Does someone somewhere have a list of the nastiest character assassination attempts committed since the advent of the internet? And, if so, how many of the top spots are occupied by evangelical Christians?
I think of evangelical pastor John Piper actually believing he had the authority to excommunicate then-pastor Rob Bell via Twitter because Bell questioned traditional notions of hell. I think of the backlash against World Vision's president Richard Stearns when his organization announced it would hire gay Christians. I think of Jerry Falwell Jr. insinuating Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore was a “closet liberal” because Moore refused to support Donald Trump. And now I think of the way countless evangelicals have dragged author Jen Hatmaker to the stocks.
Hatmaker’s original sin is that she broke ranks with the evangelical powers-that-be on same-sex relationships. In an interview with me last October, Hatmaker stated that if she found out one of her children were gay, she would love that child just the same. If an LGBT friend of Hatmaker’s got married, she said she would attend the wedding. And Hatmaker said she believed LGBT relationships could be holy.
In the interview, Hatmaker did not deny a line in the Apostles Creed. She did not promote a historical heresy. She merely claimed that after a careful study of the scriptures, she had arrived at a different understanding of same-sex relationships. But this was enough to outrage some conservative Christians. Lifeway Christian Stores even banned her books from their shelves.
Once the conservative Christian mafia blacklisted Hatmaker and the evangelical blogosphere got done slapping her wrists red, the controversy died down for a while. But then last month, Hatmaker penned a moving article on her website titled, "My Saddest Good Friday in Memory: When Treasured Things Are Dead." In it, she explained the soul-crushing journey she was forced to take from "being on the wrong side of religion":
I suffered the rejection, the fury, the distancing, the punishment, and sometimes worst of all, the silence. I experienced betrayal from people I thought loved us. I felt the cold winds of disapproval and the devastating sting of gossip. I received mocking group texts about me, accidentally sent to me; “Oh, we were just laughing WITH you!” they said upon discovery, an empty, fake, cowardly response. It was a tsunami of terror. One hundred things died. Some of them are still dead. Some are struggling for life but I don’t know if they will make it.
This turned out to be a fatal mistake for Hatmaker. The evangelical aristocracy had sent her away, after all, and she was daring to stick around. And not just stick around, but actually call out the institutional machine that has become remarkably efficient at pulverizing its uncompliant members.
Evangelical Twitter pushed back. Evangelical Facebook cried out. And then Christianity Today, America's leading evangelical publication, jumped into the ring. In an article titled, "Who's in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?," Tish Harrison Warren sounded the alarm about a "crisis" of women bloggers who freely share their ideas online without reporting to an institutional authority. (The horror!) And who did Warren submit to the court of public opinion as exhibit A? You guessed it: Jen Hatmaker.
Warren, who I like as an author and a thinker, made a good argument in theory. But in practice, it lacked legs. I can barely think of a healthy model of an evangelical institution on the internet today.
Consider The Gospel Coalition for a moment. They are a massive blogging network that has a formal institutional structure that purports to provide oversight and accountability. And they have been, to put it frankly, a raging dumpster fire online. They allow unhinged racists like Doug Wilson to have access to their community. They allowed a post on their site calling Christians to develop a stronger "gag reflex" when talking about gay people. They provided cover for those like CJ Mahaney who was embroiled in a sexual abuse controversy in his church and Mark Driscoll, the raging egotist whose teachings and behavior left a wake of damaged Christians in Seattle. If that's what institutional oversight looks like, I think I'll pass.
This whole nonsense is painfully predictable. In fact, I wrote about Christians’ tendency to behave this way in my 2012 book, “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars”:
Ousting is a typical culture war tactic. We take someone who has different thoughts or convictions, and declare them anathema. We cut them off. Then we chop off anyone who likes that person too. Then anyone who likes the person who likes that person, well, they also have to be cleaved. The result is an insulated group of people sitting in an isolated echo chamber where conservatives become more conservative and liberals become more liberal. No one has permission to think for themselves.
This kind of behavior reminds me of Jesus’ words in John 16:2: “For you will be expelled from the synagogue, and the time is coming where those who kill you will think they are doing God a service.”
Jesus may not be prophesying about modern America, but his words remind us that religious people have a tendency to believe that they’ve been commissioned by God to purify the church of those who refuse to genuflect to the whichever Christian warlord is ruling their region. These people will work to expel dissenters from the community in the name of God, convinced that heaven looks on them with favor for their efforts. In this regard, 1st century Palestine doesn’t look all that dissimilar from 21st century America.
To express views as Jen Hatmaker did took guts. It took courage. She knew there would be blowback from the evangelical mafia for stating what she believed, but she stood up and spoke up anyway. She knew that angry letters would follow, that she might lose some fans and followers and readers. But she decided to speak the truth anyway.
Atheist columnist H.L. Mencken once said, “Morality is doing right, no matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right.” Sadly, evangelicalism has become a movement of religionists who will execute anyone whose pursuit of morality leads them beyond the status quo. It is a movement marked by rigid tribalism, divided into warring fiefdoms, and managed by rigid rulers.
And for those conservative Christians who believe Jen is an outlier, allow me to burst your bubble. Hatmaker is not alone in her views on same-sex relationships. Many evangelicals agree with her. No, I’m not referring to Matthew Vines or David Gushee or Julie Rogers or any other evangelical who is vocal about their affirming position. I’m talking about many who secretly agree with Hatmaker but are too afraid to say so.
I have talked to dozens and dozens of evangelical leaders over the past few years who confidentially confess that they’ve changed their minds on these issues too. They include pastors of some of America’s largest evangelical churches, preachers with internationally broadcast television ministries, best-selling Christian authors, popular bloggers and leaders of large faith-based organizations. They can’t afford to have their speaking schedules dry up or to lose their jobs, so they avoid the issue, or worse, they outright lie about what they actually believe. They tremble in fear at the wrath of the evangelical aristocracy.
In such a moment, the bravery that Hatmaker displayed is far too uncommon. The average evangelical online today has the originality of a plaid oxford, the eloquence of a sledgehammer, and the courage of a spaghetti noodle. So I’ll take a courageous Jen Hatmaker over her cowardly critics any day.