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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. Use Your Brain

    As Bill Maher told Piers Morgan recently: 'Religion is just an opinion...' You have the right to have and express yours, and I have the same rights. One person's opinion is no more valid than another's, but when one opinion is backed by verifiable facts (which are the stock-in-trade for higher education), and the other is not, educated minds take notice and make decision accordingly...

    February 29, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  2. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:46 am |
  3. Candace

    I am 59 years old. It is not just your generation. I and almost everyone I know left the church for the exact same reasons in the 60's and 70's. Hypocrisy. It is still alive and well.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  4. Zee

    So does this mean that religion is finally dying among young educated people? I hope it's the beginning of the end for organized religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  5. owl96

    I went to college in the late 60's – early 70's. That was the "God is dead" era, and college students were leaving churches in droves. Liberal professors were filling student heads with lies. The world was going to pot (literally). Or all of that is what we were told. So has anything changed? Religion is alive and well in the United States. We still have a lot of work to do though.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  6. David

    Faith is a matter of the heart. You either have it or not. I believe God has spoken to me, not in words, but in a much deeper and more meanignful way–that is almost beyond human comprehension. I've spent eight years of my life in college (1 Bach, 2 Masters) and my beliefs were constantly challenged. Yet, some courses (believe it or not, Microbiology and Genetics) actually reinforced my belief in a power that is greater than we humans (the miracle of life and the intricate ways it has evolved just seem far, far too complex for it to be an instance of happenstance–a bolt of lightening in a primoridal stew). I call this higher intelligence God. The failures of God's messengers, priests and preachers, does not weaken my faith. Man is weak and subject to failure. If you don't believe in God, I hope that one day you'll open your heart to his message.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • EBS

      Excellent!!

      February 29, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      I actually tried 2 exclude Him from my life in college as a religious Xtian. I did de ritual Sundays n run out. I did well. Then I followed Evangelicals(pious Xtians) which almost botched my career. When I finally became a spiritual Christian my faith n academics both flourished beautifully.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • Use Your Brain

      I have the same feelings about classes in biology leading me to see a fantastic intelligence behind the curtains of life. I find it interesting that you apparently believe in evolution (which has overwhelming evidence to support it if one simply takes the time to research it and read with an open mind), unlike so many 'religious' people. But the bottom line is what Bill Maher said recently, 'religion is an opinion...' My heart is open for any message that the Great Spirit wants to send to me, but it will have to be a clear message, not some mystical 'angel in the night' type thing that can easily be the result of either temporary or permanent neurochemical imbalances..

      February 29, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 29, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • Keota

      I beg to differ
      http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?pagewanted=all

      February 29, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • canucken

      If you feel prayer changes things for the better for you then that's fine. To say atheism is unhealthy for children and other living things (what does THAT mean?) is absurd.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  8. It is Education Stupid

    A recent Pew Research study found the more people know about religion the less likely they are to believe. The problem is knowledge. The sciences are not helping one bit either. We need to put a stop to education.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • canucken

      Please tell me I'm not missing the sarcasm in your comment.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  9. sickofit

    First of all, these students have every right to develope their own opinions. I would blame common sense for the mass exodus. If after being raised as devout christians for 18 years or so, they go off to college for 3 or 4 years and decide they are athiests or even muslims, then the beleifs they were raised with couldn't be very convincing in the first place.

    Religion is meerly an opinion anyway......

    February 29, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  10. Mike

    I grew up going to church, and I don't ever remember feeling happier, healthier or holier for it. Sundays are for being outside.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • Brian

      I remember doing the same thing. Seemed like a boring routine. I even was asked not to come back to Sunday school because I was asking to many questions at 7. Seemed they didn't have the answers for me.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  11. Schadenfreudean Psychologist

    An old saw regarding socioeconomic stratification and Protestant denominational affiliation went like this:

    A Methodist is just a Baptist who wears shoes [or, alternately, can read].

    A Presbyterian is just a Methodist who's been to college.

    An Episcopalian is just a Presbyterian who's living off his/her investments.

    (But lately, I've heard, an atheist is just a Catholic who's been to college.)

    February 29, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  12. wendy

    to all these athiest......believe me there is a God. and someday 'all' will bow down to Him. also God blessed us with children. to raise them in fear (respect and honor) and love towards Him. you either believe Him or you dont. candidates, students, etc. God doesnt like death.....its the sin that has come into this world that has caused all bad. not God. to all the mockers and unbelieving..i'd seriously stop and think about Who you're bashing.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • Schadenfreudean Psychologist

      I'd love to meet HER! (I hope she wouldn't regret having 'created' some of us with a fully functioning brain.)

