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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. Andrew

    I am so confused at how millions of Christians can claim to read and follow the teachings of Christ, and still vote Republican. Do you really think someone like Jesus would support the party of greed and environmental exploitation. God and belief are twisted and used by the right to control the poor and uneducated religious masses, keeping them malleable so they can be formed into any shape that will keep them in power, or take back power they lost. Single issue voters are the most easily controlled group of Americans and we will continue to get leaders like GW Bush in the future as long as they exist in numbers.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  2. Glenn From CT

    Tim,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece! You are spot on... My family and I have recently returned to our faith after a long absence... and while I am a 40, outside the bounds of the generation you speak of, I left for very much the same reasons you outlined above. Take heart, God is always on the move and he is using many people like you, everyday people that are humble enough to realize our problems are within rather than out, to bring his Church back to a righteous path!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  3. fortruth47

    Yes religion values are stupid. We don't need anyone to tell us how to live lets go steal and kill, we need nothing to restain but my onw opinion about what I want and believe. What a future for the religion of my own opinion!!!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • DREW

      What the heck are you trying to say? Please proofread before you post.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • fortruth47

      Sorry for not proof reading, I simply am trying to point out that folks need to be careful when they think that the Christian faith has not been of great value to there own way of life in America. Even if one does not want to accept it as devine they have enjoyed the benefits of its teaching in Amercia. Even if some abuse its truths its still a better guide then any other system. Those who want a godless guided government will one day regret the results becasue there will be no retraint by whoever is in charge. Godless governments feel free to kill or do anything else to there people they want.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  4. Scott in Atlanta

    The truth is somewhere in the middle of this essay. Christ is, in fact, Lord ANNNNND Savior. We love the "Savior" part. We cherish the value in what he did FOR us. But the "Lord" part is a different story. We would like to ignore what He said TO us. He was full of love and grace, yes... But He is also a holy and Just God who must judge WHAT HE CALLED sin. So you had me up until the "antigay" rebuke. (You must love the sinner, but still hate the sin) As uncomfortable as it is, in this "anything-goes", politically-correct, and tolerant society.... It still is what it is... The biggest potential "fail" in society is when we began to refuse to call sin sin.

    I am the Lord thy God... I change not... I am not like man... I cannot lie.

    (Read the bible for your self)

    February 29, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • think for yourself

      "Christ is, in fact, Lord ANNNNND Savior". This is NOT a proven "fact". Your religion has the same base as all of the other major religions: a book written by other men and no other evidence to support it. What makes your book right and all the others wrong?

      February 29, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  5. John

    I had 12 years of Catholic education, but discarded faith by half-way through it. But it was a good education. I learned to think. Now I have a well-thought out ethics which-now don't be shocked-is essentially the same as Christianity's. So here I am agnostic and you could not tell the difference unless you asked me why you never see me in a church. See you around, Tim King. Best wishes.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Rob

      John,
      As softly as I can say it and out of love, there is a difference. Jesus said the "I am the way, truth and life, no one comes to the Father expect through me. Thats the difference. Religions can be faked, people can be fake, but Jesus is Lord and no Mortal will ever change that.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  6. frank

    DON'T BLAME ANYONE, IT IS NOT COLLEGE, HIGH SCHOOL, BUT THEY WILL RETURN WHEN THEY ARE OLDER AND IN MORE NEED THAN WHEN THEY LEFT.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  7. sir_ken_g

    Thinking is bad news for all sorts of fairy-tales and childhood brain washing..

    February 29, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  8. dieseltdi

    Amen and again I say amen. I have grown up in the Southern Baptist Church, some of it as a preacher's kid. I have watch with horror as the SBC sold it soul to the devil of politics and at the same time lost their real purpose of saving souls. With the demise of the USSR, some were looking for the next boogy man. So evangelicals turned cannibals and began to eat their own. Luckily my church doesn't buy into the political side of the SBC.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • PoliticaWoman

      And that is a rare church these days that doesnt engage in politics. Well said!

      February 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      The politics must end. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's n to God what is His. If politicians want to slander each others Christianity they must be made to sit outside a bit. Church Halls shudn't be used for political rallies either. And Ministers shud dicuss their politics with their wives in bed.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  9. slippery

    Evangelicals are acting like Spanish inquisitioners – no wonder the problem.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  10. katchaser

    It's strange that Santorum blamed everyone else but never mentioned Satan attacking his Catholic church. Not one priest or Jerry Sandosky has been jailed for what they did to those litle boys they so viciously attacked. Don't recall Franklin Graham mentioning it either. Yeah, I think the problem is internal.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      Catholics are useful to keep with the count when you want to demonstrate how big a majority total Christianity is in America, or when something liberal needs marching against, but otherwise Graham is thinking that they will face the same judgment that the Jews will on the final day.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  11. nona1234

