My Take: Don’t blame college for young people leaving Christianity
The author says the politicization of Christianity is responsible for young people leaving church.
February 28th, 2012
12:39 PM ET

My Take: Don’t blame college for young people leaving Christianity

Editor's note: Tim King, the communications director at Sojourners, blogs at sojo.net. Follow him at @tmking.

By Tim King, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Christianity in America is in danger. As former Senator Rick Santorum recently pointed out, young people are leaving the church in droves.

In the mid-1980s, evangelical 20-somethings outnumbered those with no religious affiliation – the so-called “nones” – by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. By 2008, those proportions were almost flipped, with young “nones” outnumbering evangelicals by more than 1.5 to 1.

An entire generation, my generation, is leaving the church. What’s the cause? Santorum blames higher education, telling Glenn Beck last week that "62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it."

The “war on religion” has become a frequent bogeyman among Christian and political leaders. But the reason church leaders have failed to stem the tide of a generation heading for the exit door is that they keep looking for an outside enemy to blame when the biggest problems are inside the church.

The years young adults spend in college aren’t causing them to leave their faith; those college years are exposing the problems with the faith they grew up with.

The exodus has little to do with liberal college professors, which insurance plans should cover contraception, where mosques are being built, or whether or not the Ten Commandments are hanging in courtrooms, even if many religious leaders act as if these are the greatest Christian “battles” of our lifetime.

In doing so, they are actively pushing young people away from religion.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think young people are leaving the church in record numbers just because some Christians are Republicans. There are a lot of wonderful Christians who happen to be conservative and who are great witnesses for the faith. Many of them are in my family.

Rather, the exodus is about hypocrisy.

Last year, we saw Christian leaders raising the alarm about the encroachment of “radical Islamists.” They call for the restriction of Muslims religious liberties to practice their faith and build houses of worship. But this year, when it comes to contraception, the rallying cry is religious freedom.

Last week, Franklin Graham was asked whether or not he believed President Obama was a Christian. He gave a fair answer when he said it wasn’t his place to judge.

But when asked the same question about the faith of Santorum and Newt Gingrich, Graham’s standards changed. He answered that yes, he did think those men were Christian because of “political interests” and “spiritual interests.” Graham later backtracked, but the message was already out.

What did a lot of young people hear? To be a Christian you need to look like, talk like and vote like Franklin Graham… Oh, and something about sinners and grace.

Such political spectacles are driving a generation away from faith. It almost did for me, an evangelical Christian in my 20s who attends church on an almost weekly basis.

Most of my life I went to private Christian schools or was homeschooled. I had some wonderful examples of faith that inspired me. But as soon as I heard Christians on the radio or saw them on TV, I was ashamed to call myself a Christian.

The Jesus I read about in Scriptures taught love, acceptance, peace and concern for the poor, but the Christian leaders on TV and radio always seemed to be pro-rich, pro-white, pro-America and anti-gay.

By college I was getting ready to leave it all behind.

Thankfully, I had found meaning in work with the homeless and tutoring refugees. I heard Jim Wallis, for whom I now work, speak about God’s heart for the poor and oppressed. I sat in Scot McKnight’s North Park University classes in Chicago and learned about a Jesus who didn’t think like me, talk like me or live like me but who presented a radical challenge to be a disciple of this one they call Christ.

By 2004, I realized that the highest Christian calling in my life might not be to vote Republican. I still casted my ballot, but what was most significant to me that November was inviting 15 homeless men and women into my campus apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving with some other students and spend the night indoors.

I like politics. I think it’s important. Public policy matters because it affects people’s lives every day in ways we often don’t realize. But my primary concern for it comes because it affects the people Jesus called me to love and that the Bible tells me to be a voice for. This is why the use and abuse of religion during this election season is so troubling.

When Franklin Graham sets up double standards of faith for Republicans and Democrats, when Pat Robertson intones about a coming “secular atheist dictatorship,” when the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins goes off about the dangers of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and other “anti-family, anti-religious, anti-Christian policies,” when the great test for the next President of our country is who has “real” theology and who has “phony” theology, it might make for good sound bites.

