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. Nii Croffie

    A campaign message, propaganda or evangelism or all at once. Evangelical atheist pick n choose Bible verses ver well too. Spiritual Christians believe in contextual interpretation and your sermon doesn't cut it. Sounds so unlearned. Study de Bible n obey it then report back to us if it doesnt work.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Armando

      Carson,We sure hope that you are feeling bteter buddy. As soon as you are bteter the girls would love for you to come and play. Hope that you enjoy your days off.....you all deserve this much needed Family time. You are all a Blessing. See you Soon....Can't wait to hear the message.The Nussler Family

      June 29, 2012 at 6:07 am |
  2. Jon

    Religious truth claims don't stand up to the scientific method, so is it a surprise that people are less religious after exiting university?

    February 29, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Universities have other departments beside engineering and science. If these are losing faith then your hypothesis is faulty. Academic pressure and time is more prominent in loss of faith followed by false teaching and spiritual abuse. Learning is irrelevant.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  3. David

    The most important thing that any religion can do is to teach you how to treat your fellow man. Organized religion in many, if not most cases, undermined this.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  4. oh brother!

    I gather students are leaving religion behind they don't believe in supernatural beings that are really no different than Superman, Batman and Spiderman. How long must society suffer in the ignorance of religious beliefs?

    February 29, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • You Are A Moron

      "For the message of the cross (Jesus) is foolishness to those who are perishing..."

      February 29, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • sam stone

      "For the message of the cross (Jesus) is foolishness to those who are perishing..."

      And a godsend to those who choose not to stand on their own

      February 29, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  5. Tom Paine

    College driving people away from religion? I certainly hope so. Religion and spirituality are not synonymous. Spirituality is something we all possess by virtue of being alive and self-aware. Religion is something we create in our attempt to understand it. If students graduate college being less religious, it does't been they've been made immoral. It means they've learned to think for themselves and have thrown off the shackles of religious dogma.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  6. Larry L

    As our minds grow we learn not to base our beliefs on blind faith – with no basis in logic or fact. We learn not to love or fear that which is neither intellectually nor spiritually established in our reality – unless we artifically create a place for it.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  7. Greg56

    The author resonates with my feelings on religion big time. I once was a churchgoer but now I want no part of it. Christianity has become bigoted, narrow-minded, repressive and angry. Christianity is engaging in a contemporary holy crusade in the US, designed to root out and dishonor secularists. American christians are radicalizing and it's disturbing.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  8. Nii Croffie

    So education has nothing to do with the decline. The atheists who confront Xtians here don't seem so bright either. They r atheist because of poor church leadership which is focussed on worldliness. We have to become a LOVING religion agaiN as in the first century. Filled with the power of love.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • MarcTTF


      Most atheists here are atheist because they educated themselves about religion and came to the conclusion that it’s all bunk. It has nothing to do with church leadership, and a lot more to do with education than you think.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  9. Christopher

    While I would say that it isn't one's place to judge another I would also say that it is neither acceptable nor prudent to become morally indifferent–that is blind to certain behaviors or actions which are unethical and harmful to society.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Cloaked

      Let us not forget, Jesus taught the love of your neighbor–to go out and teach, not to enslave and force the people of the workd to live under your particular set of beliefs...

      February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  10. John

    No doubt... this article is the most stupid, trite garbage I've ever read.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Duke5343

      And why is that? mostly due to Liberal Left wing anti christ nuts who want us to embrace Islam, spit on our beliefs good or bad, liberal tenured college professors brainwashing kids in higher education who should keep their Religious & Political opinons to themselves, OK so you dont want to believe the shove your brainwashing up your Fracking Gas hole- WHEN Stalin drove GOD out of Russians homes and replaced pictures of Jesus with himself he created the LARGEST undergound Catholic followers- sorry it DID not work then it wont work now

      February 29, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • John

      "Rather, the exodus is about hypocrisy."

      BINGO, and you two are prime examples.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  11. Dennis

    It is not the politicization of Christianity that is the issue. It is it's irrelevance.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  12. 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 7:33 am |
    • You Are A Moron

      When all is said and done, you better hope you are right. I know I am ... "For the message of the cross (Jesus) is foolishness to those who are perishing..."

      February 29, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  13. Sadaf Khan

    Since the scourge of the psuedo-religious Taliban hit, they have blown up hundreds of schools and colleges in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. They cite education as being the cause of the decline of religion, perpetuating 'western values'.
    I hope it's not his intention, but Mr. Santorum is beginning to sound like a 'mullah' in a suit.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Jesus Loves You

      Read my comment four down.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Frodo

      Funny, I have been getting the same impression about most of the "traditional" religious and political "leaders", everything has to be political (and correct) and devoutly religious (extremist). They are all turning into the taliban, they just wear suits and call themselves super patriots.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  14. longtooth

    It didn't take college to cause me to leave the church. After fourteen years of hearing about sin, suffering, and guilt, and hearing almost nothing about what Jesus actually said, and after being told that my father, a protestant who taught bible class when he was a boy, could never go to heaven unless he converted to catholicism, I knew it was time head for the exit.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  15. ganv

    Don't underestimate the factor that the college years represent a critical period in re-evaluation of beliefs that you grew up with and consideration of a wider range of possibilities. The fact is that much of evangelical Christianity is simply incoherent in their stories about the history of the universe and of life on planet earth. When you grow up with emotional rhetoric and tradition being the best grounding for belief, it is not surprising that college leads many students to leave the faith.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  16. Slickner

    Or it could be due in fact that they are smart, why believe in something that does not exist, if this is the case then my god is cthulhu, tell me im wrong, you cannot prove that it didn't happen as much as the bible, both written by man, and life without religion is not as bad as it sounds

    February 29, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  17. 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 7:26 am |
  18. Mike

    As a college educated, former school teacher, I can tell you that the root seed of American Marxism can be found in the offices and teacher's break rooms of our educational system, from Kindergarten through University. These are people who have spent their entire life in a classroom, either as a student or a teacher. They are so far detached from the real world they are virtually schizophrenic. I attended a major university, and the professors openly smoked pot in their offices on a daily basis. ..... The American educational system is anti-God - anti supreme being by any name and anti any religious philosohy.

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

      I went to university. religion and education have no business being in the same sentence.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Jon

      Really? What university? When? Because anywhere ever that would get them fired. The reason the educational system wants nothing to do with religion or god is because the scientific method is grounded in empirical data, falsifiability and observation, three things god fails at miserably, thats why people are leaving the church, because they acquire critical thinking skills in college.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  19. bajadelmar

    What's driving away young people is the blatant hypocrisy, the obvious fabrications of religious groups to cast people that disagree with them as evil and the contolling/brainwashing prinicples that go hand-in-hand with religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  20. Joseph Mzutrnski

    Christ is LORD and what that has to do with bible beating freakshow megachurches is beyond me.....Christianity does not require one to waste hours each week listening to some "professional" preacher

    February 29, 2012 at 7:23 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.