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 to 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.
During the campaign, as other white evangelicals coalesced around the Republican nominee, Hatmaker effectively joined the coterie of “Never Trump” evangelicals, telling her more than half a million Facebook followers that Donald Trump made her “sad and horrified and despondent.” After the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked and prominent evangelical men came to Trump’s defense, she tweeted: “We will not forget. Nor will we forget the Christian leaders that betrayed their sisters in Christ for power.” 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.”
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 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.
Indeed, the white conservative Christian electorate—and its overlap with the old-guard religious right—has supported a thrice-married adulterer who bragged about sexual assault. It has excused leadership blunders and nativism and white supremacy. It has rallied around Senate candidate Roy Moore in the face of multiple allegations of sexual abuse of minors. It has also brought low many of those evangelicals who dared to question its judgment.
A recent survey found that white evangelicals are now more likely than the average American, or any other religious group polled, to excuse politicians’ immoral behavior. Even the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, who leads that denomination’s public policy arm and was perhaps the most famous Never Trump evangelical, was forced to go on a kind of apology tour after the election in order to keep his job. He said he was sorry if his criticisms had been too broad; he didn’t mean to criticize everyone who voted for Trump.
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.
Whether that influence stands a chance at countering the white evangelical alliance with Trump or translates to political activism at all, remains to be seen. Hatmaker’s name is not well known in Washington circles. Women like her do not crown primary picks in Iowa or direct money to super PACs. But they can, and she does, have much larger grass-roots followings than many religious right leaders. In a faith tradition that often limits leadership opportunities for women, Hatmaker has built a brand outside denominational boundaries. For her critics, that means she has too little accountability. For her supporters, it means she is free to speak her mind and to speak up for a Christian constituency that finds itself at odds with the politically minded evangelical leaders welcomed at the White House.
“For me,” Hatmaker says, “it’s not as base as, ‘I’m just going to keep being political for the sake of it,’ so much as it is that all of this policy, all of this rhetoric, all of this leadership, it affects real live human people. That, for me, is where I am no longer comfortable remaining silent.”
Born in 1974, Hatmaker grew up mostly in Kansas, as a pastor’s kid during the rise of the religious right. Her Southern Baptist youth and young adulthood were filled with the middle-class, culturally evangelical quirks of the 1980s and '90s: the contemporary Christian music and merchandise, the “True Love Waits” abstinence pledges and church twice on Sundays. “Good reader,” she wrote in her book For the Love, “I was exactly the Church Youth Group Girl you think I was.”
She attended Oklahoma Baptist University, where she met her husband, Brandon. They married with a dry wedding when she was 19. “I was so square,” she quips now. She had her first child at 23, and back then, she worked as a teacher and then focused her energies at home while her husband worked as a pastor. She describes her career as if she stumbled into it; working in women’s ministry eventually led to speaking gigs and book deals and being what she calls “low-grade Christian famous.”
Hatmaker’s early books were women’s Bible studies. Her first cover was punctuated with hot pink accents and an illustration of girlish sunglasses. Her writing style has always been chatty and fun and filled with folksy humor. She used to avoid politics on her public platform, and she has long considered herself a political independent. She is just as likely to drop biblical wisdom as she is to share the merits of casserole, the joys of shopping at Target and the antics of her five kids. One of her running gags is about sweet versus spicy families. Hers falls decisively in the spicy camp—sarcastic, loud, unruly.
Through her speaking and writing, Hatmaker became what seemed like the heir apparent to Beth Moore (no relation to Roy or Russell), a mega-influential evangelist and Bible study author out of Houston. Moore, whom Hatmaker still refers to as a mentor, has also been highly critical of evangelicals’ current political positions, and she regularly sends and tweets encouragement to Hatmaker. They both spent time on the Women of Faith tour, a Christian women’s conference that began in 1996. 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.