But it’s bad faith.

Blaming colleges, like Santorum did, is a lot easier than reforming the church. Finding an enemy outside of your religious faith might keep some young people in line for a little while and is probably great for fundraising. Heck, it might even mobilize an important voting bloc and win a few elections.

But it’s hastening the decline of Christianity for an entire generation.

I have a simple request for our nation’s religious leaders who keep finding “enemies of the faith” at every turn without ever looking inward. For Christ’s sake, stop talking.

Spend some time in prayer and think about what you say before you say it. Ask yourself, is the political gain, the next spot on cable news or the notoriety I can achieve really worth the damage to the church?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim King.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Politics • Rick Santorum

soundoff (1,729 Responses)
  1. derrick

    Not that far..

    February 29, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  2. derrick

    Where would we be without religion???

    February 29, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • Nick

      In a much better place.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:50 am |
  3. derrick

    This arguement is kind of funny. It is funny because it's kind of like there is a blue side and a red side, but everyone is arguing who that they are the blue side.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:39 am |
  4. derrick

    Some of the stuff athiests say.. make me laugh.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • Chris

      So you prefer fantasy without proof then? Atheists are simply more rational than people who believe in made up fairytales.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:42 am |
    • Nick

      Then let's be friends and laugh at each other!

      February 29, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • Herby Sagues

      Yes, like "you should believe in reason and evidence over stuff written hundreds of years ago you can't confirm". That one always cracks me up. It is hilarious.
      Dumb atheists...

      February 29, 2012 at 3:56 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Chris: Christians believe in what you say is a fantasy, but that is not not the same as actually believing in a fantasy. Christians believe what they do because they see good evidence that it is true, which would make their beliefs not fantasy. Just because you don't believe, you can't conclude that you are factually right. Consider core Christian belief, the resurrection of Christ. In order to believe that this is a fantasy, you would have to believe that hundreds of people knew that the resurrection was a hoax, but yet maintained - at no benefit to themselves, but at the potential or actual cost of their lives - that it was true. Furthermore, these people were able to convince those who did not believe to believe, with similar peril to their lives. And the Romans, who wanted to crush this new movement,for some reason do not do the thing that would have done so – produce a body.

      Simon Greenleaf was a lawyer who lived in the 1800's. He wrote what was, for quite some time, the standard reference work on the legal rules of evidence. Some of his students challenged him to investigate the resurrection. Being Jewish, he did so from an initial position of non-belief. Yet he came to the conclusion the Christ's rising from the dead is the best explanation for the evidence we have.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • sam stone

      some of the stuff christians believe makes me shake my head

      February 29, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  5. derrick


    February 29, 2012 at 3:25 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      A child prodigy, huh? I read through the Bible for the first time at that age. If u were so young why did u think u were right? I became a Christian in High School.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  6. errr

    “The World has never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized and tenaciously malevolent as that preached by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin and at the heart of their psychology, HATRED OF GOD is the principle driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot. To achieve its diabolical ends, Communism needs to control a population devoid of religious and national feeling, and this entails a destruction of faith and nationhood. Communists proclaim both of these objectives openly, and just as openly put them into practice.” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

    February 29, 2012 at 3:22 am |
    • timmmy

      Sounds like some people on here.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:24 am |
    • James

      Agree 100%

      I'm glad that the Liberal Athiests have really come out of the woodwork, there can be no doubt now the the Democratic Party is the Anti Christian Party....

