Evangelical rebel Jen Hatmaker deserved more from Politico than a puff piece

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Up until recently, I'd never heard of Jen Hatmaker, an evangelical wunderkind who is a one-woman columnist, book-writing machine, conference speaker and all-around mom of five kids and pastor's wife. This has been a winning combo in terms of book deals and speaking engagements for some time. 

Maybe it's because she inhabited a corner of Christianity that most of my single, childless or married-to-a-guy-who-isn't-into-God-at-all female friends could never enter. This is not a criticism of Hatmaker, as none of us were into Beth Moore, either. These Christian superstar women inhabited a universe that us lesser beings couldn't hope to aspire to.

Plus, I wasn't writing about women like her. I was more after cutting-edge Christianity that sent people to India or led then to share all their possessions in a Christian community or do chain-themselves-to-the-clinic-doors activism against abortion clinics. 

Hatmaker is an ordinary person who got where she is by monetizing her life experiences into an evangelical Christian paradigm. Her more recent foray into politics -- linked to her shift on issues linked to sexuality and marriage -- got discovered by secular media, most recently by Politico, which published the following profile:

Last fall, Jen Hatmaker, a popular evangelical author and speaker, started getting death threats. Readers mailed back her books to her home address, but not before some burned the pages or tore them into shreds. LifeWay Christian Stores, the behemoth retailer of the Southern Baptist Convention, pulled her titles off the shelves. Hatmaker was devastated. Up until that point, she had been a wildly influential and welcome presence in the evangelical world, a Christian author whose writings made the New York Times best-seller list and whose home renovation got its own HGTV series. But then 2016 happened, and, well, of course everything changed.

Then it tells how she came out against Donald Trump some time in 2016. This might have been a minority opinion, but she was hardly alone in it and she was not the only person taking heat for it (or even the only woman in that niche).

A lot of evangelicals were unhappy with Trump, whom they saw as crazy, but who was up against Hillary Clinton, who they saw as evil. The fact that 81 percent of evangelical Christians said they voted for Trump doesn’t mean that all of them liked doing so.

So what was the key factor in the Hatmaker story? Back to Politico:

Then, in an interview with Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt, she made what was a stunning admission for her evangelical community: She said she supported same-sex relationships.
That’s when the full weight of conservative Christian outrage crashed down on Hatmaker. There were soon angry commenters and finger-wagging bloggers. She says people in her little town of Buda, Texas, just south of Austin, pulled her children aside and said terrible things about her and her husband. She was afraid to be in public, and she wasn’t sleeping or eating well. “The way people spoke about us, it was as if I had never loved Jesus a day in my life,” Hatmaker recently told an audience in Dallas. The gilded auditorium was quiet, its 2,300 seats filled to capacity with nearly all women. “And I was just an ally,” she said. “Think about how our gay brothers and sisters feel.”

Whoa -- she’s talking to a filled 2,300-seat auditorium? Hardly sounds like she took that much of a hit.

There was more. Two weeks after her bombshell interview, Trump won. And Hatmaker’s community -- at least 80 percent of the white evangelicals in America -- had helped put him in office. “What’s been really painful and disorienting for me is to realize how far away from my evangelical family I am,” she told me in an interview before her Dallas event. “I thought we had a lot more common ground.” The fissures within Christianity became trenches, with men and women like Hatmaker, as well as Christians of color, left on the losing side. Hatmaker’s career was on the line, but so was her very sense of self, and the essence of her life and work -- most importantly, her faith.

This is where Politico lost me.

Women like Hatmaker have long benefited from the female evangelical star system for many years; a system that made little room for the divorced, the widowed, the childless and the never-married. Instead, she was hitched to a pastor and they had five kids. That is evangelical heaven.

I'm not saying Hatmaker doesn't deserve her place in the sun. Her recent column on family members who sabotage holiday celebrations was dead-on terms of what adoptive and foster parents experience all the time.

But here's a woman who got her own reality show back in 2014. Let's not talk about white male privilege while ignoring Hatmaker's very obvious privilege. 

