s, and marriage became less mandatory, they had seen (and often participated in) a breakdown of responsible behavior. Women's liberation, they said, had let men off the hook. If women are economically and personally independent, what happens to the requirement that you marry a girlfriend you get pregnant or that you keep working to support your family even when you're tempted by the single life?

Promise Keepers rallies give these men a way of mobilizing personal willpower and mo-tionally charged experiences with other men to reinforce their family obligations. All three said that their wives deeply supported their involve- meat in the Promise Keepers. For many women indeed, benevolent paternalism may well be the highest quality of life they can aspire to in today's winner-take-all, dependents-be-damned economy and culture. Oral histories I have taken with families across America confirm the ethnographic research sociologist Judith Stacey, who found that many evangelist women bad been "born again" after earlier attempts to achieve economic independence or to renegotiate their marriages on a more egalitarian, even feminist, basis had failed. Given their limited educational and economic leverage, as well as harsh experiences with the impact of divorce, these women frequently discovered that appeals to a husband's religious beliefs and protective impulses posed fewer risks and got a more positive response than claims to equal rights, Vulnerability, they found, was more likely than confrontation to evoke a "wave of love."

While it is important to recognize how well-intentioned such paternalism is, it is also vital to understand its limits. Many women may equate. paternalism with their own maternal experience, where the emotional jolt of an infant's dependence sets the stage for a lifetime of love and commitment Ile difference is that maternalism ideally involves encouraging independence. Mothers must learn, however painfully, to sustain love and commitment even after their children stop needing them. Paternalism in husband-wife relations, by contrast, has no such provision for change and growth. It remains conditional on a woman's continued economic or psychological neediness.

The men I spoke with, for example, simply could not imagine a way of cementing their commitments except on the basis of responsibility for someone who was dependent on them. "I need her to need me," Don explained. "It keeps me on the straight and narrow." He explicitly rejected my suggestion to try thinking in terms of responsibility to rather than for his wife. "My responsibility for my family is my responsibility to God," he said.

The '50s male-breadwinner bargain that these men want to revive did not require strong personal commitment or religious reinforcement, It was embedded in a set of institutional and economic conditions that reproduced male leadership and female dependency on a daily basis., Today, many men do not earn enough to be the sole breadwinner in their families; most women can achieve economic independence. Standards for a good marriage are also higher: Few women will put up with outright subordination; few men want to be as distant from their children as were most '50s fathers. Couples who try to walk the paternalist tightrope, avoiding male domination on the one hand and male disengagement on the other, need continuous renewal and reinforcement. This is what Promise Keepers rallies attempt to provide.

But movements organized around periodic mass mobilizations tend to peak in a series of rallies so big that the next ones seem anti-climactic. This happened to evangelist Billy Sunday's similar attempt to mobilize Christian manhood in the first two decades of this century. Unless the group can consolidate itself behind a more explicitly political goal, the energy tends to dissipate.

What would such a political program look like for the Promise Keepers? There are certainly historical examples of evangelical movements that created positive social programs. In the late 19th century, the social gospel movement set tip day care centers in poor neighborhoods, denounced the rapaciousness of corporate monopolies, challenged unjust tax benefits for the affluent and opposed judges who gave long jail terms to poor immigrants while letting corrupt politicians off. One leader of the Salvation Army claimed that attempting to "right social wrong by charity is like bailing the oceans with a thimble." He and other revivalists supported laws regulating business and prohibiting child labor.

Such policies, however, are anathema to the founders and committed core of the Promise Keepers, whose political infrastructure is based on the communications network of Focus on the Family, the 700 Club and the Christian Coalition. These groups and their secular counterparts like the Family Research Council, oppose such family-friendly reforms as mandated leave benefits for parents, national health insurance and well-subsidized, federally regulated child care centers. Even the call for racial reconciliation is limited to those who accept a biblical model of marriage and are willing, as the Promise Keepers official literature demands, to sift all their beliefs and behaviors through "the grid of Scripture."

Still, this political agenda is not what the majority of men who attend such rallies have in mind. They simply want to do better by their own families. Somehow, those of us with a different vision of how to support families and improve relations between men and women must find ways of responding to the legitimate concerns and decent impulses of those who correctly see a crisis of obligation and commitment in modern America. The question is how to do this without giving an inch to the', reactionary political agenda of the core leadership of the Promise Keepers.

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