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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. Rod

    Unfortunately, much of the press has to grasp for items it thinks attracts attention–hot buttons, so to speak. It is the temptation to gossip, because many people like gossip. Little attention is given to detail re. solutions to national problems. Muchof the news is not a matter of facts or solid information, but editorials, opinions. There is a place for that but it seems to dominate. Question, why do 120 reporters attend a Presidential Press Conference when 3 could do the job. Why are 70 press people in a restaurant with Romney, when 2 could do the job. The press plays a key roll in our society, but it certainly is inefficient. Not wonder many newspapers are dying.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  2. JLS639

    Oh, please. Do you honestly think many of these college graduates are paying any attention to Graham or mosques or contraception arguements? I work at a strongly conservative college with a heavily Christian student body. I can assure you most of these people pay no attention to the news. However, they are not living with the parents and not being dragged off to Church almost every weekend. I don't know if that is the explanation for the exodus, but it is far more reasonable than the idea they are being alienated by people they never pay attention to.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 29, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      go out and make a difference in your life > prayer

      christians are leaving the church because people are thinking for themselves. free thought/logic/reason = the enemy of the church.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Dennis

      The Jesus you're talking about is a fabrication. I'm not saying he is a myth, although that may also be true. I'm saying the Jesus you're talking about is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Christianity has to continue to reinvent itself as the culture and society change and evolve. The result is a religion and a Jesus that has little or no connection with the Jesus of the New Testament who is supposed to be the incarnation of the rather nasty deity, Yahweh of the Old Testament. It is Jesus who will separate the sheep from the goats and case people into hell. It is Jesus who will sit in judgement and slay his enemies riding on a white horse in white robes drenched in blood. It is Jesus who says he is the ONLY way to God. Jesus is the one whose horrible death was ordained and orchestrated by Yahweh of the Old Testament as a blood sacrifice to satisfy his burning wrath and anger that would cast everyone into hell. It is Jesus who accepted the worship of Mary and told Judas, "the poor you will have with you always". Jesus did not, in his ministry, go around feeding all the poor and healing as many people as he possibly could. That Jesus is a fabrication. He is the "Jefferson Jesus" if you will. He is a Jesus cherry picked out of the New Testament to be the champion of our more modern and evolved sensibilities. As soon as you distance yourself from the Bible and what it says about Jesus you untether Jesus from any historicity and simply create a Jesus you like. Why not simply abandon Jesus and hold to your sensibilities about the poor and homeless. Why do you need him? If you do need him realize you are really just making him up based on the passages in the NT that you like and ignoring the ones that you don't.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Dennis

      Prayer does nothing except perhaps change your own brain.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  4. secular

    What's the big mystery? Religion is for the uneducated. College cures religiosity like penicillin cures infection. Religion is an artifact of a time when humans didn't know the earth was round and didn't know what caused earthquakes. They thought a drought was caused by "angry gods" who were demanding "sacrifices" and "offerings".

    Now, we understand the natural world much better. Religion is an utterly useless hinderance from the caveman era. It only makes sense to the willfully ignorant like Santorum. And apparently to this CNN journalist.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  5. Terry

    First, the article is misleading. The majority of church-going Americans are college educated.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      you really think most church goers have a college degree? wrong. only about 17% of americans have a BA or higher overall. that's less than 1 in 5. you should get your facts straight.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Chad

      Do you have any statistics for that? Because I'm going to say it's the opposite.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • jesussays

      Terry,

      The majority of church goers are not college educated, just a most Americans are not college educated, with only about 25% of Americans getting a college degree of any sort from Associates to a Doctorates And anyone who can buy that nonsense in the Bible or any of the other religions is not a very bright person. Far too much hard evidence exists contrasting most every "fact" in the Bible. Truth of the matter is that people are just much more intelligent today on the whole and the number of deluded morons willing to bow down to some stupid ghost will continue to decline and the world will be a much better place given the hardship that has been created from wars, inquisitions, crusades, witch hunts, etc.....
      .

      February 29, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  6. Sil

    I sincerely hope that the Christian leaders take a look at why people are leaving the church, and second guessing their faith. I agree that it is hypocrisy – I am one of the students that this article is about, a college graduate who turned away from the church during my post-secondary education. I don't want to be a part of the hate, the overwhelming judging that the majority of people who profess themselves as Christians seem to do, or the abuse of scripture. I am sick of hearing people targeting minority groups and other religions, I'm saddened by the amount of 'you're not a real Christian if you do this' and the finger pointing at anyone and everyone who thinks even somewhat differently. At the end of the day being a Christian is about believing in Christ. There is nothing more or less to it than that, and I will not be a part of any faith that goes further, governing what people do or say.