The article later mentions her getting a place on a Women of Faith and a Belong tour; roosts rarely available to many working women in less glamorous trenches. I covered a Women of Faith event once and was amazed at what the speakers were raking in with book sales and associated merchandise. Hatmaker was smart to ride this to the fullest and profit from it, but let’s not whine when the party stops. Rejecting crucial Christian doctrines will get you into hot water.

“This year I became painfully aware of the machine, the Christian Machine,” she wrote in April on her blog. It was Good Friday, a somber day for Christians to observe the crucifixion of Jesus. Hatmaker wrote that she understood now the machine’s “systems and alliances and coded language and brand protection,” not as the insider she had long been, but “from the outside where I was no longer welcome.” During the election season, she added, the “Christian Machine malfunctioned.” It laid bare the civil war within her Christian community.

Sigh. Did it occur to her that the insiders -- lots and lots of evangelical women -- felt she'd betrayed them?

In 2015, Hatmaker announced she would be a headliner on the millennial-friendly follow-up, called the Belong Tour, which sold out arenas last fall at the height of the campaign season.
But by then, Hatmaker had already become less satisfied with the comfortable suburban Christianity she knew. In 2008, she and her husband founded a small church in the Austin area, with a focus on serving the poor and marginalized. She wrote a book chronicling the adoption of her youngest two children from Ethiopia, as well as her family’s experiment with living with less, a kind of proto-minimalism before the craze caught on. She followed up with the publication of Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity.

The fact that Hatmaker, age 43, even got a spot on the millennial-oriented Belong Tour (most millennials aren’t older than 37), is amazing. I found a criticism of the Belong Tour here. It might not have been nasty white evangelical males who cancelled that tour. It might have been other women who  felt its cutting edge had been lost.

Also, Hatmaker's book on adopting two kids from Ethiopia is fine, but a lot of us who adopted kids from overseas would have loved to have had the same kind of platform to write about our journeys. In terms of her family living with less; how many of us have spent years barely scraping by to think that’s cute or fashionable or worth writing a book about? Hatmaker is a born marketer, let’s face it. Politico was more than glad to help.

Hatmaker, meanwhile, has not backed down. In May, she posted an Instagram photo of herself wearing a black tank top with the words, “I ain’t sorry.” She has kept talking to her followers, many of them white and generally conservative Christian women, about supporting gun control, Black Lives Matter and refugees. At a time when the white evangelical share of the American electorate is on the decline, Hatmaker is out with a best-selling book, a top-rated podcast and a speaking tour that’s selling out.

Why didn't the writer of this fluff maintain at least some journalistic distance from her subject? There was zero attempt (that I could discern) to get an opposing point of view and whoever edited it didn’t demand even a hint of objectivity from the reporter. As long as the white evangelical male bogeyman is getting impaled here, who cares about such details? And let’s be honest that the reason Hatmaker is so forthright with Politico: She just came out with a new book. Any publicity is good publicity.

Rod Dreher of the American Conservative also went after the Politico piece, calling it “theologically underinformed,” despite the author’s MDiv from Harvard. Why? Because the reporter made it sound as though Hatmaker was being punished for her non-support of Trump, whereas her rejection of a traditional Christian theology of marriage was the real issue. Once she came out as pro-LGBT marriage, her fellow believers could no longer trust her.

I'd like to think the reporter got in some ironic jabs near the end. One paragraph after Hatmaker mourns that her prophetic stance might hurt her commercially, we see a sold-out venue where Hatmaker fans are buying $99 “girlfriend party packs,” which include the book and a meet-and-greet with Hatmaker herself. Would that more of us could suffer likewise for speaking out.

Not long ago, I did a lengthy piece on “Trump whisperer” Paula White-Cain for the Washington Post magazine that required me to fact check every word this televangelist said, plus include quotes from as many opponents as fans. But the Politico piece on Hatmaker, a polar opposite of White-Cain, had no such balance. Why is it that the Religious Left don’t get anywhere near the same scrutiny of those on the Religious Right?

Like it or not, Hatmaker is now part of the growing evangelical wing of the Religious Left. Let's hope she owns it. And let's hope that future articles on her and others like her will be far more investigative, will probe her motives and dig up all sorts of stuff out of her past in the same way that more conservative personalities have had to endure.

I have zero confidence that the cadre of female journalists I see following Hatmaker are willing to take that extra look. Let's hope I'm wrong.

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