Listen to this story
A Religious Leader for the Resisterhood
An Evangelical Texan is now using her pulpit to fight Trumpism. Will her flock follow?
It’s a beautiful September morning in Austin, Texas, and Jen Hatmaker is gently heckling the congregants of Austin New Church. Today’s sermon is on the parable of the Prodigal Son, and Hatmaker, delivering the sermon, is just winding up for a big theological swing when a cell phone rings.
“One time my phone rang, from the front row, in the middle of my own sermon,” she reveals, to laughter. “Yeah. Loved that.”
The parishioner’s phone rings again, and Hatmaker lets loose a slow, deep chuckle, eyes searching for the offender. “Get outta here!” she waves, as more laughter breaks out in the chapel.
Hatmaker, the New York Times-bestselling author and popular Christian speaker, has created a behemoth brand rooted in authenticity, humor, and candor. In the last two years, she has been honing this same easy-going sincerity to empower, and even provoke, her own core audience — evangelical women.
ANC is a far cry from a Texas megachurch: Low-lit and A-framed, the small structure houses only about 300 people. Today, it’s close to capacity. Parishioners of all ages — nearly all white, a blend of families, friends, and couples — sit in the pews, some readying their books and cameras for a chance at a post-sermon meet-and-greet with Hatmaker. At least three women mention that they’re here for the first time because they’ve always wanted to see her preach.
Hatmaker is wearing a look familiar enough to be a signature to her fans: colorful statement earrings, denim jacket, cowboy boots. Unlike some of her evangelical brethren, she doesn’t pace the stage or work the crowd, preferring instead to stand in one place, behind a lowered music stand. Her voice is doing the work.
That voice has intentionally separated her from other leading evangelicals, particularly her white male peers in Texas, who have become some of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. In contrast, Hatmaker has vocally and vehemently denounced the president and his administration’s policies as contrary to Jesus’ teachings. In the process, she has also challenged her audience to listen to, and support, those historically marginalized within her faith tradition: women like her, people of color, queer people, and sometimes even Democrats.
People began sending death threats and burned copies of her books to her home. Popular Christian writers likened her LGBTQ views to “heresy.”
It’s a risky pivot for a pastor’s daughter who got her start by writing, in her words, “very predictable and incredibly safe” books and bible study guides for evangelical women. As the midterm elections approach and Hatmaker wades even further into the political conversation, her influence over white evangelical women — the same demographic who have overwhelmingly supported Trump — will be put to the test.
Hatmaker’s whole life has been steeped in the Christian church. The daughter of a Baptist minister, she grew up in a staunchly Republican home and community, graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University (said to be one of the most conservative colleges in America), and married a pastor. In 2006, she published her first series of books, a set of lighthearted prayer devotionals geared toward “the modern girl.” Her voice was fresh and informal (“I’ll be your girlfriend, not your lecturer,” she wrote in an early chapter) — accompanied by pink covers depicting “relatable” moments (a multitasking mama with her hair in curlers on one, a road trip with girlfriends on another).
With her early books, and later her namesake blog and social media posts, she amassed a devoted following among mostly-white, mostly-evangelical women hungry for her steady stream of inspirational quotes, peaks into her life with her husband and five children, and her strong exhortations toward self- and soul-care (“Someone else’s success does not diminish yours. Faithful in little, faithful in much, dear sisters. Go get ’em today.”) — anything at all, really, except beliefs that could be tagged as political.
But, as Hatmaker, now 44, told a congregation in early 2017, she and her husband, Brandon, eventually came to realize they were living a “churched-up version of the American dream — only enough Jesus in there to make it seem legitimate.” Despite being lifelong Christians, Hatmaker said, “the edges starting prickling… this aggravating stuff kept popping up in Scripture, about the poor, about orphans, about widows, about the hungry, about prisoners. It was maddening, because zero of our lives was oriented around those people. Zero.”
In 2008, the Hatmakers helped launch Austin New Church, a small Methodist church in Austin that, while it espouses core evangelical tenants of biblical truth and salvation through Jesus, focuses especially on serving the community. By then, Hatmaker was a published author five times over. But “for the first time, I found I really had something important to say,” she says.
This revelation set Hatmaker on a new trajectory. Her next book, Interrupted, was her first to grapple with social injustice on a broad scale. And she began blogging, speaking candidly about parenting and ethics in the adoption process (she and Brandon, already parents of three, adopted two children from Ethiopia in 2011).