      February 29, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • sam stone

      why should we believe you, wendy?

      February 29, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • sam stone

      and, do you not see the difference between bashing "god" and bashing the people that purport to speak for "him"?

      February 29, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • nemo

      "Believe me, there is a god."
      Why should I believe you?
      You must subtantiate your claim to have any knowledge on the matter or you have no credibility.
      Violation of trust which is what this article is about. Did you even read it?

      February 29, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  13. Dorothy Kye

    I am a Christian. I pray everyday. I left the Church because the teachings in the Church today have no resemblance to the teaching of the Bible or Jesus. All of this "theology" today, I believe, is akin to the anti-Christ. They call themselves Christians yet they attack women, gays, and anything in my bedroom. They hate the poor, the prisoner, the least of our brothers and sisters. It makes me keep my faith at home.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:32 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      You can join a house church for more freedom ok. Or u can start your own.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  14. Michael Leonardo

    The true issue is the amount of people beginning to chose for themselves. The problem is not the faiths of any of the various religions. The issue is that when humans organize religion; that organization ultimately becomes about manipulation and control. Read all the spiritual books and the learn the science. Not much difference. Chose your own way and stop being lead around on a leash by the organized religions. That includes Atheist Organizations. You don't need someone telling you how to be atheist lmao.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • FL Jimmy

      Good point, Michael. Any organization becomes mainly directed to it's own growth.. not some mission statement. Just a fact of what happens when people organize into big groups. Also group think, decision by committe, and politics within.
      The original idea, like save the world or serve customers better is quickly forgotten if you look at the actions, not the printed, dusty goals stored somewhere. It's a human thing.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  15. 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 6:18 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Surprisingly all u said was overly condescending and bigoted. If u cud see the pressure on college students offering double degrees or combine Bachelor/Masters programs u will realise that most barely have time for themselves let alone religious activities. In the long run it leads to a widening gap

      February 29, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      As I said time n academic pressure is more damaging to faith than what they are learning. Also people from all walks of life are leaving because of scandals and right-wing ideology like the writer said. Spiritual abuse is another problem. Prominent scientists are Christians so it is not knowledge.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      As I said time n academic pres.sure is more damaging 2 faith than what they r learning. Also people from all walks of life are leaving cos of sca.nd.als n right-wing ideo.logy like the writer said. Spiritual ab.use is another prob.lem. Pro.min.ent scientists are Christians so it is not know.led.ge.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      As I said time n academic pres.sure is more da.mag.ing 2 faith than what they r learning. Also people from all walks of life r leaving cos of sca.nd.als n right-wing ideo.logy like the writer said. Spiritual ab.use is another prob.lem. Pro.min.ent scientists r Xtians so it is not know.led.ge.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  16. sjohn

    It is easy for these 'so called' people of faith to blame colleges for the younger generation leaving churches in America. The real issue is that these same people of faith act and speak in very un-christian ways. They are not the role models they are supposed to be.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:17 am |
  17. rufus

    I believe people of conscience are making the same statement that reformers were making, though perhaps for different reasons. The salt has lost it's savor. The spirit of spirituality, in my mind, is well and alive; and, probably even more real, than it has ever been. Confounded by the ability to see around the world and beyond immediately? Sure. But provoked to 'truly' think then revere what makes us human I think, is the point.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:16 am |
  18. Copenhagun

    Hypocrisy was one reason left the ranks of the religious so many years ago. But, for me personally, it was a combination of hypocrisy, judgement from other Christians, and education. It was a long drawn out process in which I learned about how and where the bible came from, and what Christianity shared in common with other religions, along with learning about other religions.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:15 am |
  19. wendy

    i hear so many comments on peoples own thoughts not by God'd Word. if you solely believe in God. have faith in His Word. you dont go be what you think. its what God says. period. people dont like that. christianity is Christ based. having the mind of Jesus. not what people think it should. i'm tired of reading what people think......it makes me sad.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • sam stone

      yet you deify what iron age man thought (with some editing and translating)

      February 29, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  20. 4commonsensenow

    You would almost think that after say 18yrs of religion taught in the home, the student could handle the responsibilty of thier religious duties. Like praying and so on. You would like to think that your children will be employed by a God loving employer you that respects religion, and doesn't just feel like the law enforces it upon them. You could undermine an entire society making religion the outcast amoungst the public system as it supposedly doesn't fit the model. You could blame alot of things on this or that, but it the end the responsibilty lies with the individual to wander through the valley of death, fearing no evil. To say that higher education destroys religious belief is to say, sit in the corner, God doesn't want you to grow.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:10 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.