PASADENA, Calif. – They all decided they wanted to become preachers and enrolled in seminary to learn how to spread the Gospel. They chose one of the most prominent evangelical seminaries in the country.
Yet here they were, these four young preachers-in-training from the Midwest, the South and the Northwest, hanging around after listening to sermons in class. They were debating whether they wanted to be the one thing Fuller Theological Seminary is known for: evangelicals.
“It’s still a painful identity for me, coming from this election,” said Paul Johnson, one of the students at Fuller.
Discomfort with the term “evangelical” began in some quarters with the Moral Majority in the Reagan years, which helped make “evangelical” synonymous with the Republican Party. Ever since, evangelicals have disagreed with each other about mixing faith and politics.
Such debates intensified when President Donald Trump was elected with the overwhelming support of white evangelical voters after a vitriolic campaign that alienated many Americans. Most recently, after Senate candidate Roy Moore drew strong majorities of white evangelicals in Alabama despite reports of his pursuit of teenage girls when he was in his 30s, some Christians across the country said they weren’t sure they wanted to be associated with the word anymore.
Even two of the grandchildren of Billy Graham, the famed evangelist who helped popularize the term, are abandoning the word. “The term has come to represent white Republicans and ... sometimes close-mindedness and superiority,” said granddaughter Jerushah Armfield, a writer and pastor’s wife in South Carolina.
Jen Hatmaker, a Texas-based author with a large evangelical following, sees “a mass exodus” from the label in her community. “The terms feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences,” she said.
At Princeton University, a campus group changed its decades-old name this year from “Princeton Evangelical Fellowship” to simply “Princeton Christian Fellowship.”
For years, believers have debated whether Republican politics and culture-war battles have diluted the essence of their label “evangelical” – which means spreading the Gospel.
The term “evangelical” became popular decades ago as a way to tamp down differences, emphasizing that all people under its umbrella, regardless of denomination, agree to embrace the Bible and spread its word. But politicians such as Trump and Moore have shown how elusive shared faith and values are today.
Evangelicals make up a huge portion of the American population – about one-quarter of the country. An increasing number of Hispanic Christians have come to describe themselves as evangelical in the past decade. While white evangelicals’ numbers have been shrinking – with surveys suggesting a decline of between 2 percent and 6 percent over the past decade – it’s too soon to say from demographic data to what degree a Trump effect may have changed the number of people who identify as evangelical.
But on Fuller Seminary’s palm-tree-lined campus, as in other major evangelical institutions across the country, debate over the term has bubbled to the forefront, especially among younger members of the faith.
“When I say that I’m an evangelical now, I always qualify it,” Johnson said. “Reports that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for (Trump), that’s an offensive statistic for me and something I feel obligated to apologize for. I don’t want to be connected to that.”
Johnson and the other students hanging out after homiletics class found themselves discussing the four-part definition of evangelical faith, articulated by historian David Bebbington: obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority, belief in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the source of salvation, the necessity of a personal “born-again” conversion experience and work to spread the Gospel.
Historically, that definition has helped to distinguish many evangelical churches from more theologically liberal mainline Protestant churches, as well as from stricter fundamentalist churches. But in practice, many evangelicals don’t fully embrace those four tenets, and many people who do would never call themselves evangelical. The differences often come down to cultural factors for self-described evangelicals – such as personal piety or beliefs on sexuality. Or race, for black Christians who share those fourfold beliefs but often don’t use the term “evangelical” to describe themselves because of its historical and modern association with racism and the Republican Party.
“I think when we start throwing around terms like ‘evangelical’ to the outside, it can be really ostracizing,” said Peter Heilman, a 29-year-old pastor-to-be leaning his tattooed elbows on his ripped blue jeans. He grew up labeling himself lots of ways: conservative, Republican, evangelical. But interning in a more politically and racially diverse church has convinced him to drop those words – he’s concerned people won’t listen to him preach if they disagree with his politics.
“You have to understand the people you’re speaking to and what’s going to allow them to keep open ears,” he said. “When it comes down to it, labels can be a dangerous thing.”