Until recently, you could still blink-and-miss her brewing political conscience. Her online aesthetic remained largely synonymous with “Christian lifestyle blogger” — funny and snarky, confessing her love of wine and country singer Trisha Yearwood alongside widely-accepted evangelical justice concerns like global poverty and ending human trafficking.
But in 2016, Hatmaker came to another series of divine crossroads.
The first was her long and prayerful process of supporting LGBTQ relationships, and welcoming LGBTQ Christians into the church. Hatmaker had worked through her evolving theological views semi-publicly, from carefully weighing the evangelical response to evangelical aid organization World Vision’s allowance, then subsequent re-denial, of employees in same-sex marriages in 2014; to posting an open welcome to LGBT Christians on her Facebook page in early 2016. But an October 2016 interview with Religion News Service, in which she said LGBT relationships can be “holy,” caught fire among evangelicals.
The backlash, online and offline, was intense. In late 2016, LifeWay Christian Resources, a major retailer, pulled her books from the shelves. People began sending death threats and burned copies of her books to her home. Popular Christian writers like Rod Dreher likened her LGBTQ views to “heresy.”
For much of 2017, she wrestled with these losses.
“A lot of the faith community, and the public sphere, is predicated on group consensus and sort of, behaving, if you will,” she says today. “Making a break from any of them still carries the consequence of rejection. It’s financially punitive. There’s a real cost to breaking from party lines across a variety of issues.”
But by October 2016, she separated herself even further from the evangelical party lines when she denounced Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president.
Hatmaker was among Trump’s earliest evangelical detractors, calling his 2015 suggestion of a ban on Muslims entering the United States “entirely unChristian.” Back then, before he’d secured the Republican presidential nomination, plenty of other evangelical leaders agreed. “To back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Yet by October 2016, when the Access Hollywood tape came to light, prominent evangelical leaders were closing ranks behind the Republican nominee. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the mega First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s faith advisory council, said the candidate had “redeemed himself.”
“I don’t think the American people want this country to go down the toilet because Donald Trump made some dumb comments on a videotape 11 years ago,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., another early and emphatic supporter of the future president.
“This is disgusting. We will not forget,” Hatmaker shot back. “Nor will we forget the Christian leaders that betrayed their sisters in Christ for power.”
The furor exposed a decades-long tension within the evangelical community: Whether evangelicalism is a theological identity, or a political one.Plenty of the most-quoted evangelical leaders today would not hesitate to say “both.”
Since the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s, “evangelical” has become political shorthand in American parlance for “religious Republican.” And evangelicals are a strongly Republican constituency — according to Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research, 77 percent of registered white evangelical Protestant voters identify or lean Republican.
“Evangelicals are to Republicans what Labor was to the Democrats — their most reliable core,” says Barry Hankins, history professor and resident scholar at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Evangelicals may be fearing, if we don’t vote Republican, how will our voices be heard in power?”
“We’ve got prominent leaders still shilling at the White House, thinking that’s the way the kingdom is going to come. I will never believe that as long as I live.”
For evangelicals in Hatmaker’s Texas — by far the state’s largest religious population, worshipping at the second-highest number of megachurches in the country — a crack between evangelical as political and evangelical as theological is starting to open. And it’s in this new space — those outside of institutions, yet faithful, those learning to speak up, and those yearning to be heard — where Jen Hatmaker is building her power.
Stepping inside her 100-year-old converted farmhouse in Buda, a small suburb just outside of Austin, a Jen Hatmaker follower can spot where her online life converges with her private one. A big red fan, featured in a segment on the Hatmaker family’s 2014 HGTV home renovation show, “My Big Family Renovation,” sits in her kitchen. Books by some of her professed favorite authors (and podcast guests) Luvvie Ajayi, Glennon Doyle, and fellow Texan Brené Brown line the bookshelves in her office, a spacious, chandeliered shed in her backyard. Crowding her front hallway are boxes of books by the writer Kelly Corrigan, her upcoming guest on a front-porch Facebook livestream event. There’s otherwise surprisingly little mess for a boisterous family of seven — and few prominent displays of religion, apart from aphorisms about love hung from the walls of her office. Next to her desk sits her cherished gold-embossed, wood-framed directive, now a favorite across her followers’ Pinterest boards: Love God. Love People. The End.
Hatmaker has just finished recording a new episode of the podcast, her microphone and laptop perched atop a large wooden desk beside more books from friends and her own latest, Of Mess and Moxie. She pauses to describe the nature of evangelical leadership in 2018.
