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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. Mr. T

    One thing can be said for sure. It's not about a religion or being religious. It's about having a sincere relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Either you have one or you don't. Many young adults that leave home have their Faith and Relationship tested on a whole different level for the first time. I'm sure many discover that they don't have one and that it was their parents they were riding the coat tails on.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      I'm sure that you 'relationship' types still have dogmatic rules about what const.itutes a sin, how to pray, how to 'support' your clerics, and stuff all the other 'Religious' Christians have. All you're trying to do is distance yourself from the problems by renaming the same old product.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Mr. T

      To: Oh Yeah – Do you know what a relationship is? Do you know what it is like to have one with the Lord? It's quite clear the fruit of your words reveal your inner condition.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  2. fastball

    Hmm.....more education, less "faith"?
    There's nothing wrong with faith, per say. It's just the LEVEL of importance that one puts on that faith that sometimes gets hard to take. Honestly, God probably doesn't care about football or any pro sport. He doesn't watch over little kids or prevent disasters. He doesn't fix your financial problems when you pray.
    If a belief in a God gives YOU the strength to deal with your problems yourself...great. If a belief in a God helps you through tough times or times of endeavor...that's great too.
    But perhaps higher education lets you put your own abilities to the test first....rather than letting your just slide it all into god's lap – saying "You fix it, god".

    February 29, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  3. BBchina

    I think big part of it may be that many christian kids are taught the arguments against Christianity are trite and weak. That things like Evolution can't possibly be true and there has to be an absolute literal translation of the Bible, they are not allowed to question it because that means they don't have faith. When the hit college it is a tidal wave of new ideas and they realize questions aren't wrong, that evolution MAKES sense, and that their are genres of literature within the Bible. I think often they end up throwing the baby out with the bath water believing their parents are either liars or uneducated. Instead of dumbing down Christianity we need to let our kids think for themselves. Evolution is not necessarily in conflict with the Bible, Just because the Bible has genre's does not mean that it is not God's words, and God is not afraid of their questions. I believe searching for truth will lead you to the cross where all these petty squabbles and questions are satisfied. Most people I know that have given up their faith have given it up because were wounded or they never had a chance to have it in the first place, not because they heard an argument that convinced them God was a myth. Their questions and struggle may provide a logical explanation, but I have yet to meet an agnostic or atheist that lost faith who won't admit that something more than logic played a role in their disbelief (not to say they have weak arguments for their beliefs).

    February 29, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • netofunk

      'Evolution is not necessarily in conflict with the Bible'

      What?? How can the process of natural selection found in living systems compare with the Genesis? Once you begin thinking that maybe the bible isn't literal, then it's promise of "divine" origin breaks down completely. The progress of science will eventually 'naturally select' it for extinction. All failed sciences are eventually expelled.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  4. thedpr

    Main-stream Christianity in America is big business. Big business serves money. Their killing their religion off all on their own.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      They can always find markets for Christianity in developing countries, like our tobacco companies are these days.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  5. CJH

    What an excellent, thoughtful commentary!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  6. Jeanine

    I went back to college last year to take a fun class and realized quickly how the university was teaching values that I disagreed with and made me more Republican than Democrat by asking myself, "What about the family?" Universities teach courses that do not support the family structure, and that will be society's downfall when we no longer value the basic family unit.

    People try so hard to be pc by allowing anything that they end up supporting nothing, and in a world where anything goes, that's anarchy.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • bobcat

      They were most likely teaching based on research and analysis, something you weren't prepared for.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Truth

      There are schools you can attend to learn how the world works, and there are schools you can attend to learn how conservatives think the world works (rose colored glasses). Your pick.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  7. Ben

    Since when can Glen Beck be quoted as fact?

    February 29, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  8. MB

    Tim great commentary and expression of your feelings. I applaud you for taking a stand against the closed minded, me first thinking of the so called christian faith. If those so called me first believers had half as much compassion as you do what a better place we would all be in.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      There are three theories as to how the Big Bang happened. Two theories of the nature of light. Science does not contradict religion because they are different fields altogether. Lemaitre was a Roman Catholic priest but he proposed the Big Bang Theory. Truth is obeying biblical teaching is healthy.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  9. oldg gaffer

    I believe that as science discovers more about our world and universe, the ancient myths become exposed for what they are – stories to explain things that go bump in the night, coupled with the oral traditions/history that may be many thousands of years old but only comparatively recently written down, and a smattering of health laws that are no longer relevant for an industrialized society.

    Where the modern church has failed is that is has categorically failed to establish any direct correlation between practicing religion and living an honorable, moral life.

    Morality is not the exclusive purview of religion, yet it holds itself up as the single point source for rules governing morality – all the while demonstrating for all to see that its many of its most visible adherents are not living the tenets of their espoused faith.

