It’s been a doozy of a year for Beth Moore. The popular Bible teacher is best known for her sold-out Living Proof Ministries events and 30-plus books and studies. With self-deprecating humor and magnificent Texan hair, Moore is a role model for a generation of evangelical women. But last fall, Moore’s ministry took a new turn. After President Donald Trump’s comments bragging of sexual assault were leaked, she took to Twitter:
I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.
Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.
Even though she didn’t name Trump or Christian leaders directly, Moore was jumping into the political fray, and it seemed like a watershed. Soon, other Christian women who rarely talk about politics from their platforms—among them evangelist Christine Caine, singer-songwriters Sara Groves and Nichole Nordeman, and Saddleback Church leader Kay Warren—were chiming in with similar sentiments. (For her part, Moore also weighed in, however indirectly, on the controversy surrounding Roy Moore’s failed bid for the Senate amid several accusations of sexual molestation.) The critique of Trump’s comments not only broke from the white evangelical base—which overwhelmingly supported Trump in the 2016 election—but also from cultural expectations for women’s ministry leaders.
For decades, evangelical women’s ministry has been forged by entrepreneurial writers, teachers, and speakers who operate in subcultures where men still hold the most visible leadership. Without access to a pulpit in many churches, women with clear spiritual gifting have created their own ministries and online platforms to influence fellow women. Leaders like Lysa TerKeurst, Jennie Allen, Joyce Meyer, Lisa Bevere, Kay Arthur, Ann Voskamp, Caine, and Moore regularly appear on the New York Times bestseller list and pack out conferences in the tens of thousands. They are overwhelmingly white, middle-class wives and mothers. Many adopt a Pinterest aesthetic and frame their discipleship in relational terms, as friends and sisters offering support, teaching, and encouragement.
Yet during a volatile, fractured year for both the United States and the evangelical movement, many women’s ministry leaders have not addressed politics or social issues from their public platforms. Sheila Walsh, Anne Graham Lotz, and Priscilla Shirer are all women’s Bible teachers on par with Beth Moore in terms of influence and sales, yet have kept their social feeds filled with only explicit spiritual encouragement. The IF:Gathering—the largest Christian women’s conference in the U.S. today, with an estimated 200,000-plus locations streaming the event in 2015—has in the past two years addressed racial reconciliation and unity, offering curricula for groups that want to foster diversity and healing. But IF’s core leaders by and large do not directly address racial issues facing the country, such as the gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville or the president’s language against persons of color since the beginning of his campaign. If you were to scan the writing, tweets, and conference talks of the most influential white evangelical women leaders, you could easily walk away with the impression that little has changed for the country or its churches in the past decade. Their general silence speaks to theological and cultural limitations on when and how Christian women lead in the public square.
“White evangelical women do as much as they are allowed to do … in terms of the cultural norms and cultural acceptability of what it means to be good Christian women,” says Zakiya Jackson, director of partnerships of the Expectations Project, a faith-based nonprofit addressing public education. “There are times some women speak up more, but it would violate their primary role as being someone who shines a light on what their husband is doing or what their pastor is doing.” Jackson notes that Beth Moore wasn’t overtly political in her tweets, yet still got pushback for stepping outside what Jackson says is evangelical women’s primary role: “to be loving Jesus and taking care of their families.”
“Even among women whose messages are not overtly political but simply biblical, the faintest whiff of a political statement will incite serious backlash,” says Sharon Hodde Miller, a writer and speaker whose PhD research focused on women and calling. Miller herself has received criticism for writing on the importance of character in political leaders. “We expect female Christian leaders to teach within a particular box, and when they step out of that box, there are consequences.”
That particular box is winsome—leading from nonthreatening gentleness and warmth rather than direct authority. “Many evangelical women have built their platforms based on an illusion of intimacy,” says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin College. “They are their followers’ ‘friends’ and ‘sisters,’ and that illusion of intimacy must be maintained.” As this particular moment is so politically polarized, bringing up politics is risky for leaders whose livelihood depends on retaining followers. After a recent visit to the White House to talk about religious nonprofits and issues affecting families and women, Lysa Terkeurst—president of Proverbs 31 Ministries—assured her Instagram followers, “This wasn’t a political trip. It was just an everyday gal who loves Jesus being given a seat at the table,” even though it’s hard to imagine a visit to the White House, the seat of U.S. political power, that isn’t political. She and other women leaders intuit that “talking politics” may break a friendship; it might also break a 501(c)3 built on the personal brand of a female Christian leader you’ve come to know as your friend.