“As you can see, right this minute, on this very day, we still are very much in conflict inside the faith community on what this looks like,” Hatmaker says. Referring to leaders like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., and James Dobson, she says, “We’ve got prominent leaders still shilling at the White House, thinking that’s the way it’s going to happen — that’s the way the kingdom is going to come. I will never believe that as long as I live.”
Instead, Hatmaker is banding with other rising leaders who have challenged the evangelical fold in one way or another. She is close with other #MeToo-supporting, Trump-critiquing evangelical white women like writers Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans; frequently retweets and promotes Christian writers and speakers of color like Austin Channing Brown, Bryan Stevenson, Latasha Morrison, and Kathy Khang; and calls LGBTQ Christian writer Matthew Vines and storyteller Brett Trapp her friends. She’s joined with coalitions of faith leaders to sign letters urging an end to forced family separation at the border and denounced the president’s policy that significantly reduces the number of refugees welcomed to the United States.
“Virtually everyone that I was seeing in leadership was a white man. And at some point, I turned to our hosts and said, ‘Where are the people of color? Where are the women?’”
And Hatmaker has continued to speak out against the Trump administration, on both policy and rhetoric. After the president called the birth continent of Hatmaker’s two adopted children a “shithole,” she wrote, “He is more than a fool; he is a practicing, fact-rejecting, truth-denying, white supremacist.”
To date, Hatmaker has largely stayed out of endorsing candidates before they are in office. But this year, she is all in for Beto O’Rourke, the Roman Catholic Democrat running to unseat Baptist Republican Ted Cruz. And she wants everyone to know it.
Hatmaker carefully maintains that her politics are not partisan, writing in a Facebook post in late September that, “anything other than a radically inclusive faith that honors the dignity of every person makes no sense to me… so that is where you will always find me… during every administration, throughout every movement, in every church setting.”
But since 2016, the ruling party’s brand of politics has emboldened her voice and enabled her platform. Recalling a trip to Washington, D.C., in July, she says, “If you were to go onto Capitol Hill, you would literally have no sense of the makeup of the country they are representing. It looks like it’s a country of white men. Virtually everyone that I was seeing in leadership was a white man. Almost everybody. And at some point, I turned to our hosts and said, ‘Where are the people of color? Where are the women?’”
For evangelical women, many of whom are members of congregations that don’t allow them to serve in leadership positions, the question of power, while tied intimately to politics, also extends well beyond it.
Amy Smith, a 57-year-old teacher in Austin, says she found a home at the Hatmaker’s Austin New Church by searching for place that focused on “inclusion, love… things I think I’d hear Jesus say.”
Smith, like many of Hatmaker’s followers, sees herself in Jen: a white woman who was raised conservative, married a pastor, and has “never not been in a church.”
“She opens doors for women, in a way that’s not always safe,” Smith told Medium. “She refuses to be just cutesy and charming. She’s honest.”
Smith believes this honesty, in particular, is tapping into a growing dismay among Christian women in her state. “I sense that there’s a change, because things have been so atrocious,” she says, ticking off references to forced family separation policies and white nationalism.
Smith says she’s definitely voting for Beto O’Rourke in November. And when Hatmaker invited O’Rourke to her podcast, she received a warm response from dozens of Christian women in the state.
“As a conservative teacher I would ❤ to hear your plans to fix the Texas education system,” tweeted Shari Spangrud (@lessonsinfifth) from Canyon Lake, Texas, below Hatmaker’s announcement. “I am most definitely open to different ideas and thoughts and it’s been long enough for education to be put on the back burner.”
“Do it, Beto O’Rourke — Houston resident married to an El Paso native who would purely LOVE to share you with even more friends in more places,” tweeted Kelly Olsakovsky (@KellyOlsakovsky), a self-described “Mom, wife, Jesus Freak, and Auburn Fan” from Houston.
For all the eagerness among certain prominent evangelical men like Falwell Jr. to espouse a partisan platform, there is little precedent for prominent evangelical women to “get political.”
Historically, widely known evangelical women — most notably Beth Moore, a fellow Texan and a mentor to Hatmaker — successfully built their audience, in part, because they refused to dig into public questions of representation.