      February 29, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Herby Sagues

      That proofs you are not good with logic.
      EVEN if we concede EVERYTHING you say about atheism being a central pillar in marxism, that doesn't mean in any way that marxism is a central pillar of atheism.
      Eating food is a central pillar of marxism as well. Ergo, eating food is bad according to your logic.
      Stop callign it Atheism. Start calling it "rationalism" (which is exactly the same thing) and you will see how dumb you feel bashing it.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:00 am |
    • errr

      Im only doing what most of the radical Atheist on here do everyday. Make unsubstatiated claims and generalizations. Communists were Atheists so all Atheists are bad right? Sounds like the LOGIC that is stuffed in every Christians face by Arogant Atheists everyday on these sites. " Christians" in the past have done horrible things, so Logic would say that all religion is bad and all Christians are bad. I have several friends who proclaim vehemently that they are Atheists and they are some of the biggest Racists I have ever met. Does that mean all Atheists are Racist? No it just means some arent as nice as others. I have several other friends who are Atheist that are some of the nicest people I know and better human beings than most Christians I know. I dont claim to be a Christian IM more of an Agnostic, I find saying that I have ultimate Knowledge that there is know one in the known or unknown universe that has ultimate knowledge to be kind of arrogant and childish.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:26 am |
  7. Trasher888

    Sorry james, the corks ou of the bottle. People that talk like you remind me of why people say religious faith works well with simple mindless individuals. like the ass being led with a carrot on a stick in front of him

    February 29, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  8. James

    Keep pushing Liberals... The South will never buy Athiesm.....

    It will be the 1860's all over again, but this time the South Wins

    February 29, 2012 at 3:20 am |
    • rmtaks

      No, you will just see your sons and daughters not buying into your hypocrisy and walking away from it. You will die of old age knowing that with you dies your hateful beliefs that are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:24 am |
    • rmtaks

      And liberals aren't pushing, evangelicals are pushing and liberalism is the area rational people get pushed into.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      James has murder on his mind, get some help.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Chris

      The south is an amoral bigoted jungle that still longs for the days of mass slavery and genocide of Native Americans. No thanks, the south is nothing but pure evil. We northerners know the truth about the deeds of the south and we never forget.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • sam stone

      They won't buy atheism, but they will get on their knees and beg for salvation. So, they are familiar with slavery

      February 29, 2012 at 5:53 am |
  9. errr

    Our program necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism.” (V.I. Lenin)

    February 29, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • Chris

      The condemnation of religion was Communisms greatest mistake. Communism could have won by endorsing the teachings of Jesus (who condemned the rich by the way).

      It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:45 am |
  10. RobbyCanuck

    College clearly plays a role because education and learning about science explains all those things people who lived in the biblical era did not understand and therefore was the reason they had to invent God(s) and write mythical stories to do so.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  11. jack leddy

    I think that the more education that most people get the less they buy into the myths of religion. All of our religions are creations of the human mind. If there is a god who created this billion galaxy universe it isurely wasn't getting Abraham to give up his foreskin as a sign of a covenant or any of the other thousands of childish myths we see in Judaism, Islam, Christianity Mormonism etc. These religions really insult the awesome intelligence a creator,if there be one, would have.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:14 am |
    • Truthfully

      "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Corinthians

      February 29, 2012 at 3:03 am | Report abuse |

      February 29, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Not necessarily. But it certainly does make the jabberings of the evangelical movement and their outright rejection of reason much more difficult to accept. Keep in mind, however, that nearly all other Christian churches embrace science and view it as an ongoing revelation of God's creation. Only the evas view it as somehow blasphemous.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:22 am |
    • sam stone

      truthfully: free people do not need to be "saved". however, slaves do

      February 29, 2012 at 5:55 am |
  12. derrick

    Religion is not a bad thing.. it teaches you to be a lovely understanding beingwhile an angry athiest world does not always work out as well. a world filled with people who can go out and drink, be reckless, have a sense of crude humor, be violent, and not even give a crap just bothers me. don't get me wrong! it is fun to have a good time while hanging out with friends obviously, but it doesn't do the world a favor to act crazy. I mean if you are a firm believer in god, often times you are really nice or can help teach others to follow human rightiousness.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:14 am |
    • Sirspeaksthetruth

      Like the 9/11 hijackers

      February 29, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • sam stone

      "a world filled with people who can go out and drink, be reckless, have a sense of crude humor, be violent, and not even give a crap just bothers me."

      and you attribute this to atheism? your lack of logic bothers me

      February 29, 2012 at 5:58 am |
  13. James

    I sure cannot wait until Obama gets thrown out of the White House in November, all of this Liberal Athiest crap will be beaten back into it's hole...

