(RNS) — My unsolicited suggestion for younger evangelical Christians and those young in spirit: Time to lose the label “evangelical.”
As a veteran communications person and a writer who has done copious research on evangelicals, I am convinced that “evangelical” no longer means what it once did. And for the Jesus-following religious people it’s supposed to describe, it’s doing more harm than good.
That original and intended meaning, of course, was “good news”: the good news of the gospel and the life-transforming power of Jesus. Those who promoted and embraced the term were motivated in part by the desire to separate themselves from the scowling visage of the fundamentalists, who in no way lived up to the “fun” in their name.
Evangelicals were the theological conservatives who smiled, engaged the culture, and were happy to share their faith.
But the label and reputation became marred over decades of culture-war politics and an often-hostile relationship with the rest of the culture over divisive social issues — issues on which today’s younger evangelicals often have a different take than their elders.
What was damaged has become irreparably broken over the course of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, obscuring the existence of millions of nonstereotypical evangelicals who are not white, or not anti-gay, or not anti-environment, or not anti-social justice, and not automatically Republican.
Now and probably for a long time to come, “evangelical” communicates a political fact more than a religious identity: the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and that many of evangelicalism’s most prominent leaders have wholeheartedly embraced him and his presidency.
The point here is not to add to the barrage of liberal criticism of Trump and his supporters. It is, rather, to worry about the standing of evangelicals, and Christians more broadly, outside the 30-something-percent-of-the-public bubble where the president can do no wrong.
Given how things have gone in Washington and the historically high public disapproval ratings that have followed, this dynamic has not been a good advertisement for Jesus.
To most of the rest of Americans, the public face of evangelicals has become a snarl, not a smile. And the prospect of interacting with them is the opposite of “good news.”
These are the reasons why more evangelical people and organizations are ditching the label these days, or at least shying away from it.
In a Christianity Today survey taken after last year’s election, a third of evangelical pastors said they felt less comfortable identifying as evangelical around non-Christians than they did before the election.
One ex-evangelical, the writer Amy Julia Becker, laments how the label has taken on an exclusively white and politically conservative meaning. She writes: “For people like me who have identified our version of Christianity as evangelical but who don’t want our religious identity to signify political or racial identity: What should we do now?”
Becker decided to stop identifying as evangelical, opting instead for “Christian.”
In a similar vein, the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship at Princeton University announced earlier this fall it was changing a name it had been using for more than 80 years. It’s now the Princeton Christian Fellowship.
“We’re interested in being people who are defined by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda,” explained the group’s director, Bill Boyce.
Also losing the label are prominent academics and writers such as Scot McKnight and David Gushee. McKnight, a seminary professor and prolific author, wrote in Patheos that it’s time to “bury” the word, adding, “Let the political evangelicals have (it).” Gushee, a Christian ethics professor and theology center director, announced in the spring he was abandoning not just the word but the religious community itself, in part because of its rejection of LGBT people.
To be sure, some non-Trumpian evangelicals are vowing to retain the term and fight for restoration of its original nonpolitical meaning.
Evangelical author and activist Ron Sider believes the term is still necessary to distinguish theological conservatives like himself from Christians with more liberal beliefs about God. “Over time,” writes Sider, the president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action, “we can help the larger society come to a better understanding of what an evangelical is.”
Maybe. And maybe people like retired Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw will find lots of company in their commitment to retain the term “evangelical” and fight for the reclamation of its religious meaning.
But given the baggage it’s taken on, the term is probably not salvageable. The effort to redeem it is probably not worth the cost in time and energy.
Not to imply that faith and evangelism are primarily a public relations gambit. But Christians dedicated to sharing the gospel need to communicate effectively. That means avoiding terms that fail to register with listeners or, worse yet, repel them. Old-school Christianity has lots of problematic jargon of this sort.
Propositions like “God has a plan for your life” and “being salt and light” mean nothing to the growing number of people not steeped in church culture.
The term “evangelical” is even more problematic. The problem isn’t a lack of meaning but too much meaning of the negative variety — meaning that is inaccurate when it comes to the newer generation of evangelicals. Why should they have to carry that burden?
It’s not a question of losing their religion. But for the sake of being properly understood, it’s time for a new label for the kind of faith practiced by younger evangelicals — a faith whose public expression bears little resemblance to the negative stereotypes now set in the public mind.
Or maybe no label at all, other than simply “Christian.”
(Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of, among other books, "The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians." The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)