don’t identify myself with that term any more,” Boz Tchividjian said recently. He was talking about being “evangelical”, the movement his grandfather, the Rev Billy Graham, helped popularize in America. “Words matter,” Tchividjian said, “and ‘evangelical’ isn’t like Baptist or Episcopalian, which can be clearly defined. The minute you use that term to someone,, “you’re defined by how they interpret it.”
Tchividjian is among a growing number of religious people and groups in America who have stopped identifying as evangelicals in order to distance themselves from the more extreme elements of Christian society, while remaining true to their principles.
This fall, the 80-year-old Princeton Evangelical Fellowship dropped “evangelical”from its name. William Boyce, executive secretary of what is now the Princeton Christian Fellowship, explained the move, saying: “In recent years … we are seeing that more students either do not recognize or they misunderstand the term evangelical.”
And in a recent interview, Tony Campolo, a pastor and founder of the Red Letter Christians movement, said succinctly what others have also said publicly: “We feel uncomfortable calling ourselves evangelicals any more, because the general public assumes things about us that aren’t true. We are not for capital punishment, we are not pro-war, we don’t hate gays, we’re not anti-feminist.”
“Because we have such a broad and vague definition of evangelical, one person could automatically assume every evangelical is a Trump supporter, while another could think they’re anti-Trump, because that exists as well,” Tchividjian said. “We’re looking at faith through a political lens, and that’s unfortunate and dangerous.”
“Evangelical” is not, as some might think, a Christian denomination. It’s a rather elastic term that can include Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, any racial demographic, and both the left and right of the political spectrum. But it’s often attributed to only white Republican religious zealots.
It’s easy to forget that many 19th-century evangelicals were social progressives, and that it was the liberal president Jimmy Carter who first popularized the term in the late 1970s. But after Jerry Falwell helped sway evangelical voters away from Carter and toward Reagan in 1980 – largely using legalized abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment to mobilize conservatives – there has been a ceaseless effort among the right to court that segment of the evangelical voting bloc.
Recently, the Trump administration’s attempts to appeal to evangelicals – such as defending religious liberty and Trump’s recent “war on Christmas” rhetoric – have been aimed at a stereotypical demographic, further solidifying public perception of evangelicals according to received ideas.
Christopher Stroop, a former evangelical who now speaks out against the faith, says this has contributed to a wave of Christians fleeing the term “evangelical”.
“There’s a support group on Facebook called ‘Exvangelical’,” he said, “and I see a lot of people on there saying it was after the 2016 election that they decided they needed to distance themselves from that term. These are people who don’t agree with the politics of evangelicals. And really, these days, anyone who doesn’t agree with the politics of evangelicals, but wants to still use that term, are too much of a minority to be relevant to its definition.”
Todd Stiles, pastor of First Family church in Ankeny, Iowa, a key state for evangelical votes, said: “It does seem like people are less likely to identify themselves with that word these days.”
“A lot of presidential candidates have claimed to be evangelical, but don’t live their lives according to the Bible,” he said, adding that politicians blurring the meaning “has really damaged the definition of the word. When a word becomes so large that it encompasses everything, it encompasses nothing.”
For some liberal activists, the word “evangelical” has become a tool to oppose conservative policies. But Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, feels that a lot of criticism levied against evangelicals is unwarranted because too often the masses are being defined by radicals’ actions.
“There are people who identify as evangelical and then do strange things, and somehow that’s projected on to everybody,” he said. “A few years ago there was this pastor of a small church in Florida who decided he was going to burn the Qur’an, and then I got all these calls from government agencies and the press. And I’ve never heard of anybody wanting to burn the Qur’an – it was just this one guy! If I read that story and didn’t know anything about evangelicals, I might think that’s what they were all like.”
Sometimes, though, it’s not the evangelical fringe who draw anger; in August, 150 evangelical leaders signed the Nashville Statement, a proclamation denouncing LGBT rights and anyone who supports them – and were immediately criticised.
The most basic definition of an “evangelical” is someone who believes in a “born again” conversion experience; that entrance to Heaven comes only through Jesus Christ; that the Bible is the literal word of God; and that it is the mandate of every Christian to be an activist, most often through proselytizing, though sometimes through social welfare. But within those parameters, political and theological arguments have caused evangelicals to splinter over the centuries.
“There are a significant number of evangelicals who don’t use the word,” Anderson added. “We represent around 40 denominations and a lot of various groups, schools, publishers and churches, and very few actually use the term [evangelical]. African Americans, more than any other group, adhere to the principles of evangelicalism, but very few identify as evangelicals.”
Stroop is cynical in his views of church leaders who no longer use the term “evangelical” but retain all of the controversial beliefs that have come to be associated with it. “They just want to escape the negative associations, but will still vote against LGBT or women’s rights. I remember in the 90s the term ‘religion’ had negative associations, and so all the evangelicals would say: ‘It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship with God.’ They’re very good at marketing, and this is an attempt at rebranding.”
In Anderson’s view, there is no need for any rebranding efforts, because these things tend to move in cycles, and he feels the evangelical brand has a strong future ahead of it.
“When Tylenol was corrupted in Chicago in the 80s, people thought it was the end of the Tylenol brand. But Tylenol as a brand has survived. Words change over time.”