I first met Hatmaker in June in the lobby of her Times Square hotel in New York, where she was promoting her latest book, Of Mess and Moxie, a collection of short spiritual essays, peppered with recipes and comic listicles all written before the recent dust-up. When I reached out to shake her hand, she enveloped me in a hug instead. Her maxi-skirt ensemble was signature Hatmaker: colorful, with a Southwestern tinge, complete with her trademark statement earrings. When I asked her how it felt to do publicity again, she took a long pause. “I’m trying to decide if I’m going to tell you the truth or not,” she said, before breaking into a cackle.
The thing she was most emphatic about was that her faith had remained intact since last fall’s backlash. “I didn’t have a whole lot left besides my faith and my closest people,” she says. She was relieved to find, “this anchor that I profess—it holds.”
Part of Hatmaker’s appeal is that she doesn’t pretend her views are stagnant or unchanging. “You don’t have to be who you first were,” she writes in her newest book, her 12th. Over the years, she has guided her readers through her own theological transformations, which she tends to dive into headlong (“halfhearted is not an adjective ever wasted on me,” she writes). If anyone was paying attention, she points out, they could see that she had become more outspoken on political issues over time.
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. On top of that, evangelical female leaders, the ones with brands and blogs and speaking tours, are often reluctant to talk politics openly, for fear of alienating their female audiences or stepping too far outside the bounds of acceptable conservative Christian gender norms.
In fact, evangelical women’s ministries are often touted as being apolitical—relegated to gender-appropriate church duties and the domestic spheres of home and children. But of course, those spaces have never been apolitical. Women’s bodies, and the decision around having children, as well as the notions of “traditional family values,” have long fueled the culture wars, and have tied most white evangelicals to the Republican Party for more than three decades. Last fall, after Trump’s “Access Hollywood” comments surfaced, it wasn’t just Hatmaker who blanched—a number of other prominent evangelical women spoke out against him, a move seen as a rare political moment by otherwise nonpolitical leaders.
For Hatmaker, politics gets rooted in relationships, including those with gay friends. “You cannot talk in a sterilized way about an issue when the issue is a friend,” she says. On race, too, “our friends and neighbors of color have been banging this drum forever.” Through adoption, she is a mother to two black children. Her son, she says, first experienced racial slurs after the 2016 election. “When I see legislation and leadership and government harming people when I see language that’s being normalized and the effect that is going to have on my neighbors and on people who are typically marginalized, I will not sit by,” she says.
Another season of the Belong Tour was supposed to start this past summer. Its dates were announced with a slickly packaged promotional video in April, but by July, the company that owns the tour announced it was canceled. The official response blamed poor ticket sales. Hatmaker suggests there was more to the story, due to the tour’s new ownership, but wouldn’t offer many specifics. She thinks the owner is going to take the tour in a different direction, perhaps keeping it more in line with traditional evangelicalism: “If we were heading out toward the margins a bit, I think he’s going to turn it back a little more mainstream.” (The owner did not respond to interview requests.)
She forged ahead anyway. In July, she debuted her weekly interview-style podcast, and it quickly shot to the top 10 in the religion and spirituality category on iTunes. By the end of the summer, Of Mess and Moxie hit the New York Times best-seller list. She created a fall event series, the Moxie Matters Tour, with her friend and Belong Tour alum, singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman. They scaled it back from the original tour’s arenas, booking more intimate spaces like churches and theaters. After several of the stops on their 11-city tour sold out, the duo added eight more dates to the calendar after the new year.
The size of Hatmaker’s audience—her “tribe” as she calls it—has held steady despite the backlash she has faced, she told me. But she says there has still been some turnover, with fans lost and fans gained because of her comments. Recently, when Trump made a Pocahontas joke in front of Navajo veterans, Hatmaker tweeted that he was “incapable of maturity, decency, self-awareness, or shame. He humiliates us every single day. We can never stop calling out this behavior.” As sexual misconduct charges against powerful men continued to break, she wrote a note of solidarity with victims on Facebook, adding, “Voting for molesters because we prefer them to stay in power is evil,” which prompted thousands of shares and a lively debate in the comments section about whether someone who opposes abortion can support Roy Moore’s pro-choice Democratic opponent, Doug Jones. When a commenter posted, “She’s talking to YOU, Alabama,” Hatmaker replied, “And Franken and Spacey and dirty clergy and all of them. Let no one escape.”
