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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. Jokesterer

    God told me to read this article and leave this comment.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Just Say'in

      I prayed that you wouldn’t but here you are.

      Hmmmm

      February 29, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  2. Sparky91

    I would say going to college gives some people their first real taste of thinking on their own, you know, free thought. And once that happens, religion doesn't make sense anymore, at least not from a participatory perspective. I love religion, I study various religions and I'm amazed at how similar they are to cults. So it's understandable that young free thinkers are saying no to religion.

    And by the way, Santorum scares the life out of me! This religious zealot should be no where near a position of Governement power!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • JT

      Religions are similar to cults because, well...they are cults. Religions are simply cults with politcal power.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  3. Nare

    AWESOME article. Thank you.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  4. fortruth47

    after 38 years of intense study of the bible and life. One truth is absolute. Every human suffering we see on earth comes from what the bible describes as sin. At the end of sin is pain always. Someone must have been pretty smart to figure all that out. I challenge you to be honest study the bible and see if that is not true. Even if you reject the bible as devine you should be honest that its teaching is a better system then any other on earth.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Just Say'in

      The bible is contradictive at best and hypocritical at worst. There are chestnuts of ‘wisdom’ in there, but the same could be said for fortune cookies. The bible is nether the first or the last to ‘teach’ basic human principles.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • fortruth47

      You haven't studied it for 38 years and applied it to life. When you understand it you see its truths which are plain as day. I've seen those who lived by its principles and those who rejected it and there is a huge difference in the quality and pain of there lives.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  5. Eric

    Tim, thanks for a great article...you are so spot on with your insight regarding the issues with the established Christian church. When you try to legislate morally or your religious beliefs/doctrines, you don't have real change in the hearts of humanity. Jesus was more interested in the hearts of humans not much emphasis on trying to get government to change the hearts of people. Until the establish church begin to change inward, they will have the same issues they had during Jesus time. If they don't want their people of faith to be gay, have abortions, fornicate, adultery, liars, haters....then it is the church responsibility to teach the hearts of their congregants and not depend on government to legislate laws or make public policy that changes their people of faith hearts to be aligned with their established religious truths/doctrines/beliefs.

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

    It is time we Christians learn that God gaave us a will to exercise so we are responsible for our sins. If we choose to be pious or religious christians labelling spiritual christians as Liberals, Democrats, etc. They will sit at home and enjoy their relationship with God. We need more LOVE.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • scoobypoo

      It is time you said something that actually makes some sort of sense.
      What a ridiculous rant.

      Maybe you should go to college?

      February 29, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      LOVE will save the Church not politics. Christian values like loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving our enemies, leaving unbelievers to choose their fate, forgiving those who trespass against us n taking care of the sick, hungry, thirsty, poor and naked can be done without politicians.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Just Say'in

      @ Nii Croffie
      I’m sorry the hippy movement died in the 60s.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  7. Kelly

    What a wonderful and insightful article. I commend you for using the discernment that God gave you.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Just Say'in

      Sheep

      February 29, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  8. brian

    young people are leaving churches in droves because of dick heads like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Beth

      Obama goes to church. What about him?

      February 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  9. Truth

    I'm going to have to say that I tend to agree with this article. I still consider myself a Christian but I definitely struggled with it for a while after going to college and seeing how corrupt many of the churches and many of the people who were "Christian" in my life were... Some of those people still remain the most judgmental people I know, even though we're not supposed to judge... and they can be some of the most hateful people I know too... i.e. telling me that Catholics are evil and that marrying someone who was raised in that faith is of the devil.... just *sigh*...

    February 29, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  10. scoobypoo

    Clearly this guy is one of the more reasonable christians; I wish more like him would speak out.

    However, as nice as he is, it should be pointed out that he can do all the good things he speaks of (helping homeless, etc.) without religion. If that's where he gets his inspiration, fine. But there's no reason to pretend any of it is real.

    Most of us get brainwashed as children, and so did this guy. What college sometimes does is provide a separation from the religious cults and makes it possible for the effects of the brainwashing to diminish and allow common sense and free thinking to surface.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Just Say'in

      > However, as nice as he is, it should be pointed out that he can do all the good things he speaks of (helping homeless, etc.) without religion.

