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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. Jesus Loves You

    The problem here is critical thinking and rational thought. These have no place in a college education.

    College students need to learn to make decisions based on emotion and tradition. They need to learn to suspend logic and just believe whatever the church says. We also need to stop educating them on world religions, that is how they are figuring out all religion around the world is the same BS just swapping names, terminology, and locations.

    The focus of education needs to be indoctrination, not seeking objective truth.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:07 am |
  2. Dr.Strangelove

    I always felt religion was more about controlling people than this so-called salvation or being at peace with God. I learned through observation that organized religion does not like any changes to society, or at the very least feels the need to allow very, very ,very little change to occur in society.

    One of the major problems with religion is this we are right and they are wrong mentality as well as a right and wrong manner in which someone should worship/believe in a God or so-called divine being.

    I see too many religious people Christians mainly attempting to turn this country into a Christian theocracy so that atrocities, violating people rights can be committed in the name of 'God"

    To rephrase an old quote, A religious tyrant will always try to find a pretext for religious tyranny.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:06 am |
  3. gdouglaso

    Great piece. My guess is that there are a lot of people of different faiths that are also embarrassed because of what a mindless few preach from the television screen. As a Christian, I know when people meet me I am likely getting lumped in with a bunch of people from Fox News who make me cringe....not Mother Theresa.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  4. joe

    Still sad that you have to come up with your own reasons why educated people drop Christianity when the reality is staring you in the face. Christianity is for the ignorant. As soon as you get a formal education you can no longer believe in a 2000 year old Palestinian who was his own father etc. etc.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:56 am |
  5. GenericMan

    Nice article.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:54 am |
  6. Ellen

    Wow. Such anger and bitterness all around. I went to a very liberal college and that is where I realized God was NOT a fairy tale. It was there that I met other young people who love God and I began to read the Bible which has transformed my life. I now desire to live for others and not just myself. A group of thousands of young people just held a conference in Atlanta... and raised millions to promote justice and liberation for present day slaves. Let's not look at the worst of Christianity, and compare it with the best of liberalism or vice versa. In the end we are all just living our lives to the best we are able. Some find God others do not. Can't explain it but it has always been that way through the ages. We should not belittle either people just try to understand and stand for what we believe without offending the others.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:54 am |
  7. eatdodo

    Right on, Tim!

    February 29, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  8. UncleM

    Religion needs ignorance to survive.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  9. Gary

    The author makes plenty of fair points but, like so much of the dialogue today, no attempt is made to listen to "the other side". There is truth there as well. People of faith are doing great and positive things , not just firing right wing political statements. In fact they are doing far more good than bad. Do you think that the media or college professors are talking about the positive sides of faith? That path is not as luring to the audience that they seek to draw. The author falls into the same trap.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • HWB

      Hit the nail right on Gary. One sided only. Kinda of what CNN like to call main stream religious dogma. Too many in todays faith practice cafeteria religion like Pelosi" Catholic and pro abortion" and Obama's "collective salvation"????? Let them practice what they want, just do not affilate it with main stream religious doctrice.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • mjbrin

      best opinion i've read yet. honest and fair. i too had a similar experiece and never left my faith even though tempted. that's the clincher, you can't blame higher education for the choices you make. the choices are still yours. all higher education does is introduce you to more of the outside world, we wouldn't have christ's message if he stayed home as a carpenter and he was tempted. it makes me sad when those "christians" are so quick to judge. it has always been hard to keep to ones faith so if you find yourself blaming outside forces perhaps you need to look within yourself as to why those forces have so much power over you

      February 29, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  10. UncleM

    Religion needs ignorance to thrive. Thanks Mr. Santorum for shining a light on its hypocrisy.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:41 am |
  11. Axel A. Roy

    I think you are right on the money. Hypocrisy is the biggest witness against too many people in the church. People need to hold each other accountable in the church. Not for what THEY believe but for what the person not walking the talk is preaching. I have four children and none of them follows their former Christian faith. We are a blended family and there are claims of Christianity from both the parents and step parents that don't always get backed up in action.
    But walk a mile in my shoes, children, it hasn't been easy. The social upheaval of the last 40 years has thrust us into a world of uncertainty. Between the ultra conservatism of the past and the liberalism of today, there are a lot of confused parents. And confused parents lead to confused children. As a preacher's kid, it took me until my mid-40's to realize what my life was about and how I have let the negative events of the past ruin 30 years of my life. Too many people want to control their own destiny. It's America, freedom of will. Turning your life over completely to God doesn't fit in with that sense of freedom. Yet only through giving Him complete control, do you find the freedom to accept yourself and others. Yet I struggled to be a Christian my whole life without ever giving in completely to God. The things that I held back, became the obvious hypocrisy to my children. Hypocrisy is the scourge of Christian religion. But it is not the design set forth by the Master. You have to surrender everything including your own desires, to be fully His. And when you hold back, those things become the stumbling blocks, the hypocrisy. So little time, so much to share. God bless each of you.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:39 am |
  12. me

