The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The high cost of popular evangelical Jen Hatmaker’s gay marriage comments

Author, speaker and star of HGTV’s “My Big Family Home Renovation” Jen Hatmaker speaks on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Belong Tour stop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Fans of Jen Hatmaker like her because she is, in one word, relatable. The Texas author and speaker writes often about her “messy” family life, confessing in a viral 2013 post to being the “worst end-of-school year mom ever.” Her homespun approach has garnered her spots on the New York Times bestseller list and an HGTV series alongside husband Brandon and five children.

But last week, Hatmaker broke from her evangelical base, telling Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt that she supports same-sex marriage and believes LGBT relationships can be holy. Such statements followed a social media post this April in which Hatmaker called for LGBT inclusion in churches. Her recent comments prompted LifeWay Christian Stores, the large Southern Baptist bookseller that published her 2012 bestseller “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess,” to discontinue selling her Bible studies and books.

LifeWay won’t sell Amy Grant’s new Christmas album, reigniting the old ‘What’s Christian enough?’ question

The backlash to both Hatmaker’s comments and to LifeWay’s decision reveals growing rancor in evangelical circles over same-sex relationships. White evangelical Protestants remain the U.S. religious group least likely to support same-sex marriage. Absent a pope or a unifying denomination, evangelicals turn to the Bible as the authority on all matters, and most believe Scripture forbids same-sex relations.

But in recent years, evangelical groups have divided over how to practice that teaching in church ministry and outreach. In 2013, humanitarian group World Vision incited swift backlash and quickly reversed course after announcing it would hire staff in same-sex marriages.

Individual leaders who break from the traditional teaching on same-sex relationships — among them ethicist David Gushee, pastor Tony Campolo and former Christianity Today editor David Neff — raise questions over whether one can affirm LGBT relationships and remain an evangelical.

Today Hatmaker published a follow-up post on her Facebook page, stating that she came to her conclusion “with prayer and careful study and deliberation.” “Our view of the Word is still very high, as is it for the hundreds of thousands of faithful believers who believe likewise,” she wrote, suggesting that one can be an evangelical, holding Scripture as the authority on all matters, and affirm same-sex relationships.

Hatmaker is the most prominent female evangelical leader to date to express support for same-sex relationships. The backlash she faces illuminates how tricky it can be for such leaders to take a stand on thorny cultural and political issues without losing followers.

“Christian female celebrities are usually known for their personal stories, not their theological belief statements,” notes Kate Bowler, a professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, who is writing a new book about evangelical women and authority. “It is both unusual and remarkable that Hatmaker … took this stand in a culture that doesn’t typically reward it [taking stands] in women.”

Many evangelicals believe that women are unfit for spiritual leadership, Bowler notes. So many evangelical women today wield influence via storytelling and persona rather than positions of institutional leadership.

‘No more’: Evangelical women are done with Donald Trump and his misogyny

Most white evangelical women leaders “do not engage politics,” notes Sharon Hodde Miller, whose PhD research at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. focused on women in evangelical ministry. “The collective implication is that you cannot be ‘popular’ and ‘political.’ You have to choose.”

Miller notes that Hatmaker has been a “trailblazer” in this regard; she has spoken out on racial reconciliation and the global refugee crisis in recent years. This spring, she published a controversial Facebook post that expressed support and inclusion for LGBT people. Many of her followers applauded her stance, while others expressed concern that she was defying scriptural teaching.

Kate Shellnutt, an editor at Christianity Today magazine, said Hatmaker’s most recent comments on same-sex marriage are consistent with her overall “all are welcome” approach. “Jen is very sensitive to the outsider … she is so passionate about including others: cultural outsiders, the homeless, racial minorities, people who have been hurt by the church,” Shellnutt said. She said Hatmaker’s comments last week serve to “clarify her position, and update what she’s said previously.”

Shellnutt believes Hatmaker’s recent comments might be used to confirm that women can’t be trusted to lead on spiritual matters. “For the haters, it’s an ‘I told you so’ moment, and worse, ammunition to decry women’s events and women teachers more generally,” said Shellnutt.

The deep disgust for Hillary Clinton that drives so many evangelicals to support Trump

The timing of Hatmaker’s comments are notable; she and other popular speakers are in the midst of Belong, a 12-city tour offering encouragement and community to Christian women. Belong is for this generation what Women of Faith was 20 years ago; both events are created by the same company, and Belong counts as its “partners” two prominent evangelical ministries, World Vision and MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers).

Two of Hatmaker’s stage mates, writer Shauna Niequist and musician Nichole Nordeman, have since expressed support for Hatmaker after last week’s comments. But many other individual women have taken to social media to say they won’t attend Belong or read Hatmaker’s books.

Jennie Allen, founder of another popular Christian women’s conference, the IF:Gathering, responded to Hatmaker’s comments last week after her “phone and inboxes started to blow up.” She affirmed that IF:Gathering — which has featured Hatmaker as a speaker since it launched in 2014 — holds to the traditional teaching on same-sex relationships. She said that Hatmaker would not be speaking at next year’s IF, as Hatmaker “took herself out of IF many months ago for reasons that are her own.”

But Allen also said that she had trouble issuing a “statement” on Hatmaker, as she didn’t want to “drive a relational wedge between me and someone I love so dearly and hurt members of the LGBTQ community, many who are friends.” She urged readers to practice Christian unity in a divisive moment for many evangelicals. She said the issue of homosexuality is difficult not because the Bible isn’t clear but because “it is not an issue — it is people. And people we love.”

Miller believes this relational approach could bode well for Hatmaker’s stance within evangelicalism, especially among female followers. “Many of the women who disagree with her are still grateful for her teaching and her influence on their lives, and they are able to hold those things together,” Miller said. She believes Hatmaker represents a wave of evangelical women “who are not content to silo their faith,” or to publicly support only the things that every Christian agrees on. “I happen to think that’s a good thing.”

Katelyn Beaty is author of “A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World” (Howard) and an editor at large at Christianity Today magazine.

Correction: This article has updated Sharon Hodde Miller’s title and the name of Jen Hatmaker’s book.

Want more stories about faith? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

Donald Trump’s pastor problem: 40 percent of Protestant ministers are still undecided

The deep disgust for Hillary Clinton that drives so many evangelicals to support Trump

If Donald Trump has done anything, he has snuffed out the Religious Right