      100% correct any many organizations and individuals do just that.
      The argument from Christians over their charity work is not unlike my former step-fathers old habits. He’d smack us around and later offer us presents to make up for it. Rinse and repeat. In short just because a person does good thing doesn’t mean it washes away the ongoing abuse.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • TexasTexasTexas

      Your reply is spot-on, and should be in bold, at the top. Good parenting and help-the-world-be-a-better-place role models can provide the same insight as a bible. I don't call the believers, I call them pretenders. They drank the koolaid. They incorporate make-believe into their lives. Oh, what some people will do to fit in.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  11. Just Say'in

    >Rather, the exodus is about hypocrisy

    I have to disagree in part.
    Hypocrisy has been a mainstay in the church and the Christian ‘faith’ since day one. The difference now the hypocrisy is more evident to the previously indoctrinated masses. Education and social exposure are playing a big role. As people become more educated they can see the biblical stories are ridiculously implausible and contradictive to their own principles. With social exposure to people outside of the compound they realize they are not the only ones who feel this way and though not easy, you are not as ostracized as one once was upon admitting doubt or non-belief.

    I say to all the newly awaken, welcome to reality.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  12. Stephen

    So let's assume that it's true – 62% who go to college with faith leave without it. Now, what's that say about FAITH – not college?!?!

    February 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Just Say'in

      The same thing the studies have said for years. Faith’s greatest enemy is the education of the masses. That is why the right is so anti-intellectual.

      For the record I’m not a lefty.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  13. Sadtimes7734

    The article was point-on. Thank God there are still young people with common sense and willing to do Gods work the way HE wanted it done. I am sure those who seek personal gain off of God's name will have a lot of explaining to do.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  14. BostonWes

    I think people still have faith in God but just getting fed up with the hate and money begging that most religions spew out. The Church is a failure and has been for a long time so why even go anymore. They will preach one thing but do another.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  15. Walter

    Ah yes, another article putting Christianity in a bad light. Perhaps you should rename this blog "lack of belief." I honestly couldn't care less whether people believe or not. In fact, it might be a good thing for people to stop praying to a being to help their lot in life. The only person that's going to help you is you – not a god, and most certainly not the government. The days of cradle to grave government support are drawing to a close.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Rachel

      You obviously didn't read the article, angry one. Try reading first before you write.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Just Say'in

      @Walter
      Belief does not mean Christianity, religion or faith.
      If you are still confused feel free to google the dictionary.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:01 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 8:33 am |
    • Star Tripper

      Thank you so much for those words. Young people MUST have something to believe in – always have – always will. And if responsible adults can't give them something – they WILL find it for themselves. I would say that parents should be the ones to teach their children HOW to think for themselves and guide them to making good decisions – but that almost got me crucified on another news site. It is far too easy to say – not my fault!!! LOL Well – YES it is.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • scoobypoo

      Laugh Out Loud!

      February 29, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Mike C

      That's the same thing Lenin and Marx said! Amazing.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Star Tripper

      MikeC – Yes it is what they said – and they were right! It is a very scary situation. As I said – either teach the young people how to think – or someone else – maybe a Lenin or Marx – or maybe someone much worse (street gangs, cults, fanatics, etc.) WILL do it for you.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  17. Marco Polo

    Can't say I blame you Kim.

    But keep in mind, it"s the the faith (ANY faith), it"s the faulty practice that some partake in.

    I grew up a Catholic, and am non-practicing, in the sense that I have not been to 'church' i forever, unless it's a wedding or funeral. I mostly partake a in more,...SPIRITUAL connection to the higher power.

    I grew up in the "golden rule", and tolerance is what *I* was taught growing up, but when you have indivduals that have the "Westboro Baptist Church" mentality that has nothing to do with being Chrisitan, THAT is what drive people away.

    Whatever happening to accepting people for who they are? THAT is the real message behind Christianity, "Love thy Neighbor as thyself", not "Believe that Jesus is the son of God, that is most important part of the Faith", or "If you don agree with the rest of us, YOU ARE WRONG".

    ME? I'll just keep my relationship with the "higher power" personal, and hope others can find happiness and free of hate, like you yourself have. 🙂

    February 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  18. Ancient Curse

    Yep. The author hit the nail on the head. Christ was great - Christians, not so much. Too much hypocrisy. No thanks.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  19. WWJD

    You may sin against the Father and the Son and it can be forgiven you but, to call the Holy Ghost, the author of the Bible, a liar will not be forgiven; not in this life or the next.

    Every knee shall bow and every toungue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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

    I was raised catholic. I was thankful that I was raised in the 'true' religion. When I was in college I realised that everyone thinks they are in the 'true' religion. According to my faith a lot of good people were going to hell for not being catholic. I cme to realize that religion really is just a way to control people like cattle. Sure it makes a lot of people feel good and feel like they have a purpose but that isn't a reason to lie. How many wars have been over religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:31 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.