In the last two years, that’s changed for many (including Moore), but perhaps no one attracts more ire more consistently than Hatmaker. Over the summer and fall, as Hatmaker spoke out on everything from child separation to midterms to the Kavanaugh hearings, she faced a steady stream of pushback from her followers. “Love you, Jen… but just can’t do it,” wrote Valerie Richards, from Corsicana, Texas, who goes by @andrews1976 and tweets about “God. Husband. Kids. Everything else,” on supporting O’Rourke.
Some of the strongest censure came after Hatmaker posted on Instagram following President Trump’s comments about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony: “Never, absolutely never would Jesus ever laugh at a woman’s pain, mock it, parody it, misrepresent it, and incite the crowd to do the same. He disbanded the leering mob to their shame, never hers.”
“I really admired you, but not now,” Jackie Lee (@jackiedeanne) said. “Don’t misrepresent what Jesus did to suit your political view point. …Believe what you want about Dr. Ford, but don’t create false witness. THIS is exactly what Jesus would not have stood for.”
“Already unfollowed you on FB. After this post, I’m thinking it’s finally time to do the same on IG,” Tara Karsten (@karstentara71) wrote. “This is sad as I used to really enjoy your posts. I found your candor and honesty about life in the trenches as a woman, wife, working Mom, and a Christian refreshing, relatable, and inspiring. I felt like someone finally understood what I was going through. Then politics reared its ugly head and took center stage on your FB and IG posts and I’ve simply grown tired of the divisiveness.”
But Sarah Collett (@sarahncollett) of Dallas, Texas, wrote, simply: “Thank you Jen for using your platform to speak the truth in love. I am grateful.”
While Hatmaker’s outspokenness on racial justice hasn’t made headlines in the same way, it’s as profound a provocation to established evangelicalism as her words about gender or sexual orientation or Trump. In a podcast conversation with Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness in July, Hatmaker said the response to her defense of Black Lives Matter was comparable to the response over her defense of the LGBTQ community “in intensity, in anger, in fury, and in rejection. I mean, absolutely, it’s just furious,” she said. “And that tells me something, because the majority of my followers are white Christians.”
Hatmaker credits raising two black children with her burgeoning sense of racial inequity in society, and in the church. When George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, Hatmaker penned an open letter on her blog to Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina, confessing her lifelong ignorance of systemic racism: “I never understood the systemic racism that persists in this country, because I didn’t have to. Because these things didn’t happen to me, I ignorantly assumed they were not happening to you… I’m ashamed that I haven’t seen or cared about this inequity until I had black kids under my roof… I’m so sorry.”
It became one of her first divisive and highly commented-on posts. Some readers were supportive, but many others pushed back, urging her to “be careful not to make this a race issue,” “never apologize for being white,” and “keep your self-loathing to yourself.”
“The truth is, the white community gets the luxury of saying, ‘You’re making this too political,’” Hatmaker says today.
“When it comes to anything inside of politics, I take my cues from my friends of color, I take my cues from my friends in the LGBTQ community, from any friends on any kind of margin,” she says. “If they are raising the red flag, than I am. Every time. And you know what? They’re always right. History bears out their perspective.”
Kathy Khang, author of Raise Your Voice, says there’s something different about the way Hatmaker is publicly working through her own identity as a white Christian woman in the U.S.
“[Jen] recognizes there are voices she did not know existed, and she is trying to listen… in an acknowledgement that it’s not a level playing field out there,” says Khang. “She is trying to elevate other voices, with her platform that is huge. She’s saying, ‘Let’s try to elevate yours.’”
Latasha Morrison, a friend of Hatmaker’s and the founder of Be the Bridge, a group working for racial justice and racial reconciliation, says steady work, like Hatmaker’s, to amplify voices of color is critical for justice within the church.
“This is a major blindspot. [White evangelicals] are really going to have to submit to leaders of color to lead in this area,” Morrison says. “That’s the only way this is going to work. This is something they can’t lead on. I think Jen and some others, as they learn, are going to have to call people to the carpet.”
After two years of public criticism even from longtime followers, Hatmaker is nevertheless quick to point out the potential in encouraging women to claim their own power. “Women have had to kind of, in the faith space, either sort of play by the rules of the patriarchy, or carve out their own niche. I see that ‘outliers’ base as the one that’s growing. And that, to me, feels very, very exciting,” she says.
This is harder to do than Hatmaker often makes it look. Many of her followers are women finding their political voices for the first time; women dismayed by the rampant sexism and racism coming from the White House, but who, in less shocking times, may not otherwise be ready to push their own churches and communities to tackle these questions of patriarchy and white supremacy and systemic oppression head-on.
