'Evangelical' has officially become a bad word. After years of deliberation, the Christian student group formerly known as the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship dropped the name it had held since it began in 1937, changing its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship earlier this school year.
The organization's trustees and directors voted to formally change the name in May 2017 and the decision was announced this August. William “Bill” Boyce ’79, executive secretary and associate chaplain of PCF, said that the term 'evangelical' has become an “unnecessary hindrance” to their work.
“There’s a growing recognition that the term evangelical is increasingly either confusing, or unknown, or misunderstood to students,” he said.
The word 'evangelical' has a long history in the United States that typically implies a core set of doctrinal beliefs. Such tenets include belief in the authority and inspiration of the Bible, centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the free offer of salvation through faith, according to Boyce.
“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,” said Boyce.
Jay Sourbeer ’18, president of PCF, echoed Boyce, adding that the term 'evangelical' is “thrown around too much.”
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.”
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.”
“The majority of students and alumni of PCF have reacted positively to the name change,” Sourbeer said. “Students are totally on board. Aside from the nostalgia, there’s no good reason to keep it around.”
"I do miss the old name ("PEF" can be pronounced as one syllable, but the same can't be said for PCF) but I think it's worth the name change to be consistent with the meanings of words as understood by contemporary English speakers," wrote Karen Zhang '19, a member of PCF, in an email. "All in all, it's been a lot easier to switch from PEF to PCF in conversation than I thought it would be, and it's still the same group of people, so I end up not really noticing that the change has happened at all."