CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There’s a type of Christian woman you might not know about, particularly if you’re not a part of, or adjacent to, evangelical Christianity — an umbrella designation for those who believe in accepting Jesus into one’s heart (becoming “born again”) and spreading the word of God.
This woman is in her twenties, thirties, or forties. She loves Pinterest, where Christian ideas, verses, inspirational quotes, and memes proliferate, but she also feels pressured by its performance of perfection. She goes wine tasting, but doesn’t get wasted. She might have tattoos. She jokes about anxiety medication, and those 10 extra pounds, and the boredom of playdates. And she knows how to use a flat iron to make natural waves in her hair, let me tell you.
She might host Noonday Parties — like Mary Kay, but for selling fair-trade jewelry made by women in impoverished areas. She’s married, and her husband wears nice jeans, and they have cute family photos in coordinated outfits that were taken outdoors, with great natural lighting. She’s a blogger or, at the very least, reads a lot of Christian blogs.
She listens to secular music, which is the Christian way of saying “music that isn’t Christian.” She wears leggings and a fancy, flowy tunic — maybe with a moto jacket — and statement jewelry to church, which is likely nondenominational, with a name like “The Rock” or “Forest Hills” or “ONE.” Depending on its specific theology, she might have recently attended a prayer vigil or empathy panel about Black Lives Matter and police brutality. She believes in treating LGBT people with love; she might even believe they should be allowed to be married. She might also admit that single Christians sometimes have sex before marriage.
She is black, she is Latina, she is Asian, but mostly she is white — and she is middle-class. In many ways, she resembles an intersectional feminist, even if she does not use the term herself. Her theological posture is one of acceptance, of belonging — not of shame and condemnation. And amongst this current generation of Christian women, she is legion.
Yet she is also conservative, and identifies as such: she cherishes the bond of marriage; she’s pro-life; she is anti-pornography. There are some characteristics of this woman that I recognize from my own upbringing in the church: she raises a hand during praise songs; she uses phrases like “It’s been on my heart,” “I’m feeling tender about it,” “I gave it up to God.” She is relentlessly joyful. She loves to hug. But some combination of factors — social media, the increased number of out LGBT men and women, the changing contours of the cultural landscape — have made it so that, increasingly, this woman is not defining herself apart from the secular world, but very much a part of it, and serves God, and spreads His word, from there.
Call her the Xvangelical, call her the New Evangelical Woman, call her the next generation, but whatever she goes by, this election has made her feel politically homeless. She is repulsed by Donald Trump: As Adrienne, from just outside of Morrisville, North Carolina, put it, “Trump doesn’t represent our beliefs. He’s not religious. I don’t even know if he has morals.” But these women also can’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, in part because being anti-abortion is such a central part of their belief system.
This election has forced them to choose between electing someone whose behavior and attitude rebukes the virtues they hold dear — and helping vote in a candidate who would protect the right to abortion. “It has to go back to platform,” Laura, a fortysomething from Hampton Roads, Virginia, told me. “And that platform has to be pro-life.”
Many congregations are split; even Christian Facebook has become a landmine. And while none of their pastors are telling them who to vote for, they are advising them to pray hard about their decision. “I don’t ever remember an election feeling this intense, or your vote seeming to define who you are,” Leanne, a thirtysomething from Columbia, South Carolina, told me. “You feel so scared you might make the wrong decision.”
That feeling was ubiquitous at the Charlotte, North Carolina, stop of Belong — a traveling tour of Christian speakers and musicians that’s filled arenas in 12 cities over the last three months. Belong is the successor, or reboot, of “Women of Faith,” which launched in 1996 and ended last year. It has younger speakers (most are around 40; one, the much beloved author Patsy Clairmont, is grandma age) and seems reverse engineered to appeal to this new kind of Christian woman.
At the tour’s recent stop in Charlotte, the opening music was a medley of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Mumford & Sons, paired with just a single praise song. The name Belong expresses the ethos of the tour: They didn’t want to create a space of “insiders,” where you felt weird if you didn’t know all the words to the songs, or didn’t know where to put your hands when you prayed.
One speaker joked about how all the women in the audience bought new outfits for the tour — which, for many, serves as a girls’ weekend away from home — unscuffed booties, beautiful scarves, and fresh haircuts abound. The Belong “store” sells big dangly earrings and cute fitted shirts that read “ROCK YOUR PURPOSE”; the fonts, design, and colors design are straight off of Pinterest.
And while God/Jesus/Him are evoked in every talk, the mode is far less sermon-like, and far more “storytelling as verbal hospitality,” as Shauna Niequist put it. There’s hardly any quoting of Bible verses or even group prayer. Instead, talks are focused on how to let go of shame, or be real with one another and truly connect, or how to stop trying to be perfect. Church, at least in the traditional sense, this is not.