    I think I speak for the vast majority of people in this country when I say feel free to worship whenever you choose and to whomever you choose...Just don't involve me in it cause I don't care what you do and I don't want to hear about it. Its kind of like gay dudes...you understand the mechanics of what they do but as long as they don't try and involve me in it I don't care.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:14 am |
    • PaulBoomer

      I hope you speak for the vast majority of people in this country. But I'm not entirely convinced you do. And that's scary.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:55 am |
  13. heyheyhey

    Yes cause you get smarter in college your brain is now formed and you learn about all kinds of new things. Anthropology, sociology, real history of the world. You then find out what you have been taught all your life is fake! I can say I did. Plus when your a kid you have a wild imagination and there are many things in bibles and korans and all that, which are involved with wild imagination. Call the writers of holy books writers with imagination non of their stories are based on total fact. Let me tell you I know some writers and they sure don't always tell the truth sometimes they just say what you want to hear.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:08 am |
    • joe

      The bible is way worse than that. All you have to do is read the stories to see that the biblical writers weren't even present in the stories they were writing about. How does a guy write a story when he wasn't there to witness the events?

      Oh yeah, God breathed on them or wrote through their fingers or some other absurd explanation.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:01 am |
  14. Margaret

    Why young people are leaving? Religious males telling women how they should not speak about the Bible or get involved in church matters except to clean it, or make cookies for the bake sale. Men of religion telling women that their opinions don't matter. Men telling women what medical care they should or should not have. Men of religion telling gay people they are wrong, evil, and unnatural. The religious right telling people that science is wrong, and the earth is only 6000 years old. That is is all right to beat a child nearly to death because spare the rod spoil the child. Building huge buildings, and the pastors and priests wearing gold rings and watches, when people are desperate for food, and some place to live. Hearing grown men say God told them to run for President. I don't know. It is not just people in college who are having trouble buying into this. Priests, camp counselors, pastors, and others molesting kids and hiding the fact. There are a lot of reasons to stay away from organized religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:41 am |
    • me

      I'm sensing some hostility toward men here...I say we shoot all the men then the world will be free of all problems.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Elmo

      Margaret, you should leave Afghanistan immediately.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Andrew

      Men....sheesh what a bunch of losers! I agree. Men are the reason for the season...season of shame and all that is EVIL! that is .....meanwhile in the garage where the women hang out and do things like, checking tire pressures, building engines, doing oil changes, prep work for painting the house, and making cabinets for the kitchen. A scream of terror breaks the calm...... "aaahhh a bug!! Honey! Come out of the kitchen where you bake wonderfull tasty treats for the church and SQUASH THIS HORRIBLE CREATURE!! EEEEEK!" "SQUASH IT!!! AAAHH IT'S COMING AFTER ME!" Hiding her face with a oil soaked shop rag. "oh gaawd that was horrible and nasty."

      February 29, 2012 at 5:11 am |
    • LR

      wow Margaret, you have a long checklist of bad people who do bad things. Which one of these are you going to blame on the day you stand before God and have to give an account of your own faith?

      February 29, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  15. John Grabowski

    So college students are just now learning that religion is founded on hypocrisy? They're right, kids are slower these days.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  16. James

    All the values that this country was founded on are being tossed out the window...When this country turns away from God then God will turn away from this country and then the dictatorship will begin....There is a God...And Jesus was his son...Only thru him will there be salvation...Thats my belief...And in America still at this time I'm allowed to profess this openly...But the time is coming to when that will not be the case...False prophets have popped up everywhere in the Christian Church but we were warned of this...Its time to read the Bible and do what it says and not believe what every preacher says...People go to church now because the preacher is such a good speaker and he makes them laugh...But they refuse to read the Bible and do what it says...I pray for this country and all the people in it...Never before since the Civil War have we been so divided....And never before have Christians been so hated....

    February 29, 2012 at 4:21 am |
    • Dumb and dumber

      "All the values that this country was founded on are being tossed out the window...When this country turns away from God then God will turn away from this country and then the dictatorship will begin"
      .....is as delusional as your history.

      1.The Treaty with Tripoli, (1797).
      George Washington's administration wrote it and supported it, and by the time it was passed, John Adams was the President. It was read aloud in its entirety and passed by both houses of congress on June 7, 1797. The vote in both houses was unanimous. President Adams signed it into law. Here is the complete text of Article 11.
      "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

      In other words, according to a unanimous agreement of America's Founding Fathers, the USA is NOT, was NOT, nor ever intended to be, a Christian nation.

      2. There is no god...and Yeshua bar Josef was NOT his son, nor did he ever claim to be. "Salvation" , (the angry desert god) paradigm is for the ancient desert peoples. What YOU believe, makes NOTHING true or not true. For thousands of years, humans have stomped their feet, and insisted they were right about their gods, and they were ALL wrong. You ARE allowed to profess any delusion you like....it does NOT make it true. "False prophets" have ALWAYS been popping up. There is no "Christian church". There are 33,000 sects of that cult. It's time to read ABOUT the bible, and learn ABOUT how it was formed, and written, and NO ONE could possibly take it seriously. It was written by HUMANS. If you actually DID what the bible says, you would get arrested. We have ALWAYS been divided. You just did not study history.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • sam stone

      james....empty proxy threats are laughable. even more so when they come from sincere believers

      February 29, 2012 at 5:41 am |
    • Wayshower

      @DumbandDumber

      Well, you said all of that, but then you sound just like a religious person when you say "There is no God". How do you know for a solid fact that there is or isn't one? The truth is that God's existence cannot be proven, or disproved of, so to sit there and say in a factual manner that "There is no God" makes you no different than a religious believer whom is stuck on a belief.

