I grew up in a church that celebrated the Fourth of July (not to mention Memorial and Veterans’ Days) with more gusto than Easter. On these sacred days, we sang the national anthem out of our hymnals, hung star-spangled banners in the sanctuary, and turned away from the cross and toward the flag to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
This red-blooded patriotism was part of a religious culture that also included six-day creationism, climate skepticism, complementarianism, and an evangelistic tunnel vision that saw people as nothing more than immortal souls. Not to mention some sometimes-subtle, sometimes-not racism.
But it wasn’t any of these things that first seemed wrong to me. In one of those bizarre ironies that convince some people of providence and others of chance, my first ticket out came from John Piper’s Calvinism. I’d been taught my whole life at church that Calvinism prevented people from getting saved by lulling them into a false sense of soteriological security. One visiting evangelist referred to our church on the north side of Holland, MI, as a “stronghold in this bastion of Reformed theology.”
Thanks in part to John Piper, however, I met a God who loved me unconditionally, who was more powerful than human failures, and who did not keep a constant count of my sins. Piper affirmed that intellectual study was a valid way to worship God and that evangelism was not a Christian’s only job. I felt more at home in Piper’s tradition than I ever had in my own.
Then, in my first year at Calvin, pastors and professors began to show me that I did not, in fact, have an answer to everything. My skepticism about female clergy was shattered by Calvin’s chaplain, Pastor Mary Hulst. My idea of the Bible as a theology textbook didn’t survive Ken Pomykala’s “Introduction to Biblical Literature.” And my certainty about Calvinist theology came to an abrupt end in Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s intro philosophy class, when I suggested that God had planned the greatest evils in history and she responded with something like, “Would you say that to someone who is suffering?”
But even though I had moved away from his theology, I still respected and admired John Piper and others like him. I thought the church needed a healthy dialogue between progressives and Piper types. I thought the real golden rule of Christianity was “everything in moderation.”
Then I was radicalized. I spent the summer of 2017 as a research assistant for Kristin Du Mez’s project on evangelical masculinity and militarism, Jesus and John Wayne (available now!). Du Mez’s thesis, in short, is that evangelical Christians’ support of Donald Trump is not a betrayal of their long-held values but a fulfillment of them. Over the past half-century, these Christians had been trained to admire reckless, no-holds-barred, even offensive male leaders, and so when such a leader arose and promised to protect them from liberals, Muslims, and illegal immigrants, they weren’t just satisfied, they were thrilled. I learned a lot while working on the project, but here are three specific things that changed my worldview at its roots:
1) There’s a specific kind of privilege that emotionally protects those of us (mostly men) who have not experienced sex-based discrimination or trauma. My colleagues that summer—Prof. Du Mez and two other student researchers—were all women, and I discovered that I had very different emotional reactions to a lot of our findings than they did. Jesus and John Wayne is full of stories of Christian leaders denigrating women, boasting of their sexual prowess, and covering up abuse allegations. As a man, I could read these stories and feel horrified without feeling personally attacked or endangered. Far from making me a more “objective” reader, this actually made me less able to grasp the imminent danger that patriarchy poses to the body of Christ.
For those of us who have never been on the blunt end of sexism (or racism, or ableism, etc.), things can look funny or tragic or intriguingly disgusting when they are actually evil. Which means we need to trust the thoughts and feelings of others more than we trust our own. If anyone’s deceived by their own emotions, it’s us.
2) Gender justice cannot be separated from racial justice. Thanks to many fantastic women in my life (from professors and friends to my mom and grandma), gender justice felt right to me. Once I got over my theological hangups, it felt instinctively obvious that women should be fully included in religious, intellectual, and political life. But Jesus and John Wayne reveals that the evangelical defense of patriarchy has always been inextricably tied to whiteness. Patriarchal leaders build their authority by portraying non-white people as a threat from which white women and children need to be protected. The gospel requires dismantling this racism just as strongly as it demands gender equality.
It was one thing to assent to this idea intellectually, but it’s been something else entirely to live like it’s true. I discovered that for all the misogyny I’d avoided or dealt with, my heart was—is—still riddled with racism. Without willful change, I would protect my own comfort by avoiding Black authors, Black music, and even Black people. Jesus and John Wayne helped teach me that that isn’t an option.
3) “Moderate” (or “respectable”) evangelicalism can be insidiously dangerous. Of course, what counts as “moderate” depends on where you’re standing. What I mean by the term is any mainstream evangelical ministries that are theologically and politically conservative while avoiding the explicit sexism and racism of fundamentalists. This includes figures like Tim Keller and Russell Moore, blogs like DesiringGod and The Gospel Coalition, and media groups like Focus on the Family.
As I mentioned above, I used to look at these people and organizations as largely benign and well-meaning: helpful in some areas, problematic in others. But in the decades-long story told in Jesus and John Wayne, moderate evangelicals do not come across well. Rather than standing up to the unapologetic racism, sexism, and nationalism of more extreme figures like Mark Driscoll and Doug Wilson, moderates like Piper or Al Mohler are too often found defending their character, endorsing their books, and hosting them at conferences.
