Of Hatmaker And Heresy
Politico has a puff piece lauding the popular left-wing Evangelical Jen Hatmaker , with a misleading headline declaring that her opposition to Donald Trump made her an Enemy Of The People among Evangelicals. But in fact, Trump opposition didn’t have a lot to do with it. She burned her bridges with conservative Evangelicals earlier, as even the piece points out: Excerpts:
Back in 2013, she wrote a blog post about getting uninvited to speak at a church, partly because of her critical tone toward ministries that do not emphasize social justice. She also owned up to the fact that her ministry had taken a “hard left.” In the spring of 2016, before most people were paying attention, she had spoken in support of gay teens. Her gradual shift to supporting same-sex relationships, culminating in her public announcement last year, also did not happen in a vacuum: In 2016, a slim majority of young white evangelicals—51 percent—said they now support same-sex marriage, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
Last year, colleagues and friends had warned Hatmaker not to throw her career away—not to say she was coming around on LGBT rights. But she couldn’t think one thing in private and say another in public. “I just thought, my insides are going to have to match my outsides, come what may,” she says. In the process, she broke a number of rules, both spoken and unspoken. For one, in supporting same-sex marriage, Hatmaker failed what has become for some a litmus test for who counts as an evangelical and who doesn’t.
The piece, written by Tiffany Stanley, is theologically underinformed. It’s fine to write a piece favorable to Hatmaker, if that’s what you want to do, but it’s not giving the reader a real sense of how serious, theologically speaking, Hatmaker’s LGBT decision is within normative Evangelicalism. Nothing justifies threats of violence against Hatmaker, or anybody else. (Side note: I’d love to see a story some time about prominent Evangelicals and other Christians who took the opposite stand, and suffered threats of violence, including death threats, for having done so; I’ve met a number of these people.) Still, the author treats Hatmaker’s apostasy on LGBT as if the negative reaction to it from other Evangelicals was arbitrary and bigoted. Denny Burk knows better:
There was a fork in the road away from evangelicalism, but the fork was not her opposition to Trump. Lots of us did that. The fork in the road was rejecting Christianity’s teaching about marriage. Her departure on this point is not adiaphora but essential. https://t.co/I4PaLSVEtj
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) December 17, 2017
This Politico piece is a classic example of why you really can’t trust the mainstream media to report knowledgeably about religion. The URL for the Hatmaker piece touts her as “the conscious [sic] of Evangelicalism” — which is how the story reads. That gives away the game: this is a story about how a charismatic young Evangelical woman came to hold a moral conviction that very few Evangelicals have ever believed, historically, but which is suddenly popular in American culture — and in so doing, became the conscience of Evangelicalism. Are those Evangelicals who stand by Christian orthodoxy on LGBT matters people without a conscience? Is that really fair or accurate, simply as a matter of religious reportage? The thing is, Tiffany Stanley is well educated in religion; she holds a M.Div. from Harvard, and has done professional reporting on religion. She’s not outside of her depth at all; she just assumes that Jen Hatmaker is right.
Here is a line from the piece:
For her critics, that means she has too little accountability.
The piece never explores this, nor mentions it again. That is the profile’s major weakness. One of those critics is a prominent Anglican priest, Tish Harrison Warren (whose book Liturgy of the Ordinary was just named Book Of The Year by Christianity Today). In what became a hugely controversial essay this year, Warren wrote that the rise of Internet Christian personalities has caused a real crisis of authority within popular Christianity, especially among women. Excerpt:
Aside from the debate about sexuality, broader questions emerged: Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher?
These are huge questions, fundamental questions, and they apply across the theological spectrum — to conservatives as well as liberals. Warren says that without some kind of accountability to a church or tradition, teaching authority becomes merely a matter of popularity:
Providing ecclesial oversight does not mean that all writers will speak out of one narrow tradition. Nor does ecclesial affiliation itself ensure orthodoxy—there is, of course, no silver bullet against false teaching. Nevertheless, without institutional accountability there is simply no mechanism by which we as a church can preserve doctrinal fidelity.
The Politico piece proceeds as if doctrinal fidelity is at best unimportant, at worst a justification for bigotry. You can’t blame Tiffany Stanley’s ignorance about this stuff for the piece’s bias; as I said, she’s well educated in religion. And yeah, nobody reads Politico for a theological sophisticated take. Even so, Stanley was clearly aware of critics like Warren, but apparently dismissed them and their concerns. In so doing, she misleads readers as to the nature of Evangelical objections to Hatmaker’s public stances. Portraying Hatmaker as a progressive prophet — the “conscious” of Evangelicalism — took a back seat to helping the reader understand why many Evangelicals see Hatmaker as a threat to theological integrity. It also misses a great opportunity to link for the Politico readership the rise of Christian leaders like Hatmaker in the Internet era to the rise of outsiders like Donald Trump. The two are connected, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
This paragraph reveals so much about progressive Christianity’s blind spots:
The Moxie Matters Tour venues include LGBT-affirming churches that are evangelical and mainline Protestant. That was intentional, Hatmaker says—the tour is billed as inclusive. “Why wouldn’t I want to set the absolutely most absurdly long table that I can?” she says. To her, that’s the Gospel, where everyone is welcome, no matter “who they love, where they’re from, what their history is.”
