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More promises in Washington

This article has been reproduced from the December 1997 Socialist Standard, the monthly journal of the Socialist Party.

With a million more members than the Nation of Islam and with an alleged turnout for their recent "Gap in the Wall" gathering of 800,000, twice the attendance of Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March", many take the Promise Keepers, the US's newest religious sect seriously.

In many ways, the 4 October Peace Keepers' "Gap in the Wall" gathering in the Washington Mall had the hallmarks of Farrakhan's MMM two years previously. The MMM had been largely black and male; the PK gathering was predominantly white and male. The former asked those in attendance to atone for their sins—as did the latter—and both were addressed by speakers spouting religious platitudes.

As in 1995, with Farrakhan, the PK speakers found social problem after problem rooted in the way men relate to their families. Indeed, the initial inspiration behind the formation of the PK was leader Bill McCartney's belief that his unfatherly behaviour was the reason his daughter got pregnant on a one-night-stand.

Again, just as the Nation of Islam has its unelected dictatorship, so too with the PK. One Humanist writer observed "it is important to note that… there is no democracy in this organisation. A small group of self-elected men in the Vineyard churches control the entire effort, including its theology, finances and personnel" (John M. Swomley, Sep/Oct 1997 issue).

The comparison with Nation of Islam is more poignantly highlighted still when one realises that both groups are homophobic and vehement anti-abortionists, stressing what they see as the important role a family plays in social harmony. For the writer Jewel van der Merwe, there is a more sinister parallel:

"… the large mass rallies, the exaltation of emotion over reason, the lack of doctrinal integrity, the taking of oaths, the focus on fatherland and fatherhood, the ecumenical inclusion of aberrant esoteric doctrines, bears a disconcerting similarity to an era which gave rise to one of the most dreadful events in history" (Humanist, Sep/Oct).

The most visible of the above is the subordination of reason to emotion. Just as hundreds of thousands of black Americans were hoodwinked into accepting Farrakhan's logic that they alone were responsible for drug abuse, crime and poverty, so too the Promise Keepers accept arguments where blame for macro problems is delegated down to the individual. The truth that society's ills can more easily be located in a wider social and economic context is never imparted to those who perhaps feel the pangs of alienation most intensely and are more desperate for a quick-fix solution.

That movements such as the Nation of Islam and the PK are very much part of the alienation process is what Noam Chomsky refers to as "a reflection of depoliticisation". He argues that faced with:

"… an inability to participate in a meaningful fashion in the political arena… people will find some way of identifying themselves with others, taking part in something. If they don't have the option of participation in labour unions, political organisations that actually function, they'll find other ways. Religious fundamentalism is a class example" (Keeping the Rabble in Line—Interviews with David Barsamian, 1994, p.263).

And the US certainly has more than its fair share of fundamentalists. Recent studies reveal the impact the new breed of bible-bashers have: 75 percent of Americans believe in religious miracles; 40 percent that the world was created 6,000 years ago; 30 percent that the future can be interpreted by biblical prophecies with only 9 percent adhering to Darwinian explanations of evolution (quoted in Barsamian).

This is a climate the US power elite is keen to foster. Just as Clinton announced in his 1993 State of the Nation speech that "we can't renew our country unless… we are willing to join churches", we can find businessmen making hefty donations to the fundamentalists and politicians adopting policies they know will attract them.

Contemplating the problem, Chomsky agrees that:

"… its goal is to make people as stupid and ignorant as possible, and also as passive and obedient as possible, while at the same time making them feel they are somehow moving towards a higher form of participation… It also serves the crucial role of displacing attention from actual power" (quoted in Barsamian).

Although the PK has no dues-paying membership, its hierarchy has drawn up a list of Seven Promises the faithful must keep, inclusive of "honoring Jesus Christ", the pursuit of "vital relationships with other men, understanding that [he] needs brothers to help him keep promises", and the practice of "spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity".

The movement places emphasis on men returning to and embracing the family unit, taking a material and spiritual lead in the family, encouraging other men to come forward to discuss and share their problems—to shoulder the blame for the social breakdown that results from their broken marriages. Their stand on abortion is likewise rooted in their identification of it with violent crime and the rising prison population, as their July 1997 Promise Keepers News observed:

"… the legal undermining of the sanctity of life… represents a rejection of America's two-century old tenet that mankind is made in God's image and is a repudiation of morality as a factor in court decisions."

Swomley, in the Humanist, believes "there has never been sanctity of life in the US—not for Native Americans, black slaves, sweatshop workers, child labourers, wartime conscripts, unwanted immigrants and various others". He contests that "sanctity of life" is not even a "biblical principle", with the bible describing children being killed for the sins of their fathers, adults killed for numerous violations of religious law and God ordering the destruction of thousands.

"Sexual impurity", "lust", "pornography", "filth on the Internet"; and so on permeates much PK thinking, but not to the extent that the "abomination" of homosexuality does, even though this is a sin that "God can cure". Bill McCartney's homophobia borders on the fanatical with statements such as: "a group of people who don't reproduce… want to be compared to people who do reproduce".

But social problems are no more the result of one man's desire for another, a father's absence from the home or a woman's right to control her own reproduction than of the black male population Farrakhan hinted at.

The problems the Promise Keepers and the Nation of Islam take fright at are the same ones that concern socialists. But these are problems we recognise as arising from the way in which the world is at present organised. It is a world where the maxim "can't pay, can't have" permeates all aspects of life, determining individual responses. At root we can't make lasting and beneficial changes to human behaviour until we change the social and economic system we call capitalism. Until they realise this, the Promise Keepers will only ever be part of the problem, not a key to the solution.