    February 29, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • UncleM

      Why do you assume athiests are liberals?

      February 29, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • sam stone

      ......or that liberals are atheist?

      February 29, 2012 at 5:59 am |
  14. amazed2

    "A man is known by his fruit: Santorum, Robertson, Perkins and Graham all promote life." Yes the usless three trillion dollar republican grudge war in Iraq sure promited life didn't it?

    February 29, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • Truthfully

      Goodness, you still don't understand the difference between the killing of newborns and those during war?
      BTW, if you were living under a brutal dictator and your fellow citizens or even family wre being killed by chemical weapons or other brutal means, would you want someone to liberate your country?

      February 29, 2012 at 3:13 am |
    • rmtaks

      Truthfully: You made a presumption that the Iraqis would see the situation the same way as an American, and the fact is they didn't. Also, I thought you got the memo: there were no WMD's.

      And don't lecture about "during war." Innocent is innocent, which is why you don't wage war lightly. Iraq is no better than it was, violence is increased, and the only thing we tangibly have to show are dead bodies.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • rmtaks

      Or I don't know, maybe the commandment should be changed to Thou shalt not kill*

      February 29, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Truthfully

      rmtaks – I made an assumption that anyone in their right mind would want a brutal dictator and his regime driven out and that was a good reason to go to war. As the daughter of a man who spent over 20 years in the Airforce defending this country and living that life of sacrifice I know war should not be taken lightly.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:29 am |
    • rmtaks

      What you don't seem to understand is that a dictatorship is the rule for human governance, not the exception, and unless there is popular support for democracy it isn't going to hold. Being in the US Airforce may have given you a perspective on war, but I guarantee it isn't the same perspective as a person who has been on the receiving end of the war and sees the whole thing as a religious occupation. The problem with you people is that you think your "common sense" perspective really is common to everyone. It never occurred to you that most people DON'T want an outside, religiously different force coming into their country, regardless of why they say they are doing it.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Truthfully

      rmtaks- the country is divided; there are those who welcomed us and those who didn't. We went to war to stave off the threat here. Whether that was a mistake remains to be seen. The way this current administration is handling things opens us up to more radical fury but I'm tired of discussing it. So long.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:06 am |
  15. Carter Mobley

    The world is standing at the beginning of a new epoch of human understanding. People are opening their eyes and questioning the opinions of their ancestors as written in the Bible, Quran and other books of scriptures. They are observing the universe and they see that, if God exists, he loves us dearly because he continues to give us children in spite of our continuing sad history in the way we raise them to hate each other in the name of the religions of our ancestors. This observed love of God requires no Bible or Quran to learn, and is contrary to the God of condemnation that dominated our ancestors ways of thinking. People are putting that aside now to embrace atheism or more rational forms of theism. The atheists and the theists are learning to work together to re-engineer our world to the place of peace that is indeed within our reach. It will take many decades and those alive today will probably not live to see it but the work has begun. The key is to deliver rational secular education to the children all over the world. The countries of freedom make this available to their children and the article points out that they are now seeing the universe in a more rational manner and rejecting the well-meaning but erroneous opinions of their ancestors. The children of freedom will be finding a way to deliver this information to the children of the nations that are politically, culturally, or religiously oppressed and we will indeed emerge someday with a world of children that love each other. I write more about this on the Theamology blog at theamology.blogspot.com.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  16. Trasher888

    Religion has been since the dawn of man, the bane of his existance. It has caused more suffering, pain and death than any other one factor in history. The underlying definition of almost all religions is"do unto others as you would have others do unto you". Yet when push comes to shove my god, my religion, is more right than yours. That basic tenet of mans existance completely nullifies any pretext of moral integrety. When I hear a politician talk about their faith, and then name what ever pseudo-religion out loud than all I hear Blah Blah Blah. Our founders insisted, demanded a separation of church, there was a good reason for it. Its like they had a(O my god) a crystal ball and could see into the future. I can believe and accept the right to bear arms, so I can and will believe in separation of state from religion

