To the extent that Hatmaker has helped promote and grow this sort of syncretist Christianity she should be criticized, but this problem is far older than Hatmaker and is something that Hatmaker inherited from other older Christians. So criticism that singles out Hatmaker is misguided; Hatmaker is one part of a much larger sub-culture of evangelicalism that is deeply broken and incapable of doing the very things it was designed to do, which is communicate the truths of the Gospel to a culture that finds those truths increasingly strange and alien.
Last week Jen Hatmaker, a prominent evangelical author who most recently featured on the Belong Tour with several other notable evangelical women, gave an interview to RNS focused primarily around politics and the 2016 election. Amongst other things, they covered issues related to sexual ethics, same-sex relationships, and gay marriage.
RNS: Let’s get into the issues, and I want to start with gay marriage. You’ve created some controversy with previous comments on the matter. Politically-speaking, do you support gay marriage.
JH: From a civil rights and civil liberties side and from just a human being side, any two adults have the right to choose who they want to love. And they should be afforded the same legal protections as any of us. I would never wish anything less for my gay friends.
From a spiritual perspective, since gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, our communities have plenty of gay couples who, just like the rest of us, need marriage support and parenting help and Christian community. They are either going to find those resources in the church or they are not.
Not only are these our neighbors and friends, but they are brothers and sisters in Christ. They are adopted into the same family as the rest of us, and the church hasn’t treated the LGBT community like family. We have to do better.
Later in the interview:
RNS: You mention faithfulness and God. Do you think an LGBT relationship can be holy?
JH: I do. And my views here are tender. This is a very nuanced conversation, and it’s hard to nail down in one sitting. I’ve seen too much pain and rejection at the intersection of the gay community and the church. Every believer that witnesses that much overwhelming sorrow should be tender enough to do some hard work here.
The easy route to go here, of course, is to critique Hatmaker because of her specific comments about LGBT issues. To some extent she deserves it—that a prominent Christian author would comment on these issues without ever mentioning Scripture or church history is absurd.
That said, condemning Hatmaker exclusively for her comments on LGBT issues without recognizing broader questions that feed into this issue plays into the “Evangelical Outrage Machine” narrative and does us no favors as we try to explain our position on this difficult issue.
If we are to avoid accusations of arbitrarily focusing on pet issues of ours to freak out about while ignoring other enormously significant questions, then we need a better critique of Hatmaker and the world she comes from then “she’s bad on LGBT issues,” even if that is true.
Younger Evangelicals and the Boomer Church
One of the stock narratives in recent years about younger evangelicals is that many of us are burned out and jaded by abusive fundamentalist churches. The millennial exodus from the church, which is a real thing though it can be over-stated, is thus interpreted as individuals responding en masse to a movement that had been corrupted by too many abusive leaders who were hypocritical and unresponsive when confronted by the many abuses going on in their churches.
Certainly such churches existed. I grew up in one. Amongst the stable of young millennial evangelical memoirists, Elizabeth Esther and Matthew Paul Turner did as well. But the size of this group amongst evangelicals from generation x and the millennial generation is almost certainly over-stated. If a sample of the memoirs we’ve written is any proof, there are far more young evangelical and post-evangelical Christians who grew up burdened by a kind of white suburban civil religion with Christian elements to it.
This sort of religion is still gravely disordered and in its most extreme forms is not even Christian. But the problems here are more often social pressure to conform to sub-Christian norms and a tendency to ignore, rather than actively abuse, marginal groups or marginal individuals within their own congregation, neighborhood, or city.
The generation that grew up in these churches has rebelled against the performance mentality, the hostility to outsiders, and the often narrow political focus of these churches. This is all old news, of course, and many of the changes are welcome ones.
The greater emphasis on a comprehensively pro-life political witness is a great good, as is the attempt to think more seriously about racism in the American church and its role in our republic more broadly. (Hatmaker herself has been part of some of these works and the church is better off because of her work in these arenas.)
The First Generation of Seeker Sensitive
But what may be more interesting is not where the second generation of this suburban civil religion differ from their parents but where they are similar. This is the main point we need to understand as we think about writers like Hatmaker as well as other prominent evangelical writers from the same general sub-culture.
The suburban Christianity of the 90s and 2000s existed within a broader cultural milieu. This milieu relied upon the same thing that sustains our culture today: Market-backed individualism that sacrifices the social capital existing amongst traditional small societies in hopes of obtaining increased personal freedom for individual members of the society. Within such a space, religious and political identity becomes more of a personal branding statement than adherence to a defined set of principles that you believe to be accurate descriptions of what is good, true, and beautiful.
Boomer-era evangelicalism was itself a creature comfortable living in this ecosystem. Indeed, the institutions that defined it were almost unimaginable apart from that broader system. We had our huge megachurches with concert-like worship spaces and pastors who often behaved more like CEOs than shepherds of souls. We had our radio stations, TV stations (and shows), musicians, and award shows. We had our own tee-shirts and gift store paraphernalia. We had youth ministries that looked like typical after school clubs but with superficial trappings of Christian faith.
In all these ways, we had a Christianity that served more as a brand identity within the broader realm filled with autonomous, self-made consumers building and refining their selves through commercial activity. We had different products, but the differences weren’t the point; the products were.
As long as we shopped and engaged in other sorts of commerce as the primary way of expressing our self-identity, the market was happy to indulge our difference. Thus religious identity for many Americans came to look more like a brand than fidelity to the Covenant Lord we meet in Scripture.
It was not all gloom-and-doom, of course. The 90s and 2000s evangelical church in America made real gains on pro-life issues and, through the world-view movement, laid the foundation for the intellectual renaissance happening today. Unfortunately, however, the uncritical way in which this movement situated itself within mainstream America inevitably led to far greater problems.