    As far as I'm concerned, the women who have abortions, the people who live alternative lifestyles (gay, transgender, even polygamist) can do what they wish – and if they believe in Christ, that makes them just as Christian as everyone else.

    I may believe in Christ, but I don't belong to a church, and haven't since becoming more aware of what exactly it means to be a 'Christian' today. I refuse to be one.

    Just my own two cents on why I, a part of the mentioned demographic, left the faith.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  7. Jeff from Columbus

    CNN has officially run out of things to write about. Young people, entering college, lose touch with their faith. Wow. Shocking.

    Is this really news? This has happened for decades. Eventually, many return to their faith. Some do not, of course. Some, who weren't raised in religious households, find faith as adults.

    But, this has ALWAYS happened. But, CNN feels the need to get someone to write an article about this "news"? Why?

    I

    February 29, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • longtooth

      Because you read it.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Greyhound37

      I think it's fairly obvious why it is considered "news – the statistics. As the author stated, the fastest growing "religion" in the US is "no religion". Therefore, there is a change in the way things have been.

      Is it news that when people are placed in an environment away from the network of reinforcement placed upon them by family, sometimes friends, and congregations and asked to think about the REST of the world critically, they also start to apply those same critiques to that which they've been told to believe for the sake of believing? Probably not. But with more folks attending higher education, more people are being exposed to diverse ideas and are better able to make decisions for themselves as individuals. THAT is where this story originates, imho.

      As for your assertion that many come back to religion after college, that would be an interesting subject for someone applying the scientific method to determine, as time goes on.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  8. Brent

    I am a person of faith. I am a person who sought out what is often demed the most liberal discipline to study in college (sociology) and got a Ph.D. In the subject. I also am an economist, a passionate driver of social change, one who spends his time working with kids in rural Mississippi teaching job and life skills, and one who believes that there is still so much good in humankind. I am also a pastor that seeks for no money. I take no salary, preferring to choose a different path than others in the ministry. I am a university professor, who in addition to his job works to change the life of the common person, seeks to change policy to make it more sustainable and reflective of social needs and social reality. I am saddened by those who tear down religion. I have studied religions from across the globe and have found that they share 80% or more of the core teachings. While they may disagree one points of doctrine, they encourage hope and build up rather than tear down. Oh, and yes, I do believe in God. To those that say I have no evidence that He lives, I have everything around me to show me that He lives. I know that He lives.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • secularbear

      I love how religious nuts "know" that their invisible friend is real. I think a lot of Bigfoot researchers say similar such nonsense.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • Tina

      "I know that He lives." Amen!!

      February 29, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Boisepoet

      Maybe the good things happening around you are proof that the work of people with unselfish motivations (you!) can make a big difference in this world, and has absolutely nothing to do with some mystical power.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  9. Dave - Phx

    That's because those Christians on the radio on TV are not truly Christians. Just like the fake Santorum. When you try to use religion for personal game you are a con man, nothing else.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • secularbear

      Your description sounds precisely like a True Christian to me.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  10. Thomas

    I agree with the hypocrisy that is NOT necessarily in the CHURCH, but rather in the individual. People were given free agency to choose for themselves. What we see is this secular ideology creeping into the thoughts and lives of all of us in this world. We see events in and of themselves as BEING the state of affairs, but in reality it is the conscious choice of each one of us. Whether this is caused by giving in to temptation or a temporary mental flaw, it is done. Jesus Christ said we need to cleanse the inner vessel FIRST. A simple CBT technique of responding verses reacting can go a long way in many of our thoughts that eventually lead to our actions. We will always need the standards of praying, reading the scriptures, and serving others to avoid being led down the wrong road. It's up to each one of us to be the light bearer. Yes, i t's easy to criticize others when we see hatred, evil, etc. but it is more rewarding, challenging, and cleansing to first cast out a beam of light instead of trying to take out the mote that is in your brother's eye. The strength that you provide to others will set an example of integrity that will have more of an impact than anything else.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  11. freetime1

    "An entire generation, my generation, is leaving the church. What’s the cause? " There is no question that there is a real correlation between both IQ and education and ones rejecting religion. The higher ones IQ is the more likely they are to be an atheist. Like wise the more educated one is the more likely they are to be an atheist. So education does effect people leaving the church. Why? Because if your educated and you read the bible you have to say, "the bible is crazy, the bible is bigoted, the bible is historically incorrect, the geological evidence and the biological evidence all show the bible to be a lie." A sufficient IQ combined with real knowledge is not a good match with religion. More now then ever, because we know so much more now.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • Christopher