Belong has no specific headliner, but the vast majority of women I spoke to were there to see Jen Hatmaker — arguably the avatar of the New Christian Woman. A pastor’s daughter now married to a pastor, Hatmaker has written seven books, runs a popular blog, and has cultivated a substantial social media following. Along with her husband and five children — two of whom were adopted from Ethiopia — she starred in the HGTV series My Big Family Renovation. She loves This Is Us, she jokes about “drinking all the wines,” she posts funny, self-deprecating anecdotes about parenting. Her style, mode of address, and brand is very much like any other lifestyle blogger — she just also happens to be Christian.
Hatmaker is most often described by her fans as “relatable”: “I feel like Jen is my best friend,” one woman in her late twenties told me, “even though obviously I’ve never met her.” She has the contagious exaggerated expressions of a cartoon character, and the unmistakable gravity of charisma. She’s the funniest one on the tour, but recently she’s also become the most controversial, explicitly stating in an interview with Religion News that she supports same-sex marriage and gay believers. As a result, the Southern Baptist chain Lifeway Books, a major distributor of religious literature, has refused to stock her books in its 185 stores and online.
In that interview, Hatmaker also crystallized a critique of Trump that had been running through her social media for months. “As a believer, I’m devastated at how successful he has been in pandering to our lowest, basest selves,” she explained. “The selves that are afraid of anybody that does not fit our demographic. The selves that close our arms and our hearts to victims and vulnerable people. He has exposed the darkest corners of our human hearts and then given them free rein to live out in the open. That scares me.”
Several of the most visible and influential of these New Christian Women — including singer and Belong participant Nichole Nordeman, Beth Moore, and author Glennon Doyle Melton, who made a surprise appearance at the Charlotte Belong — have openly criticized Trump. “Do you think we don’t see you, Trump?” Doyle Melton asked on Facebook. “Do you think we don’t know that the way misogynists try to annihilate us is to call us ugly and crazy?” And they’ve watched, in dismay, as male leaders have continued to endorse him. “I find it sickening that these men can face their congregations and their families and their college campuses and feel OK with trusting Donald Trump with their voice and their vote and their country,” Nordeman said, “and still somehow explain it away through the lens of the teachings of Christ.”
Hatmaker has said she’s open to voting for Clinton, but is most drawn to independent candidate Evan McMullin, a 40-year-old ex-CIA agent Mormon. He currently polling at 27.9% in Utah — just 10 points behind Trump — and his campaign, originally conceived of as a protest against Trump and the GOP, increasingly resembles a new conservative party. As one woman commented on Hatmaker’s Facebook page, “Evan McMullin is a hail Mary, but at this point, I’m up for anything that doesn’t involve me voting from Clump,” aka, Clinton or Trump.
In a blog post, Hatmaker pointed to the fact that “Jesus’ subversive teaching taught his followers to shame and expose the evils of political oppression by audacious acts of humility” — not, she points out “through bedding down with the system.” Put differently, Jesus was, and remains, an Independent — and certainly wouldn’t have voted for Trump, whose actions and words belie Jesus’s own teachings.
No one talked politics on the Belong stage. Shauna Niequist, whose new, bestselling book is called Present Over Perfect, talked about how women have overscheduled themselves and judged themselves into a frenzy of perfection. Hatmaker, whose upper-back tattoo was visible through the gauze of her tunic, talked about giving the “sex talk” to five teenagers; Doyle Melton, whose new memoir, Love Warrior, was recently chosen as part of Oprah’s Book Club, wore tight gray skinny jeans and black patent leather Manolo Blahniks and brought the house down when she talked about how boring parenting can be, how judgy church can be, how sad it is that people pretend they have everything together instead of being honest about how “jacked up” their lives are.
But that didn’t mean politics wasn’t hanging over the audience. For many, a weekend at Belong provided much-needed solace from the pressures of the real world — and the toxic rhetoric that had filled their lives around the election, especially in a battleground state. Several women told me they’d stopped allowing their kids to watch broadcast television because the commercials were so vicious — “That’s not something I want my kids to hear.”
Others had watched as Hatmaker, and those who support her, had been savaged online for her stance on marriage equality. “I’m feeling a lot of empathy for Jen,” said Rebecca, a woman in her late twenties from Charlotte. “She’s expressing thoughts that a lot of people feel, and she’s getting crucified for it.” Rebecca was at Belong with her friend Crystal, and they both thought Hatmaker was “filling in the gaps” where many of the attendees' churches have shied away from.
Rebecca grew up Southern Baptist, where pastors had explicitly told the congregation who to vote for; Crystal came up in the black Baptist church; today, both attend large nondenominational churches. Rebecca’s church has several Spanish-language services that cater to the local Latino population, and sermons are available in multiple languages. “Trump says he wants to build a wall,” she said, “but the other day I watched this video of when they opened the borders, just for five minutes, so that people from the other side could see their relatives they’d been separated from for so long, and it was so powerful.” To her, the posture of wall-building was simply not Christian.
