Evangelicals Think They Have a PR Problem. Their Actual Problem Is Far Deeper

Evangelicals Think They Have a PR Problem. Their Actual Problem Is Far Deeper October 9, 2017

Have you heard about the student group at Princeton that is changing its name because the term “evangelical” has come to carry too much baggage?

According to Christianity Today:

More than 80 years ago, the first president of Princeton Evangelical Fellowship aspired for the organization to allow students “to enjoy Christian fellowship one with another, to bear united witness to the faith of its members in the whole Bible as the inspired Word of God, and to encourage other students to take, with them, a definite stand for Christ on the campus.”

In 2017, the Ivy League student ministry remains fully committed to this purpose … just without calling themselves evangelical.

The long-running organization changed its name this year to become Princeton Christian Fellowship, citing baggage surrounding the evangelical label.

“There’s a growing recognition that the term evangelical is increasingly either confusing, or unknown, or misunderstood to students,” the organization’s director, Bill Boyce, told The Daily Princetonian.

The group’s director, Bill Boyce, stated in an interview that the term “evangelical” has accrued “baggage,” and followed that with a claim that the term has become “either confusing, or unknown, or misunderstood to students.” What exactly did Boyce mean by this? There is a serious lack of specifics here. In his interview with The Daily Princetonian, Boyce came closer to providing details:

Some people don’t know what ‘evangelical’ means, or others may hold the aforementioned beliefs, but not identify as evangelical. Others associate it negatively with certain political positions. The definition of evangelicalism has morphed and taken on “too much cultural baggage,” Boyce said, including the assumption of a political agenda.

“There might be certain assumptions that all evangelicals are Republicans, for example,” Boyce said. “We’re interested in being people who are defined by our faith and by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda.”

Boyce goes on to discuss the role played by Donald Trump’s election:

While Boyce firmly clarified that the discussion to remove evangelical from their group’s name predated Trump’s election, the politicization of the term ‘evangelical’ reached a fever pitch with Trump’s election. A quick Google search reveals, fairly or unfairly, how strongly the word evangelical has become associated with Trump supporters. The term has taken on a deeply uncomfortable and misleading connotation for the University’s own evangelical Christians.

“I’m speaking anecdotally, but I would say that most of the evangelical Christians that I know are profoundly uncomfortable with President Trump in many respects,” said Boyce. He said that it was unfortunate that “in the press, evangelicals are a named group that unilaterally is in support of President Trump. Certainly in our environment, that is decidedly not the case.”

Boyce isn’t the only one to discuss the “baggage” that has come to be associated with the term evangelical in recent years. A roundtable at The Gospel Coalition asked whether the term evangelical is “redeemable” just last month. Thomas S. Kidd, professor at Baylor University and writer at The Gospel Coalition, declared in 2016 that the term evangelical had been killed by “politics and polls,” explaining that:

…in American pop culture parlance, ‘evangelical’ now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.

Kidd blamed this on the media, which he said “is far more interested in the political expressions of religion than in religion itself.” But notice that Kidd did not deny the political expressions. He acknowledged in his introduction to the roundtable that “strong majorities of white evangelicals support Republican candidates, including Donald Trump,” which I suppose is accurate, except that voting for Trump 81% to 16% is more skewed than I generally read “strong majority” as suggesting.

Remember Boyce’s statement that “most of the evangelical Christians that I know are profoundly uncomfortable with President Trump”? I would respectfully suggest that those evangelicals Boyce knows are not representative of evangelicals as a whole. The polls would certainly suggest so. According to Pew:

White evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and were a key part of his constituency. As his presidency nears the 100-day mark, surveys conducted since Trump’s inauguration tell a similar story.

Three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in February and April. This is nearly twice as high as the president’s approval rating with the general public (39%).

Let’s take a moment to look at the Christian universities where Boyce received his degrees and where Kidd currently teaches—Dallas Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Baylor University. It turns out that all three oppose marriage equality and teach that homosexuality is wrong. That is absolutely their right, but I suspect much of the baggage increasingly attached to evangelicalism is not tied so much to political involvement as to the kind of political involvement.

This isn’t as clear cut as Boyce suggests. “We’re interested in being people who are defined by our faith and by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda,” Boyce said, but here’s my question—if a gay student at Princeton came to Boyce’s Princeton Christian Fellowship, what would he be told there? What if this gay student was a Christian whose faith was compatible with loving, consensual same-sex relationships—would his beliefs be accepted, or would he be told that his understanding of the Bible was wrong?

Boyce thinks he can draw a line between God and politics, but reality is not so simple. There were those who used the term “Christian” back in the 1930s when the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship was founded. The term “evangelical,” like the term “fundamentalist,” was claimed by those who wanted to differentiate themselves from other Christians, whom they believed had apostatized. Evangelicals set about putting walls around their faith, determining what beliefs were acceptable and which were not. And those beliefs, more often than not, had political ramifications.

It’s all well and good to say you want to stay out of politics, but if you believe that a person must be anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-welfare, and anti-single payer healthcare to be Christian, your rejection of politics is a rejection in name only.

Boyce’s newly named Princeton Christian Fellowship does not appear to be part of a national Christian students association, and it has a very small internet presence. Other evangelical student organizations, however, have made their stance clear. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship fires staff members who come out in favor of marriage equality. Cru, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ, is also anti-gay.

As for Kidd’s concern about the term evangelical becoming synonymous with “whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican,” his own university’s research suggests that there is some accuracy to this association:

“Trumpism” — a new form of nationalism that merges pro-Christian rhetoric with anti-Islam, anti-feminist, anti-globalist and anti-government attitudes — and a fear of “others” emerged as prominent patterns among Americans in the latest findings of the Baylor Religion Survey.

And what does this “Trumpism” look like?

Researchers looked at how religious values, behaviors and beliefs predicted political support for Trump, finding that the majority of those who voted for him tend to:

— Say they are “very religious”

— Are members of white Evangelical Protestant churches

— View the United States as a Christian nation

— Believe in an authoritative God who is actively engaged in world affairs

— See Muslims as threats to America

— Value gender traditionalism, feeling that men are better suited for politics and should earn more than women; women should provide primary child care; and working women are deficient as mothers

— Oppose lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights (such as legal marriage)

Evangelicals don’t have a PR problem. They have a problem. The sooner they set about fixing this problem, rather than rebranding themselves to escape the (entirely accurate) negative connotations of their current labels, the better.

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