    The simple fact is that modern Christianity – and ally other "revealed" religion – is largely irrelevant except as a keeper of traditions. And yes, traditions DO have value in providing structures that comfort people in times of stress and need, and for that reason – and perhaps that reason alone – are worth maintaining.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  10. unowhoitsme

    God (supreme being) and religion (manmade) are two different things. Kids "wise up" to the cultic practices of religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      God is also man made...until it is proven otherwise, it can't be considered anything more.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  11. Chris

    Excellently written commentary. I hope they do not cast you out of your party. We need more people to think for themselves and not just blindly follow a politician who is cross-tasked with saying blasphemous things in order to be elected.
    It would be scary if they really believed the things they are told to say.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Cherriterri

      I have to agree with Chris, very well written and more importantly, bold. I'm so very tired of people trying to tell me what is right or wrong as to religion or faith, when it all seems to be for political gain. I dont understand how the populace even listens, I agree with Tim King, please shut up.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  12. bobcat

    The author is dead right, fire and brimstone arguments and political actions lead to our founders rejection of christian theology and creation of a new faith, doesn. Sadly as more youngsters leave the leaderships will just intensify their negative message and quicken their own demise.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  13. TexasTexasTexas

    I was not allowed to ask questions growing up Baptist. Guilt, shame, and straight to the prayer- list if any doubt was suspected. I was taught to judge. Ugh. Children are taught about God and Santa Claus at the same time, then later told Santa isn't real. I was so relieved to escape the cult of Southern Baptist. I moved several hours from my family. I don't need a cult to teach me right from wrong. I am a good person 7 days a week. I am not a hypocrite. Choosing to believe in ANY higher power (or not!!!) is a right you are born with. No different than choosing what to wear each day. Atheists should NOT NOT be shamed by idiots who want to force their fictional non-scientific beliefs upon others.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  14. 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 8:00 am |
  15. CC

    Have you ever heard of the Jesuits or the Dominicans? For centuries, some Christians have always been very well educated and it only deepens their faith. Santorum's anti-intellectualism is a Calvinist notion. Not all Christians subscribe to this.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Chris

      Do not forget the Franciscans. I went to a Franciscan college and they were the coolest Christian religious leaders I ever met....

      February 29, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      How does a Roman Catholic hold Calvinist notions of anti-intellectualism. Episcopalians/ Anglicans are Calvinist too. I do not sense anti-intellectual anti-contraception notions in church. It is not a dogma matter so don't make it one. We are not showing the LOVE we shud n that is the matter.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • CC

      Nii, you are right. Santorum is Catholic. Perhaps he's pandering to the Evangelical GOP base? He is trying to win an election.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • CC

      I just want to add that I didn't mean to call into question Santorum's integrity. I really do believe he takes an anti-intellectualism tack, regardless of the fact that he's Catholic. This aligns him with his GOP base. ....he might be exagerating his position a bit, however.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  16. me

    All these basically for profit churches and religions trying to prove that our present day motivations are supported by Biblical record, written by many writers in different historical contexts than our own, is off base to begin with. They are wasting our time and intelligence by suggesting their views are confirmed by Biblical writings when it is Biblical interpretation that is being put to the test here. Good works, clear and just thinking are inspired by the beliefs and writings revealed in Christianity and other religions. These are seeds of goodness inviting us to nurture, rather than manipulate in a self-serving manner what is revealed to us.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  17. Jenny

    Well said, thank you.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  18. Cyle

    I understand the hypocrisy issue. It's real, but it's not knew. This statement will probably make alot of people mad, but I believe it is true. If you could "leave" Christianity because of the hypocrisy of another Christian, then you may well not be a Christian in the first place. A Christian is not a person who calls themself that, but one who has been made that by faith in Christ. It is a living relationship. Christians follow Christ, not others. We are terribly concerned about the witness of other Christians, or so-called Christians, but when others fail we do not abandon the faith.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • mwsbop

      So you are saying,... If you are a Republicain you can not be a Christian. Which I agree.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  19. NJBob

    What is driving people away from religion is the fact that people are finally discovering that none of it is true and that it's a mythological carryover from the Iron Age that serves a social function. Replace the church's social function with something else and you no longer need the rest.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      SO UNTRUE! Read the article. It outlines the problems. We Xtians have studied it. As to science n truth you better believe it but they r not the same. It is using childlike faith to explore the earth. Christianity uses childlike faith to explore spirituality. Psychology backs up the Bible.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • NJBob

      @Nii Croffie - When you start looking at the bible critically, you will find that it is a collection of falsehoods, mythology, and contradictions. Many atheists were Christians until they read the bible and discovered what was really in it. It makes no sense. It's historically inaccurate. It is contradicted over and over by science, and it contradicts itself. Have you ever seen your god or Jesus? Are they playing hide-and-seek with you? Why so many different interpretations of the bible? If it were the truth, there should only be one interpretation possible. It's complete nonsense. Once you realize that, everything falls into place.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  20. jknbt

    these people didn't lose their faith when they went to college. They lost their parents' faith. They will have to come to the Lord all on their own in adult life. Most of them will be back in church when they have kids. The temptations out there, especially if they go to a big party school for college, are too great for most people. It sounds like it is time to have some youth revivals.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • bobcat

      That will most likely backfire.

      February 29, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Greyhound37

      What statistics can you cite to back up your claim that most of those who've left religion during their college years will return to it when they have children? Or is that one of those things you just can't back up with facts and need to take on faith?

      February 29, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      BOBCAT at a point in time u have to become a Disciple of Christ despite years of teaching. I went through that phase in Junior and Senior High. However I am stronger spirtually as a result.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Commonsense

      Huh. I have kids now and I have no desire to "return to the Lord." Smells like BS!

      February 29, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      jknbt
      Let's hope, if you're right, that they opt for a kinder, more compassionate form of the faith than what was their parent's. Christianity has always evolved to match what people have wanted out of it, and it's about due for a major swing towards the Left.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:11 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.