“Inclusive,” like its sister term “diversity,” is prog-speak for “welcoming those we approve of.” The truth is, Jen Hatmaker draws the line somewhere. There are some people who would not be welcome at her church, or at least whose perspectives would not be welcome. If they came to the church and insisted on their point of view, they would be told that they are wrong. For example, her church (pastored by her husband) intentionally tries to reach out to the poor, but if a poor white person showed up and was not shy about his racist beliefs, the church would shut him down. And it should! Racism should have no place in a Christian church. The point is, Hatmaker’s church, like every church, has to be exclusive at a certain point, defining itself by what it is not. This is normal. Hatmaker’s church, Austin New Church, has a statement of beliefs, among them, “The Bible is God’s word and it is true.” No Evangelical would deny that. But the Bible — including the New Testament — is very clear about homosexuality (e.g., Romans 1:24-27). In what sense is the Bible not true here?
That is what the argument within Evangelicalism is about. And it’s an important argument. What bothers me about stories like the Politico one is it just assumes that the progressive take is the correct one, and those who disagree with it do so out of bigotry. It is certainly the case that conservative Evangelicals badly weaken their stance on sexual integrity when they excuse Donald Trump’s sexual sin. Whether they see it or not, they’re opening up a space for the Jen Hatmakers. It makes journalistic sense to point this out in a story about the rise of Jen Hatmaker.
What I object to is the theological framing here — and it’s common in mainstream journalism — construing the conflict as one between rigid, hypocritical conservatives and the hip, young, female progressive. It’s lazy. It’s lazy and it’s false. Tish Harrison Warren is also a young female Christian, and nobody’s idea of a standard conservative Evangelical (she’s in a conservative Anglican denomination, but one that accepts women priests; besides, she’s a personal friend, and she’s not at all a political right-winger). THW has been one of Hatmaker’s most thoughtful critics. Did Stanley talk to her for the piece? If so, why didn’t her thoughts make it into the story? Because it didn’t fit the preferred narrative? [UPDATE: THW texts to say that she was always openly opposed to Trump, and that Stanley never contacted her. — RD]
Did Stanley pose to Hatmaker any of the questions of authority that THW raised? If not, that’s journalistic malpractice in a long-form profile, because those questions are close to the very heart of why conservative Evangelicals — even those who do not support Donald Trump — are so put out by Hatmaker. It also ignores the most important reason why Hatmaker and those like her are such radical and consequential figures, and so potentially destabilizing for Evangelicalism, which lacks a magisterial authority to decide questions of doctrine. Alastair Roberts nails it here:
Evangelicalism has always had populist, democratic, anti-hierarchical, and egalitarian instincts within it. However, these instincts have typically existed alongside many other instincts that served to correct, counterbalance, or check them. The rise of modern media, especially the Internet, has removed many of the limits to these instincts, radically empowering egalitarian and anti-hierarchical instincts over others.
The Internet weakens the pull of locality and the power of context more generally, while empowering movements that are dislodged from physical context and reality, more fully congruent with its tendencies. This radically shifts the balance of power between parachurch or non-ecclesial agencies and those of the local church. Evangelicalism was always going to be in trouble when the means of self-publication were spread to the masses and the general monopoly of the pulpit upon the public dispensing of theological opinion started to crumble. At least as long as the pulpit held sway, some general standards of theological training could—rather unevenly—be maintained as prerequisites for access to it and there was more hope of a mature conversation. The publishing industry would also primarily discover potential writers among trained pastors and academics, rather than among people who had obtained prominence largely independent of such institutions online.
Roberts’s blog is terrific. He’s been on this for a while. In 2016, he wrote:
With the revelation of scandals of spiritual and sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups and gross mishandling, pastors and church leaders are subject to much more suspicion. Pastors, prominent Christian leaders, and teachers may commonly presume that authority is something that comes with the job position. However, this election is just going to provide further evidence of how profoundly mistaken this assumption actually is. Especially among the up-and-coming generations, the older generation of prominent evangelical leaders has less and less influence. Their widespread support of Trump will just be the final nail in the coffin of their credibility for a large number of younger people. ‘Authority’ counts for little where trust no longer exists. Not only will this mean that their future statements won’t carry weight: they will be actively distrusted. Once again, there is a dangerous situation of unattached trust, ripe for the establishment of counter-communities.
Many people now privilege online bloggers, speakers, and writers over the pastors that have been given particular responsibility for the well-being of their souls. The result is growing competition among Christian gatekeepers, which increasingly positions the individual Christian, less as one fed by particular appointed and spiritually mature local fathers and mothers in the faith, and more as an independent religious consumer, free to pick and choose the voices that they find most agreeable. Sheep with a multitude of competing shepherds aren’t much better off than sheep with no shepherds whatsoever.
Jen Hatmaker has become influential thanks to the same hierarchy-destroying, emotivism-promoting media dynamic that empowered Donald Trump.
Look, it’s not fair of me to complain that Tiffany Stanley didn’t write the story I would have liked to have read about Jen Hatmaker. I just wish she hadn’t taken the knee-jerk progressive line, which turns out to conceal more about Jen Hatmaker and her significance than it reveals. If a conservative Tiffany Stanley had written a piece from the opposing ideological point of view, painting Hatmaker as nothing other than some sort of heretic, it would have been equally blind. What’s happening in American religion right now defies simplistic left-right narratives. It’s far more radical than that. The same loss of traditional authority that has empowered Jen Hatmaker will also empower right-wing Christian radicals whose rejection of tradition will manifest itself in ways that shock and appall progressive Christian journalists.
You cannot have one without the other. That’s the real story here.
UPDATE:The Babylon Bee comes through. It always does:
— The Babylon Bee (@TheBabylonBee) December 18, 2017