When it came to abortion, they both believed that Trump wasn’t actually going to do anything about it if he got into office. “Trump supports Planned Parenthood!” Crystal said. “The GOP just uses the abortion issue to get votes. They know that it’ll make us vote for them, but then they get in office and nothing really changes. Because if it did, then how would they get our votes moving forward? It’s silly. No matter what, women will get abortions. We need to focus on giving women care before unwanted pregnancies, and taking care of children after unwanted pregnancies.”
“If we really cared about this issue,” Rebecca added, “the foster homes wouldn’t be overflowing.”
That’s a sentiment that Hatmaker has repeatedly expressed: Instead of focusing all of Christian energy and emotion on banning abortion, why not better serve women before, and after, unwanted pregnancies — including better sex education, reforming the foster system, and serving children through adoption.
“The focus on abortion is short-sighted,” Essi, who’s from Charlotte, added. “Trump’s just telling Christians what he thinks they want to hear. It’s groupthink, if you just vote party line.” She was there with her friend Ashley, whose book group had recently worked their way through Hatmaker’s book 7, which calls on readers to “fast” one thing in their lives each month. (Making do with seven articles of clothing for an entire month, for example). “Do we really want someone in the office who mocks women?” she asked. “And who makes fun of the disabled?”
Other women thought they could separate Trump’s behavior from his capacity in office. Christa, who lives near Durham, North Carolina, said that the election can’t be about personal opinions: “You have to go back to the scriptures and look.” Amanda, who attends a church in Charlotte that recently held a forum on Black Lives Matter and police brutality, explained that “personally I’m not happy with either choice, but you have to go back to platform and policies, even if I don’t like the face. Would I choose this individual? No. But I have to look to the future and my children.”
And while many acknowledged that they’ll be voting for Trump, they did not lambast Clinton, or refer to her using the same sort of language that has become commonplace at Trump rallies. They all emphasized the need for compassion when talking to others with whom they disagreed; one woman told me that when the election results are announced, “we need to be prepared to accept it on our knees in prayer” — a far cry from the attitude, embraced by many Trump supporters, of refusing to accept election results if their candidate does not win.
They liked that their daughters could see a woman running for president, even if they weren’t voting for her. Many declared that neither Clinton nor Trump is an actual believer — which suggests a failure of messaging on the part of Clinton’s campaign about her longstanding Methodist faith. Ashleigh, who was at the tour with two friends who’d won tickets from a giveaway on Hatmaker’s blog, said that women are still fighting to be validated: “Our accountant just assumes that my husband is the breadwinner,” she said, “even though I make more money and probably always will. But just because I want equal rights doesn’t mean I’m a feminist, and just because it’s a woman running for president doesn’t mean that all women should vote for her.”
“The problem is that everyone thinks Christian women are the same,” Niequiest told me later, backstage. “And you might look at a van full of me with my closest girlfriends and think we were all made in the same factory, but each of one of us believes slightly different things." The Christian woman, in other words, is not a monolith. An event like Belong, where Amish women sit next to women from halfway houses, where the Hatmaker-loving New Christian Woman in her skinny jeans sits with her mom’s Bible group, joins them in one place while also inviting them to respect each other’s differences — something that, historically, and even over the last week, hasn’t always gone over well. As Carrie, from Statesville, North Carolina, jokingly told me, “The mainstream media depicts us as all believing the same thing — but Christian women also believe that all Christian women believe the same thing.”
That’s why so many have voiced anger and sadness over Hatmaker and Nordeman's proclamations about marriage equality and Trump, and how so many churches have come to suffer from very real, if often unspoken, divisions. Increasingly, those divisions have hardened into the kind of fractures that drive young women like those at Belong away from old, firmly patriarchal institutions — like the Southern Baptist church — and toward new, dynamic ones. “In the circles I run in, I keep hearing the term ‘Xvangelical’ thrown around quite a bit,” Nordeman said. “Just the sense that we are trying to find new language to define us as followers of Christ, because this old term has felt unbelievably compromised by this election and by some of the old guard in the evangelical leadership.”
Nordeman believes that Evangelicalism is at a turning point. And wherever the new path leads, it will be forged by women like her and her fellow Belong speakers — even if it takes their followers some time to figure out their own way there. “Things Jen’s said, not even just about LGBT, but other things, they’ve really challenged me to grow spiritually,” one woman from Charlotte, dressed in a crisp white Oxford with Glossier-style makeup, told me. “I think she’s really made so many people in this room grow — but it’s not easy.”
Part of the work demands empathy for others, particularly those who lack the same privileges and resources. Part of it involves embracing different perspectives. And part of it involves rejecting what so much of the world, and one of the current candidates for president, has suggested about both women’s rights and their intrinsic value. As Hatmaker told the arena, a broad grin overtaking her face, “I love women. And I believe God loves women.” That shouldn’t be radical theology. But this election cycle, it certainly feels like it.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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