His classmate Savannah Sturgeon, a 24-year-old Nashville, Tennessee, native, replied, “I’m not ready to give up the term ‘evangelical,’” and Heilman asked, “Why do you need the name if it has a negative connotation?”
“It’s biblical. We didn’t make it up,” Sturgeon said. “To abandon it now is to say this decade has ruined it for us.”
But many fear that the association between evangelicals and Trump, a historically unpopular first-year president, has deeply damaged the reputation of evangelicals.
In recent years, Americans have expressed more positive feelings toward nearly all religious groups, except for evangelicals. In a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, Americans expressed greater approval than in 2014 for every religious group – Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, atheists and more – except for evangelicals, who stayed flat at a 61 percent approval rating.
In the past, “evangelical” was a useful marker of theological and cultural similarities across denominations – a word providing something broader than “Southern Baptist” but more specific than “Christian.”
The term “evangelical” has helped parents comb through book catalogues, choose schools for their children and decide what charities to support. Ministries such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse receive the bulk of their donations from evangelicals. Book publishers such as Zondervan and InterVarsity Press publish primarily for evangelicals. Institutions such as Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Wheaton College draw primarily from evangelical students.
“Shorthands have always been helpful,” said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, in Illinois. “The question is, ‘Do I want to be affiliated with that?’ when terms have been redefined, either when it’s been hijacked or misunderstood.”
American evangelicals have never been unanimous on social and political issues, dating back centuries, when evangelical leaders split over their views of slavery. “To throw out the term because of some problems in the past several years is so shortsighted,” said Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty, which once described itself as a fundamentalist school but has shifted to call itself evangelical.
Unlike the Catholic Church, evangelicals have no centralized hierarchy or leader, which Prior fears could make them more vulnerable to collapse than other religious traditions.
White evangelicals tend to strongly oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, but they don’t necessarily agree on issues such as climate change or tax policy. “The political environment hasn’t caused the divisions among evangelicals, but it’s highlighted the divisions that were already there,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, who was an early supporter of Trump. “Christians are going to have to decide what’s foundational to their faith.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was evangelical momentum behind progressive causes and candidates, including Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who described himself using the evangelical term “born again.” But with the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, the ties between white evangelicalism and the Republican Party strengthened.
Support for Trump is not a departure from the past several decades of evangelical political behavior, said Heath Carter, a historian at Valparaiso University. “The reality is that evangelicals have always been willing to look past, if not outright embrace, questionable behaviors and tactics in the candidates they support,” he said, pointing to evangelical support for Ronald Reagan, who was divorced and didn’t attend church.
Emmett Price, a professor who focuses on African-American studies at the prominent evangelical seminary Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts, said he worries that white Christians who are abandoning the term are only looking to avoid the negative associations, not to reform their communities. If they’re concerned that politics have tarred evangelicals as racist, he said, they ought to be focused on making evangelical churches less racist – not on calling themselves something else.
“There’s a desire to detach from the political landscape right now. If one wanted to go and essentially fight somewhere for inclusivity, one would stay in that space and invite others in,” he said. “Ditching a term is simply ditching a term.”
At Fuller, seminary president Mark Labberton said his students used to be more willing to stay within the broad tent of evangelicalism and hash out their differences.
“You could say, ‘I’m an evangelical, and I’m part of the religious right,’ or, ‘I’m evangelical, and I’m not part of the religious right,’” he said. “In the Reagan era ... people would have understood that those two things are separate. I think that really changed with the” 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump.
Now students are rethinking how they identify. “Am I part of a movement that identifies with things I actually think are personally and theologically repellent to me?” he hears them asking. “If somehow I’ve gotten caught up in a movement like that ... I could try to endlessly unpack it, or I could just abandon it.”
For his part, he thinks the label still has value, as he tries to sum up the theology that people from many different denominations who gather on Fuller’s campus have in common.
“What word do you put in its place? There’s no adequate or obviously adequate word to do that,” he said. “I’m ‘an orthodox Christian who cares deeply about being a follower of Jesus and wants to live with an open posture of engagement with culture.’ That’s not as tidy as simply saying, ‘evangelical.’”
He’s editing a book that compiles essays from theologically conservative Christians across a political spectrum. The book’s title? Still Evangelical.