Economic forces also constrain women leaders who might otherwise speak out. That women with latent gifts and a sense of calling can start their own website, nonprofit, or conference attests to the democratic nature of ministry today. “In the past, a lack of infrastructure would have held them back; but today, women who are gifted to teach, lead, or encourage have opportunity to actualize these gifts in a public way,” writer Hannah Anderson told Christianity Today last year. Anderson notes that this pattern creates an “audience-centric philosophy” in which ministry success means meeting the felt needs of one’s followers. But this places women “more directly at the mercy of the market,” says Du Mez. If Christian women’s needs have been defined as upbeat and encouraging, then “selling” critique, political opinion, or even anything negative will break unspoken but powerful market rules.
Popular writer and speaker Jen Hatmaker knows this well. As many tell the story, Hatmaker lost much of her evangelical fanbase in late 2016, when she went on record in support of same-sex relationships. But the backlash started years before, when Hatmaker began writing about race. (Hatmaker and her husband have two adopted children from Ethiopia.) In a 2012 blog post mourning Trayvon Martin’s shooting death and general race relations in America, commenters complained; why was Hatmaker bringing up a “divisive” topic, and we have a black president, so why are we still talking about racism? This year Hatmaker told The Atlantic that many evangelical women leaders don’t address politics because they “simply don’t want to alienate the people that they’re trying to lead.” The desire not to alienate held her back in the past. But, Hatmaker says, she realizes it’s “actually a luxury of the privileged to stay out of it,” given that human flourishing is at stake in our politics.
In other words, what many white evangelicals consider “politics” is simply a core outworking of faith for Christians of color. Latasha Morrison is founder of Be the Bridge, a racial reconciliation ministry affiliated with the IF:Gathering. Morrison says that white women leaders have a lot to lose in addressing politics because many white Christians “have this barrier, this separation of politics and faith,” on issues of race. What’s considered to be political by white Christians is core theology for “most people of color,” says Morrison. “When you talk about suffering or justice, that is a theology that most people of color embrace as part of their identity.”
Indeed, white evangelicals and black Christians hold different and oftentimes incompatible understandings of what racism is. According to sociologist Michael O. Emerson in his landmark 2000 book, Divided by Faith, white evangelicals tend to see racism as a “heart issue” to be healed by individual repentance and relationships. In this vein, racism is a sin that affects individual white and black people, not part of a systemic, historical oppression of and violence against black people by white people and institutions. In contrast, black Christians understand racism to be a perpetuation of historical wrongs and unjust systems that requires changing laws and policies, not just individual hearts. “A lot of time people are quiet because they don’t have a theological framework on how to address [racism] with their faith,” Morrison says. But the lack of framework hurts the whole church. White Christian leaders’ inability to name and denounce systemic racism—especially in a year when the U.S. President has emboldened and legitimized white supremacists—sounds to Christian leaders of color like painful indifference and complicity.
“To not say something is actually saying something—that’s what Charlottesville changed for me,” says Nikki Toyama-Szeto, the new executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action. She says that before Charlottesville, silence could simply mean neutrality. “Post-Charlottesville, with a certain generation and a certain demographic, there’s too much evidence that the church is actually racist until proven innocent.”
Christian women today who are compelled to talk about politics but fear opposition can find strength in their spiritual foremothers. For it was women of faith—Lucretia Mott, Harriet Tubman, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Sojourner Truth, the Forten women, Harriet Beecher Stowe—who powerfully led the grassroots antislavery movement throughout the nineteenth century. Frederick Douglass wrote, “When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly women’s cause.” Later in the nineteenth century, women took the helm of the temperance movement—itself a work of social and political reform, as alcohol abuse wreaked havoc on local communities and economies. “Women would set up vigils outside of saloons, small barrels of beer, pray, sing, and generally make a political and social nuisance of themselves in order to close the saloons,” says Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor of Christian History magazine. “Maybe it meant that they couldn’t be senior pastors … but it certainly didn’t mean they couldn’t speak about the evils or slavery or the liquor traffic.” Women’s leadership in the temperance movement spurred reforms to give women the right to vote, as social change must involve political systems and structures, not just individual “heart change.”
Christianity has always carried within it a call for both personal and systemic reform—that “separating out social justice issues from biblical teaching is a bifurcation of the gospel,” says Miller. “If the ‘good news’ I’m preaching isn’t good news for the poor and the oppressed, here and now, then I am out of sync with Jesus himself, not witnessing to the inbreaking nature of the kingdom of God.”
Addressing political issues—from racial injustice to abortion to immigration reform to sexual assault—carries the risk of losing fellow evangelicals. But it carries the far greater reward of living out Christian moral leadership in a politically and spiritually chaotic time. For her part, Beth Moore has continued to use her public voice to address white supremacy, sexual assault, and President Trump’s unrestrained vitriolic speech. She may have lost some fans, but in the process she’s been a bold model for fellow evangelical women—if only they’ll get behind her.
Katelyn Beaty is the former managing editor of Christianity Today and the author of A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World.