    February 29, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  17. Jesus


    Please refer to this site if you truly want to see how ridiculous religion is. You can literally look up thousands of examples of hypocrisy, intolerance, violence, contradictions, false facts, etc. If you are still chained and shackled by religion in 2012 then shame on you. Get educated.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:00 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Intolerance and name calling, often the first thing evangelicals reach for when challenged, aren't pleasant no matter who indulges in them.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  18. Truthfully

    A man is known by his fruit: Santorum, Robertson, Perkins and Graham all promote life. Obama's record shows he supports partial- birth abortion and even death for a baby who is born alive after a failed abortion. These things matter and if Tim King thinks this and other issues he mentioned, that Christians are standing against, are trivial, he is mistaken. Yes, there is hypocrisy in the church and it needs to confess and repent but continue to stand firm against the tide of evil rolling in from all directions.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • rmtaks

      Abortion is the only social issue that Christians have any ground to stand on IMO. Not because I literally think it's murder, just that it makes the human form seem more expendable. Women have said they should get to decide, and I would be more than happy to pass it off to them.

      As for every other issue, it comes down to Christians sticking their noses in other people's business and some bizarre marriage between Christianity and capitalism. They are dead wrong about everything else. And if you think life matters the most – it was the Christian right who were thirsting to go into Iraq and the liberal left protesting. Nine years later and we got nothing from it but hundreds of thousands of corpses. Don't throw around the term "pro life" too lightly.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Truthfully

      rmtaks- we just don't agree on when war is necessary. I believe in staving off evil ASAP. You want to wait till it's too late, that's your prerogative. As for sticking nose into someone else's business: there's a time to defend the innocent, ie: babies.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • rmtaks

      When would it have been "too late" with Iraq? They were a 3rd world country with technology 40 years behind ours, not Nazi Germany. The only thing that is "too late" is that we created more extremists and "evil" than we killed. Killing evil on the field of battle is a fantasy a child believes. I guarantee hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis did nothing to moderate their beliefs.

      As for sticking your nose into other people's business, if you actually read my post I wasn't referring to abortion, I was referring to every other Christian policy other than abortion.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:43 am |
  19. SixDegrees

    The outright rejection of logic and reason by fundamentalist Baptists, along with their utter, irrational hatred of science, probably has a lot to do with the massive drop in evangelicals noted in the article. And they are probably at least partly correct that college lies at the root of this exodus, simply because college illuminates the mind and illumination is regarded by evangelicals as blasphemy.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:56 am |
    • Truthfully

      You are thoroughly indoctrinated into the Lie. " For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Corinthians

      February 29, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • SixDegrees

      The view that all opinions even slightly opposed to their own are "lies" or are part of some enormous conspiracy that justifies capitalizing and singularizing "The Lie" is precisely the sort of close-minded, irrational troglodyte thinking that is causing this exodus in the first place. Flinging Bible quotes like turds in place of presenting an actual, rational response doesn't help, either.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  20. derrick

    I am a christian and i have not been keeping up with all of the famous christian "representatives" that speak on the behalf of us christians... but from the information my brain has gathered from those specific comments about how "christian representatives" criticize everyone that isnt christian, by saying they will be damned to burn in hell for all of eternity and should be persecuted or whatever... make me sad. i don't agree with any of that crazy crap because everyone should have their own decision towards religion, whether it is one or none. i have my own views of christianity and if that disallows be to be christian, then so be it.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      I agree with you perfectly. As S Paul said leave those outside the faith 2 their own devices n reprimand dose in Church so they keep a good standard of behaviour. Whether someone goes 2 hell or not is not our business 2 judge. Ours is 2 love them as ourselves. The thief on the Cross is a warning.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:02 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.