Hatmaker also recently tweeted that the evangelical subculture “tends to elevate a very homogeneous voice: white, mostly male, women who don’t upset the power differential we’ve come to count on (white, conservative, straight, Republican).” Going against the grain, she wrote, threatens “commercial success.” But Hatmaker notes that a mentor recently advised her to just lead whatever followers she had. “I really took that advice,” she told me. “And I have felt real free since.”
In the basement of the theater in Dallas, more than a hundred women form a line that snakes around the room. For $99, they’ve bought the Girlfriend Party Pack, which includes this VIP meet-and-greet, a book, a CD and event admission. It’s late October, and the women are decked out in their autumn best: red plaid, leather jackets and oversized sweaters—even though it’s Texas, and the high is 80 degrees. Off to the side, one of the tour managers mentions that Hatmaker’s kid's joke they can spot her fans anywhere. “They wear the boots, the skinny jeans, the flowy top, the big bag,” she says, just like Hatmaker.
Women congregate in their packs of twos and threes and sixes, the crowd more diverse in age than race. A trio of friends from Minnesota flew down for a girls’ trip, with an earlier stop in nearby Waco to see Magnolia, the storefront of HGTV star Joanna Gaines of the show Fixer Upper. Ahead of them in line, a woman wears a shirt that reads, “Jen Hatmaker Is My Spirit Animal.” Volunteers from a local church are on hand to hold purses and snap cellphone pics as the women pose for pictures with Nordeman and Hatmaker, who has hugs enough for them all. The room gets loud and warm, and women squeal with delight when it’s their turn. Some bring presents wrapped in gift bags and tissue paper. Some cry and say their lives have been changed.
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.”
That’s not to say all of the women at Moxie Matters agree with her political viewpoints. A self-described Hatmaker “superfan” at the meet-and-greet tells me, “I don’t agree with her position [on LGBT rights], but I still love her and I feel like I agree with everything else she stands for and represents.” Hatmaker acknowledged such differences later on stage. “We’re kind of all over the map here on conviction and ideology and theology,” she told the crowd before she began the story of her past year. “I love that and respect it.” She did not mention Trump, and she was careful to translate her own story of the past year to a universal message of coping with pain and rejection.
Hatmaker remains an unlikely, and perhaps uncomfortable, member of the anti-Trump resistance. “I don’t know if I fit neatly into that space,” she says. While she’s against abortion, she takes pains to say she has an expansive view of what “pro-life” means. And she doesn’t think to hold that view necessarily ties her to the GOP, even at a time when white evangelicals are as closely affiliated as ever with the Republican Party. But maybe that’s the point. Hatmaker can reach her own demographic. In the greenroom before her meet-and-greet, she said, “For me, it’s more like a constant prophetic responsibility to call evil, evil. To call racism, racism. And unfortunately, this seems to be happening on the daily.”
Does she still identify as evangelical? “It depends on your definition,” she says. She rejects the conservative political affiliation aligned with the term. “I think the way that most people would understand the word, I would say no, I do not identify with that label anymore. I just love Jesus.”
“I am still bewildered, and I don’t know what the future is,” Hatmaker says. “I do know that there seems to be a mass exodus from the evangelical brand right now. That could be my tribe that I’ve curated, so I hear that more. Because it seems like the good old boys are still thriving out in a world that I’m not involved in, so you know my perspective is narrow and biased, and I’m not sure what is actually true.” She adds, “I want to be hopeful though. I want to be hopeful that we are going to find our way back home and reclaim a lot of the credibility that we’ve lost.”
With that, the conversation ends, and she walks out of the greenroom and down a narrow, dim hallway. She stops for a moment to pull out a compact and powder her nose. And then a doorway opens up and light streams in, and she walks out to a throng of evangelical women still cheering at the sound of her name.