      I think there are intelligent atheists. There are intelligent Christians. I know many poor people who have never attended college but also consider themselves to be either agnostics or unbelievers. I do think that many people use their intellects to justify unacceptable and morally reprehensable behaviors. However, an ignorant person can do the same. Intelligence has nothing to do with morality. It has everything to do with that 'still small voice' that God uses to guide His people.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Califson

      Keep what you just posted and read it when you are 60 years old. You will get a laugh out of it. The education you will receive in life between the time you wrote that and the wiisdom you obtain will give you a very different point of view.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  12. Jeff Stivenson

    It seems to me the pot is calling the kettle black. Yes, King's basic point is true: That the politicalization of faith is driving people away from church. But it's the liberal as well as conservative politicalization of church and faith that are driving people from church. The mainline Protestant churches, mostly liberal in their leanings, are losing members.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  13. Joxer the Mighty

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  14. cush777

    I love to hear Christians say that God gave us "free will" to decide our fates and the fates of our souls. Those same Christians then go on to tell me that God is Omnipontent. If that is the case then God knows everything that ever was, is, or will be. If that is case then he already knows what decision I am going to make, before I make it. So my future is already laid out for me, it is destiny and there is no such thing as "free will". God knows if I will die saved or a sinner. So really what is the point? I don't have an issue with spirituality, but, religion is construction of man to control man and make sure we can live together in a ordered society.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • secularbear

      That's always been a core contradiction that Christians will mysteriously accept without question – everything that happens is their god's intricate plan, down to the last detail. Yet they sit around all day "praying", talking to this invisible friend to lobby him to alter his plan. So dumb.

      Randomness is beyond their grasp.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Doug McLain

      Yes, but you don't. God is "all knowing" but we are not. The problem with free will, it wasn't free, it cost God His only Son. And what is neat about God, He doesn't force anyone to accept Him. It truly is a matter of choice, ours not His, He made His choice at creation, and fulfilled His choice on the cross. That who-so-ever believed in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. And for that I am grateful!

      February 29, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Christopher

      If that is the case and that is all religion truly is, then it really doesn't work all that well does it? I mean when was the last time you can recall religion preventing a war? Name an historical event in which religion has maintained sustainable civil peace for a significant amount of time. I don't think you can. That isn't the function of religion; merely one's failed attempt to understand it.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • cush777

      Doug, wow, you missed the point......God already knows whether or not your going to accept him!!!!!! You don't have a choice in the matter....if he is truly "all knowing" then he already has that knowledge. The decision has been made. Just because you are in the dark about it doesn't mean it hasn't already been decided. You can't have it both ways either God has already planned out our life to smallest detail before you were ever born, OR, God is not omnipotent and there can make mistakes.....you decide....oh what that decision has already been made for you.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • cush777

      Christopher, you are taking the meaing of what I said about living together in a functional society to broadly. Look at the ten commandments, they are just simply rules that allow a small group of people to live together without killing each other off, because joe slept with steve's wife, or dave stole john's prized cow....They don't solve all the worlds problem. Religion (not just Christianity) for all time has simply been a construct that allowed a small group of people to function because they had realize that they needed to live in a society together with rules that were not "Bob's Rules", but, in fact rules set forth by a power that knows everything....to include what you are thinking.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  15. Omar

    Allah Akbar!

    February 29, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • secularbear

      The fake god Allah is even dumber than the fake god "God".

      February 29, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  16. J. Mike

    Very well said Sir! I salute you...

    February 29, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  17. babooph

    A college education is not needed for analytical thinking-no need to point the finger at higher education for the young catching on to the scam...

    February 29, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  18. Triple A

    And our country exhibits this fact every day.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  19. Jesus Loves You

    The problem here is knowledge and critical thinking. They have no place in a college education.

    College students need to learn to make decisions based on emotion and superstition. A recent Pew Research study found the more people know about religion the less likely they are to believe. We need to stop educating them on world religions, that is how they are figuring out all religion around the world is the same stoneage BS just swapping names, terminology, and locations. The sciences are not helping one bit either.

    The focus of education needs to be indoctrination, not the pursuit of truth and understanding.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Stuck in the Middle

      I nearly laughed coffee out of my nose. Thanks!

      February 29, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Jesus Loves You

      Why, what do you mean?

      February 29, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  20. M. Callahab

    Let us not confuse faith with religion. This article is spot on. People are not leaving christianity, it left them and me. Jesus would throw up if He could hear the hate fill screeds we are subjected to today. If God is love, these folks are as far from godlike as one can get.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Christian spirituality is following God's command to love. All dogma and ritual must be subject to this or u have piety (ritual n dogma but no love) or religiosity (ritual sans love n dogma). If we LOVE our numbers will climb again. If we become political parties we will lose the battle. LOVE

      February 29, 2012 at 6:58 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.