    I do agree with general sentiment of the article. However, I do believe that a college education do play a role in turning a young adult away from christianity and for that matter away from most organized religions. To me most religions tell their followers to have faith in their teaching and follow them somewhat blindly. A college education if it is good will tell its student to question be curious and become independent thinkers. A college education and religious teaching in that regard are opposite to each other. It is for general population to decide whether they want to be follower or independent thinkers.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Nero

      The fact is, the more education you have, the more you realize that their is no possible way any religion could be true. Their is not attack on religion. Higher education just removes ignorance from the equation.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • A Keehn

      Actually, Christian believers are told to be independent thinkers and to be curious and have a reason for their faith. In the book of Acts, we are told that "...the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul's message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth..." So there is no conflict between the Bible and college teaching that encourages people to think for themselves. Christians are told to examine the word and be ready to give a reason for their faith.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  12. Reality

    From the college ranks:

    (only for the newbies)

    As we "thu-mp" along with rational thinking, conclusions and reiteration to counter the millennia of false and flawed religious history and theology!!!--––

    Putting the final kibosh on religion in less than a 1000 words:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added support references are available. Just ask.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man

    February 29, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • mjbrin

      "Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man"

      ouch! that had to hurt!

      February 29, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • John

      But there IS a flying spaghetti monster! So there!

      February 29, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • R

      How dare you say Hinduism is failed religion ? Have you ever tasted cow urine ? Do not judge it without tasting.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • R

      Believer in Hinduism had successfully destroyed non believer in past.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  13. noah

    I am an atheist but this such a well written and well explained article. Atheists, liberals and whatnot arent causing people to loose faith at all. Since the time of the "moral majority" the christian faith has been dying in America because of the influence of nasty, ignorant politics. When church and state are separated absolutely, religion flourishes, but when they are mixed religion always fails. Look at European nations where the separation is not as defined, like England: Religious education and a national church. These things cause people to doubt everything because you have made your religion into something of a late night TV commercial.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  14. wildman

    religious belief is proof of base stupidity. the religious mind is not a mind at all, but an empty vessel filled with smoke and mirrors. there will be peace on earth when the last politician is hanging from the guts of the last priest.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  15. jenson

    it's easy for this kid to write this story because he focused on man, who will fall, fail and forget. Those 3 F's are just like the grade I wouldgive this young man for slamming our Christian leaders and schools. Now that your out of North Park, good for you. Just because your a liberal christian democrat gives you no right to point fingers at anyone. My guess is someday you will fall or fail too. We are all guilty of hypocrisy, it takes a very dedicated faithful person to walk their talk 100% of the time. I chose to follow the Christian leaders who stick to the Bible, people like Chuck Colson, Chuck Swindoll, James Dobson, Tony Evans, Elizabeth Eliot.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • John

      You err. You have that Christian need to demand that we are all sinners, for one thing guilty of hypocrisy. But that is not true. I am 60 and I have made mistakes, but now I do not. I never say a single thing (that is serious) which is a lie, or one which contradicts my life-values construct. Never. Doing so is so far from me I don't even have to worry about it. So hypocrisy, at least, you can keep to yourself.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  16. 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 8:17 am |
    • John

      That's why we have some really GOOD madrases, like Oral Roberts U. Sorry, I wrote madrases when I meant schools.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • R

      Only fools believe that earth is sphere and circling around the sun. Here is the scientific truth. Earth is flat. Every morning sun come of chariot with seven horse. Every evening sun goes to sleep in his palace in mountains. During summer, when it is warm, sun stays longer. During winter sun do not like cold, so it stays less. Science has proved it.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  17. Marcie

    Just know that for every one of these political idiot-Christians, there are probably 5 more that quietly live out their faith, without passing sweeping judgments on different groups of people.

    As much as I embrace my own Christian faith, I abhor these political candidates who think its their job to tell the other hundreds of millions of Americans how to live their lives, and how morally corrupt they are. Religion has no business in our government. I want the presidential candidate I vote for to say "Yes, I'm a Christian." or "Yes, I'm a Muslim." or even "Yes, I am an athiest." and then tell me what he or she thinks on the rest of the issues. I don't give a crap what you believe as long as you love our wonderful country and what what's best for it's citizens.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Rick n co will never stop so long as there are votes to gain. If America becomes 30% Muslim today Rick will be on a plane to Mecca or Damascus.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  18. JiminTX

    Of course the more educated you are the less likely you are to believe in fairies, wood nymphs, unicorns, and Invisible Sky Friends who Grant Wishes.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      And most children stop believing in these things once they start going to school. Education, and maturity, are the key, it seems.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  19. Jesus Loves You

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_BzWUuZN5w&feature=relmfu

    February 29, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  20. Kim

    I turned away from Christianity altogether and converted to Judiasm. I knew some wonderful Christians and still do but I want a faith that is not my way or the burn in hell.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Reality

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

      February 29, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      IT IS ONLY FAIR TO DECLARE THE CHURCH U LEFT as not all churches preach the same dogma. Otherwise u r telling a half-truth.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:19 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.