What Obligation Do White Christian Women Have to Speak Out About Politics?

Jen Hatmaker says the “days of silence are over” in polite evangelical culture.

Jen Hatmaker
Bethany Beams / Courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

By her own estimation, Jen Hatmaker is “low-grade Christian famous.” She has written 12 books, starred in an HGTV series with her family, built a large social-media following, and gone on tour with other prominent female Christian writers.

In some circles, Hatmaker is also controversial. Last fall, she told the writer Jonathan Merritt she thinks LGBT relationships can be holy. LifeWay, a large Christian retailer, pulled her books from their stores. Some of her followers were “angry or shocked or confused,” she said, and her interview set off a round of debate on the authority of evangelical women in ministry. This spring, Hatmaker wrote on her blog that she has “[become] painfully aware of the machine, the Christian Machine.”

Hatmaker represents one road for the predominantly white, Protestant women who have built large, name-brand followings. While Hatmaker faced backlash specifically because of her position on same-sex relationships, people were also reacting to her decision to be politically outspoken. For women who make their living through their writing and teaching, taking strong positions on controversial issues can have extraordinary consequences—not only for their livelihoods, but for everyone who works for them.

Many women in Christian ministry take the alternate path. They choose to remain non-political, often out of a legitimate desire not to alienate the people they’re trying to reach. At times, even the aesthetics of their world can seem designed to telegraph non-threatening vibes: lots of swirly fonts, recipe trading, and talk about diets unfaithfully kept. Hatmaker’s new book, Of Mess and Moxie, is both of that world and not. It is distinctly non-political, full of references to wine drinking and gym misadventures. Yet it speaks, subtly, to the conflicted feelings women may have about the different aspects of their identity. Hatmaker’s readers, like her, face stark choices about when and how to speak up about politics, particularly those injustices committed by and within their communities.

I spoke with Hatmaker about her book and the stakes of being political for the women in her world. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Emma Green: This has been kind of an insane year for you.

Jen Hatmaker: That feels right.

Green: You’ve gotten into a lot of fights—although maybe that’s not the right word—particularly around the LGBT stuff. What has that been like?

Hatmaker: This entire year has just been one for the record books. Everything last year just felt like it was DEFCON 1 at all times. It was sort of the dovetail of my statements toward the LGBTQ community and their inclusion in every manner of church, right alongside the election and the insane rhetoric surrounding the campaign.

In both cases, for me, I just could not sit silently by in order to protect my own brand. I just couldn’t do it. And I was advised to do it.

Green: Who advised you to do it?

Hatmaker: Everybody. They would say, “Jen, if you speak into the LGBTQ inclusion in the church conversation and/or the election, then this is career suicide.” I come out of an evangelical space, and there’s a party line, more or less, that runs alongside of that. On both cases, I went against the grain.

It was bananas. It really was. And I wouldn’t change a thing. At the end of the day, I’m not here to build a career. I am here to lead with integrity. I felt like a fractured human being to have these convictions inside of me that I was too afraid to say out loud because it might damage my bottom line. But ultimately that tension became too heavy and I couldn’t hold it anymore.

“Being on the wrong side of the evangelical machine is terrifying and punitive.”

Green: I’d describe you as part of a certain genre of Christian writers: women who go on tour, have a personal name brand, have their own books, and who primarily reach out to other women. You know the profile of women that I’m talking about, right?

Hatmaker: Sure.

Green: These women, in my experience, have been really reticent to be political. I’ve always been curious why that is. Is it that they’re scared, or they truly aren’t political, or they’re nervous about alienating people?

Hatmaker: I would set myself in that category certainly a couple years ago. At this point, I have decidedly broken from the silent part of it.

I suspect that their silence doesn’t just emerge from a place of fear, although I think it’d be crazy to say that’s not true. Being on the wrong side of the evangelical machine is terrifying and punitive. But I suspect that most of those women in leadership simply don’t want to alienate the people that they’re trying to lead. If there was any check in my spirit, anything that would’ve held me back, it would be that. At the core of our work, we want to be able to lead women spiritually. When we enter into fragile spaces like [politics], we are going to rock the boat, and we’re going to lose some people, and we’re going to make people upset or defensive or confused or disappointed.

The problem is that politics and controversy are inherently human. At the end of every policy is a human being. So I almost don’t know how we stay out of this—it’s actually a luxury of the privileged to stay out of it. Whatever is going on doesn’t affect us: It’s not going to harm our family, it’s not going to harm our marriage, it’s not going to harm our position or our place in society. It’s a luxury to say, “I don’t have to care about it, and you shouldn’t either because that would make us feel uncomfortable.”

