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.