And the talking points of the “extremists” (like quiverfull patriarchs), are never far from the pens of the “moderates.” (See, for example, PCA pastor Kevin DeYoung’s call for evangelicals to win the culture war by having more kids—a straight-up quiverfull strategy.) No longer do I think these “moderates” can be reliably trusted for their moral leadership. This doesn’t mean everything they say is wrong, but it does mean that their failings need to be called out and not just ignored.
These changes in my thinking and feeling didn’t happen instantly that summer. But the Jesus and John Wayne research showed me that I needed to listen to a wider variety of voices, especially those of the marginalized, in order to understand the American church’s fallenness. I could figure out on my own that Donald Trump had nothing to do with Jesus. But I needed and still need other people—women professors, Black writers, LGBT activists—to show me how deep the problems lie and how radical the Christian response needs to be.
The flag-wrapped worship of my childhood is one thing. But there doesn’t have to be a flag in the building for the church to turn away from the cross.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Micah Chiang
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.
Wow, thanks for this. I find it so constructive and moving when people can admit that they haven’t always-and-forever held the “right” convictions they now defend, that they’ve radically changed their mind, and can detail their journeys so generously.
Thanks for reading, Cotter! I’ve been thinking a lot about how progressive Christian activism really needs generosity toward other traditions in order to be healthy. Sure isn’t easy, though.
Just ordered the book 🙂 It’s striking to me how this male-dominated, nationalist brand of evangelicalism doesn’t seem to survive debate on equal terms with the voices it excludes. I grew up taught to dismiss women’s teaching, “liberation theology”, anything outside the white male cadre of accepted leaders. Like you, it took going to college and being confronted by those previously-excluded voices to realize how limited and anxious my faith used to be. I had never considered the possibility that beyond the John Pipers and Focus on the Families was a fuller, deeper faith. Here’s to continued radicalization!
Yes, Kate! Thank you for reading. I think there’s this idea among lots of evangelical Christians that faith has to be defended or protected, when really it should embolden us to take risks. (Talking to myself here—I’m not very good with risks.)
Josh, you didn’t actually provide evidence to substantiate your charges. You basically said “There isn’t real evidence, but I still know those Complimentarians are horribly racist.” So you’re OK with violating the 9th Commandment?
Also, you have admitted to being riddled with racism yourself. I am sad about that and hope you find forgiveness and transformation through Jesus. Honest question: Why should those of us who are not racist listen to you on the subject of race? Or even gender (since you say the 2 are fundamentally linked)?
Dan, I’d steer you to reading the book (as Caleb also recommended in your Returning Church page) before diving in with accusations of a recent grad. Regarding your criticism of Dan’s self-disclosure, I’m happy to take this up with you (find me on fb). Just as we believe sin touches every inch of creation, so too–as Josh bravely admits–racism (prejudice which becomes racism when we are part of a group in power) touches us all. You and me too, Dan. I hope you don’t see all those who provide advice and reflections as perfect exemplars of their own advice. That would mean tuning out all of our pastors (and, as a pastor myself – to stay quiet on all subjects). Often, we speak best and most effectively out of a place of weakness as we are sanctified.
(Josh, thanks so much for writing this. These are really important reflections.)
Hi Nathan, I’m not sure why you responded on Josh’s behalf. I’m also not sure why I would need to read an entire book to get a direct answer to the question of where prominent Christian thinkers who believe the complementarian teachings of Scripture have been overtly racist. Since Josh helped write the book, it should be fairly simple for him to provide such quotes, correct? Or am I missing something?
As for being a racist…it is a very logical question. If someone admits to being a racist, why should those of us who are not racist listen to that person on ideas for ending racism? Or are you trying to say that you know my heart and you know that I am a racist also? That would be a very odd position to take, if you believe in Scripture.
See above, Dan: “Just as we believe sin touches every inch of creation, so too–as Josh bravely admits–racism (prejudice which becomes racism when we are part of a group in power) touches us all.” This is a long conversation, and we’re clearly on different wavelengths. You think of racism as primarily individual, I see it as bound up in the systems like the air we breath (and we as individuals participate in that system). Happy to continue dialoguing 1:1. Peace.
Oh, dear, Dan: as Ibrahan Kendi so elegantly illustrates, one of the first signs of a racist is a claim not to be racist. Because the definition of racism goes so far beyond, I don’t hate BIPOC. Do you really think you know everything? Sounds so much like the “praying” Pharisee Jesus criticized while he honored the publican who confessed his needs. Christians are sinners daily needing grace for all kinds of things–including their limited understanding and their unacknowledged racism, yet depending upon God to flood them with grace, and to help them continue to grow. Ignorance is NOT bliss. And a research assistant is not a final authority, but someone who assists those conducting a study. Indeed, research means that we all learn together–including the researchers. [Thanks, Josh, for your testimonial and teachable spirit: I’ve read stunning reviews about this book, respect its sources, and will be reading it very soon.]