I honestly believe that being uncomfortable is a great deterrent of the church in our generation—that, for whatever reason, we have elevated the majority’s comfort over justice. The truth is, those days are behind us. If we are unwilling to stand by our friends on the margins, then we have no business being leaders.

“I honestly believe that being uncomfortable is a great deterrent of the church in our generation.”

Green: How much of this reticence is about the particular space evangelical women leaders tend to occupy? Women with an Instagrammable image, who use swirly fonts and a lot of “hey girl” kind of discourse, etc.

It’s non-threatening. And it seems to me to be non-threatening by design. Do you feel pushed into a non-threatening, happy-Christian-woman-on-Instagram frame?

Hatmaker: Yes and no. I think plenty of my career partners would be thrilled if I would be less threatening. I think they put that in their prayer journals and light prayer candles about it—it creates a lot of work for everybody, and sometimes chaos.

I’ll tell you, I know how to do that. I could build my career for the next 20 years doing that, and I could do it well. There’s an intrinsic reward to that sort of leadership, that speaks that insider vernacular and feels a certain way to a certain group of people.

But I don’t want to do that. That feels disingenuous to me, simply because we’re too connected to people who are not comfortable in that environment. They don’t have the luxury of enjoying platitudes and having that sort of—I don’t want to say sanitized, but maybe. A sort of sanitized version of Christianity.

Green: You’ve carved out a distinctively female space in your work. Men can be part of it, but it really is for women—as you say in your book, “this one’s for the girls.” I notice a lot of talk about food and bodies and drinking wine, for example. Do you purposefully do that to make it a female space?

Hatmaker: I love leading women. The women that are in my community are unbelievably smart and talented, passionate, goal-oriented, ambitious, hilarious. Women at this point in history—certainly in our culture—we can do more, we can say more, we can go further, we can lead stronger than ever before in history. Once upon a time, a man would’ve had to give us permission to lead, and even then, it would have been in an incredibly limited capacity. And so it’s really wonderful to see women rise up in their gifts right now, unhindered.

While I love to talk with my community about all those traditionally female things that are both serious and funny, obviously the tongue-in-cheek part of it, I also feel this incredible sense of responsibility to elevate the voices around me that are decidedly female but incredibly necessary right now in our discourse and in our culture.

Green: Something I hear a lot is a complaint from women that there’s a “pink ghetto” around women’s opportunities to engage with either Bible study or Christian ministry. Do you struggle with this at all?

Hatmaker: Well, first of all, I want to acknowledge that literally hundreds of thousands or millions of women actually spiritually thrive in what you’re calling the “pink ghetto.” I don’t want to diminish their experience. I don’t want to say that, just because that’s limiting to me, it must be limiting to women in general. Because that’s not true. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all here on what it looks like to be a Christian woman in today’s culture.

But for the women in which that space feels… What’s the word I’m looking for… Like a prison. The truth is that today, there is every manner of spiritual space that we can now find. Whatever it is about any woman that makes her tick, that really reaches into the depths of her soul spiritually, there is a place for her to be led spiritually.

“Our days of silence are over. It’s time to lay that down.”

Green: You talk a lot in your book about the balancing act Christian women face in finding joy and also being concerned for the world—doing service work, but also being able to chill out and eat salsa or whatever. I wonder: When it comes to politics, what do those challenges look like, especially in this particular time of distress in our culture? And what obligation do Christian women have in a moment such as this?

Hatmaker: Jesus talked about wine skins. It’s one of my favorite weird little stories he told—really it’s like two verses—but he talked about how wine skins can only stretch so much before they burst. The wine remains the same, but the container has to keep being renewed. It can only hold for so long before it becomes brittle and unable to expand.

I think we’re in a new-container season right now. There are so many people now in the church who have come up through nontraditional channels. Back in the day, you were raised in church, and your parents were, and your grandparents were, and this was just how it looked. But now, everybody is atypical. This tidy container no longer works. And so it’s a really challenging but exciting time to be part of building the new container, because the wine is still precious.

Like, to me, that’s everything: The good news is still good, and Jesus is as good as it gets down here as far as I’m concerned, and everything about that is intact. Everything about that message, everything about his life and ways, everything about our life in him now, all of that is the same. But the container’s different.

Our days of silence are over. It’s time to lay that down, move on, and empower one another to speak up. It matters. I look forward to a container that is not so reticent to jump in, that is not so resistant to tension and to discomfort that they’re so busy silencing their members.