Princeton U Student Group Drops 'Evangelical' From Name Fearing Negative Connotation

(Photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey, November 16, 2013.

A Princeton University student group has dropped the word "evangelical" from its name because its members feel that the word now has a negative perception in today's society.

The Daily Princetonian reports that Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, which has held the world "evangelical" in its name since 1937, is now officially known as Princeton Christian Fellowship.

The name change comes as members of the group have weighed for years whether or not to change the name and officially voted in May to do so. The name change became official this semester, the student newspaper reported on Sunday.

"There's a growing recognition that the term evangelical is increasingly either confusing, or unknown, or misunderstood to students," Chaplain William Boyce, a 1979 graduate and PCF executive secretary, told the newspaper.

Boyce added that the term "evangelical" has become an "unnecessary hindrance" to the group's ministry.

"I'm old enough to think [evangelical] is a good word, but it's reached a point where there's so much baggage attached around it so that it's no longer a helpful word to identify ourselves," Boyce explained.

Expand | Collapse

The term evangelical has taken on a very political connotation, especially after exit polls indicated that nearly 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Although some experts say that the 81-percent figure shown in the exit polls is not quite an accurate depiction of evangelical voting behavior, many others believe that it was the influence of the white evangelical vote that is responsible for electing Trump.

According to Boyce, the term "evangelical" has taken on "too much cultural baggage" because many think the term is tied to a political agenda.

"There might be certain assumptions that all evangelicals are Republicans, for example," Boyce added. "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."

Despite the fact that Trump's election has caused the word "evangelical" to become more polarizing than ever before, Boyce said that the discussion to remove the word from the fellowship's name began before the 2016 election.

"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," Boyce told the daily, adding that it is a shame that evangelicals are often "a named group that unilaterally is in support of President Trump."

"Certainly in our environment, that is decidedly not the case," Boyce asserted.

PCF member Karen Zhang told the Daily Princetonian in an email that she misses the old name but understands the reason for the name change.

"I think it's worth the name change to be consistent with the meanings of words as understood by contemporary English speakers," Zhang said.

The student group is not alone in its hesitance to identify as evangelical.

In an op-ed published in February 2016, Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, explained that he had stopped referring to himself as an evangelical in conversations and began referring to himself as a "Gospel Christian."

"The word 'evangelical' has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Moore wrote. "Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of 'evangelical,' seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That's especially true when media don't distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as 'born again' or 'evangelical.'"

As pointed out by Ryan Burge, political science instructor at Eastern Illinois University, there is much confusion about what exactly defines the term and in certain cases, polls and studies don't properly identify evangelicals. In many cases, people who are surveyed for polls don't know whether they are evangelical or mainline protestants.

"There is a huge debate about what an evangelical is and I think that when we think evangelical generally, it needs to be white evangelical," Burge told The Christian Post in March. "The word has taken on a life of its own and no one can agree on what it is."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith
Follow Samuel Smith on Facebook: SamuelSmithCP