Really great, Josh. Well done.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Josh. I’m reading Jesus and John Wayne now. I appreciate how you allowed your research to influence your understanding.
This is well done and insightful! I appreciate your heart for learning and growing as well as remaining open-minded as you researched and allowing that to inform your thinking and understanding of biblical justice.
I grew up in the “bastion of Reformed theology” that was Holland, Michigan, and back in ’58 Calvin College and Seminary began my liberation from ignorance and prejudice. But since then it has taken me almost fifty years to make the progress you have made in five.
Keep learning. Keep writing.
Well said! This sounds like my own journey. I’ll have to get a copy of Jesus and John Wayne.
“Patriarchal leaders build their authority by portraying non-white people as a threat from which white women and children need to be protected. The gospel requires dismantling this racism just as strongly as it demands gender equality.”
I would love to learn more about this argument. Can you provide some citations where Piper, Keller, DeYoung, Wilson, or even the de-frocked Driscoll promote their complimentarian views by warning women and children of a dark-skinned boogeyman?
Hi Mark! Thanks for reading. Kristin Du Mez talks about this quite a bit in Jesus and John Wayne, but one example that comes immediately to mind is the book Douglas Wilson co-wrote with Steve Wilkins, “Southern Slavery: As It Was.” The book includes a defense of North American chattel slavery as largely peaceful, if not benevolent. And Piper has explicitly defended his own platforming of Wilson despite this explicit racism. It’s much harder to find /explicit/ racism in mainstream evangelicalism these days since it’s so culturally taboo, but even something like DeYoung’s “have more kids” strategy has racist undertones: we need to build a Christian nation /biologically/.
“…gender justice felt right to me”. I went to Calvin eons ago and this was not part of our lexicon. What is gender justice? Who is the arbiter of GJ? What biblical principles support GJ?
Hi Brian! Thanks for reading. What I mean by “gender justice” in this post is the idea that equality between men and women is a Christian principle and should be fought for. I’d point to Genesis 2, where God creates all people (not just men) in his image, and Galatians 3, where Paul talks about there being “no more male and female” in Christ, as biblical foundations for gender justice. Also the inclusion of women in Jesus’ ministry, such as the Marys being the first people to preach his resurrection.
What do you mean by equality? Are you saying there should be no such thing as women’s sports? That the LPGA should be shut down and women golfers should have to compete directly with the men?
Returning Church facebook page has had this piece shared on it, with comments aplenty.
Oof, you’re not kidding!
Author Parks, why not respond on comments of Returning Church? Some there are fearful of your spiritual condition. Book sales could only be helped, also.
To some of the folks on here from the Returning Church page, know that your comments over there (specifically your questioning people’s standing with God — and those who did not push back on those comments) are public, and they will not win you any respect or willingness to listen. I’m ashamed of that, really. Josh, we’re all figuring this out together, learning, growing. Personal attacks are signs of a touched nerve. So be encouraged, and we’ll keep learning together.
In sum, your takeaways from “Jesus and John Wayne” are enlightening and well considered. Though I haven’t read the book, these all seem more than plausible. But, I do think you may have been a little unfair to Russell Moore by grouping him with publications like the Gospel Coalition and Desiring God. You argue these “moderate” figures are still complacent and even participants in the institutional problems of evangelicalism. It seems to me that Moore hasn’t been; in fact, the opposite is true. Moore just recently argued in favor of Mississippi changing their flag, has argued for Christian support of refugees, and has consistently opposed the policies and rhetoric of Trump. I think Moore may deserve more credit than you give him, seeing as he has engaged in tearing down many of the structures that are reinforced by publications like DesiringGod. (I comment as someone entering RCIA, so I have no real stakes in evangelicalism).
What intense subject matter. Josh, thank you for your honesty and willingness to proclaim that we are all in need of learning as we are all in need of God.
Josh, I had very similar feelings as someone who was formerly very connected to evangelical media, and can recall instances where Keller, Moore, and others have both condemned salacious abuses of power by evangelicals and have called on evangelicalism to reform. I also think that the piece fails to consider the role of evangelical women (Karen Swallow Prior, Kate Shellnut, Beth Moore, etc.) who have condemned a certain view of men/patriarchal ideation in Christian leadership while still holding to a more traditional sexual and gender ethic. Many of these women also push back against “quiverfull” ideas espoused at times by organizations identified in this article. This really seems to splinter this conversation into more complex pieces (such as reconciling patriarchal abuses of power, particularly sexually, with how to interpret the acceptable scope of complimentarianism – I disagreed with DuMez in several areas here). However, this piece is clearly extremely effective and excellent because it allows for those conversations to advance into more specific ideas. @ other (author) Josh, fantastic work.
I also say this as someone who has become Anglican (ACNA) and wrestles constantly with a conversion to Catholicism. I also feel low stakes in talking about evangelicalism, but still find myself engaging with them at times and even appreciating certain ideas from them. This conversation is important!