There, Hatmaker’s savvy, and guiding star, lies in her consistent reliance on the Bible as primary source material. In giving her platform over to non-white, non-straight, or non-evangelical Christian voices; in repeatedly contrasting Jesus’ behavior with that of the president, as in the wake of the confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; in tying her evolving theology and work to Jesus’ central mission of love and justice, she is stepping into the shifting plates of evangelicalism with a revolutionary suggestion: That it’s the straight white male evangelical leaders circling the White House, not the Jen Hatmakers, who are the lost sheep.
Since 2016, the mission of Austin New Church has changed, as have its congregants — still predominantly white, but over time, more theologically and politically left-of-center. (An Austin New Church representative says they “lost a lot of people initially” after issuing a statement saying that as of October 2016 they were fully inclusive. The rep says they “soon backfilled with new folks” and have since continued to grow, though he declined to offer specific numbers.)
Hatmaker has also become more vocal in urging her followers to call their representatives… and to vote.
“I look at somebody like Beto, and I see some ideals that I very much align with. I see what feels like to me as somebody who’s aligned with folks on the margins, who just has a really interesting view of the world,” she says.
Any other kind of public figure — particularly a man — with Hatmaker’s reach, devotion, and charisma would be fending off calls to stop supporting politicians and become one, at the state or national level. (“Jen Hatmaker for president” is a frequent comment on her social posts.) But she demurs, laughing off the question.
“I don’t have the constitution for it. I really don’t,” she says. “It’s too slow, it’s too cumbersome. And then you know, we watch our leaders go into it and you just — they get you. It’s scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It’s really not about representation of the people at all. It is just very gross.”
It’s true that white evangelical women are 10- to 15-points less likely to approve of Trump’s presidency than white evangelical men. But Smith says Pew’s June 2018 polling showed they still give him a 67 percent approval rating — nearly double the approval of all women nationwide.
And despite dismay among the evangelical faithful, Pew polls tell a more cut-and-dried story: Evangelical affiliation with the Republican Party is the highest it has ever been. “This strongly Republican constituency is becoming even more strongly Republican over time,” says Smith. “White evangelical protestants are almost 20 points more partisan today than two decades ago.”
“Evangelicals are principled people, but when it comes to the vote, they revert to form,” says Baylor professor Harkin. “It remains to be seen if these changes will ever cash out at the ballot box.”
Both Harkin and Khang note the lack of institutional support for women breaking away from the white evangelical establishment. “There’s still a ‘glass ceiling’ for most evangelical women in authority,” says Harkin.
It’s hard to imagine how someone without Hatmaker’s early institutional favor and already-established fanbase could duplicate her continued success. But the next generation has what previous ones didn’t — a viable role model in Hatmaker herself.
“There are swaths of women who want to be the next Jen Hatmaker,” Khang says. “[It’s] important for those women to see somebody wrestle with things because they are impacting her reality. That is key to the future of those women, individually and communally.”
Sitting on her couch in Buda, Hatmaker says she is “under no delusions” that she is still deeply embedded in the evangelical community. But even while distancing herself from what evangelicalism has politically become today, she seems hesitant to disown evangelicalism wholesale, alternately referring to evangelicals as “them” and as “us.”
“The church is still really good news in the world, in so many ways, in so many places. And I’m proud to be a part of that,” she says. “At the end of the day, there are still parts about your family that you love, and you’re loyal to, and that you understand to still be special. It is a dysfunctional family. But I guess it is mine.”
Before the phone call had interrupted her sermon, Hatmaker had been setting up the political and religious context for a parable about the Prodigal Son for the Sunday parishioners of Austin New Church.
“I suspect that Jesus saved this story for this exact moment,” she tells congregants. “I believe this story is the gospel, in a nutshell. These sons are the two characters that represent every generation, forever.”
The parable tells of a father with two sons: one who demands his portion of his inheritance, squanders it, and returns home destitute, and one who serves his father faithfully but resents it.
She’s preaching just like her male evangelical colleagues would: from the Bible, vigorously, reverently. But as she tells the story of three men each reconciling with estranged family members, her voice catches.
“[There is] no room to ascribe shame or guilt or punishment. There is only outrageous joy and forgiveness,” she says.
“Listen to me: Jesus is telling us the real story of the Bible here. What the father has to say is, ‘I miss you. Come home.’”