      The belief or disbelief of God or spiritual faiths is not the problem with man. The problem is when we get so stuck on a belief that we do not let in any other "possibilities" of other things being a probability, and hence get hostile towards each other because we don't think alike. This goes for religious believers AND atheists, because in the end, both get hostile toward each other EVERYTIME these debates come up because both sides are set in their BELIEF that only their possibility is factual when neither can really prove or disprove anything.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:55 am |
    • Justin

      "And in America still at this time I'm allowed to profess this openly..."

      What are you even talking about? There is not anything keeping you from doing so. Please stop confusing the separation of church and state with your individual religious freedoms and freedom of speech. Just because the government is not actively spreading your faith does not mean that it is oppressing it,

      February 29, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • sam stone

      "All the values that this country was founded on are being tossed out the window"

      Like slavery?

      February 29, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  17. Menashe Lavi

    Although I appreciate the loving, accepting portrait of Jesus that Mr. King espouses– and, even though I'm Jewish, I have a respect for the work of Jim Wallis– please don't rule out the higher education element of the college experience. Although recognizing the sometimes glaring hypocrisy of christianity might give someone pause to reconsider their belief, it's the actual "learning" that makes them realize they're believing in a fairy tale.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:21 am |
    • MarcTTF

      @Menashe Lavi

      I’m confused. In one sentence you say you are jewish, and in another you say christians believe in a fairy tale. Are you a practicing jew, or just jewish by birth?

      February 29, 2012 at 6:01 am |
    • Menashe Lavi

      MarcTTF: I'm not quite sure I understand the question. I am Jewish by birth. And I'm practicing, but know stories in the bible may be mythical. Many Jews I know are like me, observing Judaism with my brain as well as my heart. The Christians I know have a sort of extreme "it's all true or nothing true" view of the bible. Truth doesn't always have to be fact. And virgin birth, walking on water, turning water into wine and rising from the dead are most certainly not either.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:57 am |
  18. cj

    There are no atheists in foxholes...These lost souls need a good scare and some of God's grace which they seem to overlook despite being able to search the web and mock God.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:16 am |
    • Al

      Thanks for the laugh

      February 29, 2012 at 4:25 am |
    • Margaret

      The Republican candidates so far are doing a great job of scaring me. I will pray none succeed.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      A scare? Hard to be frightened by a fictional character dolt!! That is part of the issue with your god...he's not so good if he requires using fear to control people, in fact he is quite abusive!

      February 29, 2012 at 4:52 am |
    • Stephen

      There may be scared people, in foxholes, but that doesn't mean everybody immediately develops an imaginary friend. Not believing in (atheist), or simply being honest in not knowing about (agnostic) the existence of God is not some wrong which needs to be righted. Start from here: The Bible is fiction. Now, explain the rest of your belief system.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:08 am |
    • Dumb and dumber

      We don't live in foxholes. So...what's the point ?

      February 29, 2012 at 5:33 am |
    • sam stone

      we are not mocking god. we are mocking the delusional folk who think they speak for god

      February 29, 2012 at 5:41 am |
    • Dr.Strangelove

      CJ
      and which god are you referring to?

      February 29, 2012 at 5:58 am |
  19. David Joseph Smith

    Dear Mr. KIng,

    Beautifully written. Thank you. Our Savior always distinguished His Father's Kingdom from Caesar's. We are pilgrims in this world. The world will know us by our love, He said – feeding the poor, caring for the sick. Not brokering support for lower taxes in exchange for a "return to Christian values" that never was. We serve the Great Commission. We are sinners. Praise God for His grace in our turning. Lead us not into the temptation of becoming Pharisees.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:12 am |
    • John

      Amen, brother! Totally agree w/ this reply as well as that of Mr. King.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:14 am |
    • michael

      I can't say I agree with christianity but thanks for a well thought out and reasonable point. It's nice to see people make a point without diminishing the views of others.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:16 am |
    • Dumb and dumber

      You wouldn't need a "savior", if his dad weren't an unforgiving jerk, who held 8000 year grudges.

      February 29, 2012 at 5:35 am |
  20. yahmez the mad

    Christianity is a sham. I discovered this at six years old. Some don't discover this until college. Some never do.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:55 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Some never discover Christianity is a sham because it isn't.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • dragon8me

      I think I was in my 40's when I descovered it was a sham. I knew it earlier but refused to admit it because I had been brainwashed my entire life. Christianity in America is a joke. It's all about politics and money. If Jesus was to walk into a church in the US today he would rip the place apart and throw the money changers and murchants of "Christian paraphinilla" out on their heads.

      February 29, 2012 at 4:49 am |
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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.