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. A Reasoner

    The more a student has read the bible the less sense it, and religion in general, make as the student acquires some critical thinking skills. Some don't acquire these until college.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  2. Adam

    The bible is a forgery.
    Jesus never existed.
    Deal with it.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Jake

      Pretty much no historical scholars – secular or religious – agree with this statement

      February 29, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • grist

      The stories of Jesus are rehashes of previous once hundreds of years before Jesus was alledged to exist. Not a single contemporary historian wrote about him. Most scholars understand that the writings of "historian" Josephus were a forgery centuries later. Jesus is a myth. Deal with it. We live in a real world which obeys the laws of physics. Kids these days see it. They don't believe as much in fairy tales as their parents.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • J.W

      Most scholars and historians do believe Jesus existed.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  3. Beth

    Santorum said "62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it" – typical politician taking a statistic out of context and even changing the measure. The study found that 62% of students curb their participation in faith based services... not that they lose their committment to faith. AND the study went on to say that an even higher percentage of young adults who are not in college curb their attendance. So 1) its a factor of their age and other variables, not college attendance, and 2) college attendees stay more active in church than non-college peers.

    Typical fear-factor, statistic-manipulating rhetoric by Santorum.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  4. Don F.

    But isn't the word from the conservative pulpit that "Everything that happens is part of the perfect will of God." If that be true then how is whining and moaning about the loss of cultural status by the Christian Church not a criticism of God's Will.

    Likewise from the conservitive pulpit we hear that "It is not about you". Then how does one put a "personal decision for Christ", "When I survey the wonderous Cross", "It"s me, It's me Dear Lord" in any meaningful context. When is the "Good News" not about the in some profound way about the person to whom it is given. If it is not about the person in the pew, then efforts to reach others by making worship services more contemporary are meaningless.

    I just don't understand and my church experience is not helping.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  5. MichigIndian

    Thank you for so eloquently stating what many of us feel.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  6. JCKinOK

    "Rather, the exodus is about hypocrisy."

    This hit it right on the head.

    I last attended church regularly when I was 16. I was raised Methodist, but the church I went to was a social club. People were there more for what you could wear than what you could learn. I went to various churches looking for something real. Thought once I'd found a good church who had an awesome youth minister and the minister was a friend of my parents, but then because the youth minister didn't teach in a "hell, fire and brimstone" and "eternal damnation" method, the elders of the church made things up and ran him off. That's when I quit attending church.

    Too often, an established church wants control and/or money. And, that is the sort of corruption and greed of power that turns people like me off.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  7. Franco M.

    If someone says they are a Christian, it means that they are a follower of Jesus Christ. If someone is a follower of Jesus he will agree with and live out to the best of their ability what the Bible teaches. So, if someone says that they are a Christian, yet holds philosophies, values and points of view that are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, then it becomes valid to question their faith as a Christian.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • myweightinwords

      The question then becomes, are their views actually different than what Christ taught, or just different from your interpretation of what Christ taught?

      February 29, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  8. SashineB

    Hypocrisy, yes. Also, people are leaving the church (or not interested in going, in the first place) because it seems to be a private club. Yes, a private club - how many times have I heard about "those liberals", or the "Satanic gay agenda"? There is no welcome mat here, and nothing to interest me; I don't need to hear people preach about the "sins" of other people! Why don't they clean up the junk in their back yard before they start complaining about other people? As a former evangelical, this is the reason why I left the church some 40 years ago, and I am glad that I am away from it all.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  9. Mbane18

    Christianity and college are not to blame. Evangelicals pretending to be Christians are the problem!. Evangelicals are a joke – ask any Christian from another denomination. Their backwarded, hypocritical and distorted views of Christianity are what is causing the damage here. No one wants to be associated with those nutcases an because they are so vocal, the general public shies away from Christianity as a whole. You don't see Catholics, Protestants or Lutherans ack in the same nutty way, do you?

    February 29, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Laurie H.

      Santorum is Catholic...and yes, he's about as nutty as they come!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  10. peggy

    Great insight. Although I am a Christian only nominally, I find Tim King's opinion interesting. And I agree with him.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  11. HailOdin!

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
    ― Mahatma Gandhi
    tags: anti-christian , christianity , christians , jesus-christ

    February 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Is that the same Ghandi who said :

      In response to the rise of white nationalist politics, which stressed racial separation, Gandhi wrote in his Indian Opinion of September 24, 1903:

      "We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do, only we believe that they would best serve these interests, which are as dear to us as to them, by advocating the purity of all races, and not one alone. We believe also that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race."

      February 29, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  12. Troy

    Young people are leaving christianity because young people are smarter than the previous generation. Young people are less will to accept the old "its in the Bible so it must be true" rhetoric. Good going young people!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  13. Alysandir

    II have heard more hate-filled rhetoric fueled by religious dogma than from any other socio-political group or philosophy. I'd be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone use the Bible to defend their intolerance, as if a book written by fallible *men* was somehow infallible in message. Apparently, Jesus' command to love one another as (He) has loved you gets trumped by cherry-picking passages from the Old Testament without regard to context.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  14. Jesus Loves You


    February 29, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  15. 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 stone age 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 9:05 am |
    • Troy

      Amen! This trend of "fact-finding" has got to be abolished once and for all.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  16. Apacheone

    If you listen to some of the shady used car salesman like TV preachers you wonder why Jesus would talk to these clowns and wonder more why Jesus would not just go ahead and fix some of the things these clowns beg for money for. When I hear a preacher say "God told me that someone is watching that has very bad hip pain and he wants to give you a miracle if you sow the seed, the seed of 1000 dollars" it makes me sick, it makes me even sicker that there are bunch of people with hip pain in TV land that are saying WOW God is watching me right now I better send the 1000 dollars so I get my miracle.

    That is what drives sane intelligent people away from Christianity, these criminal huckster preachers conning for money all the time. Everyone of them talks to God and God tells everyone of them to ask for money. Sad that people would believe there is such a God who can do nothing for anyone without some huckster preacher asking for money.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  17. hippypoet

    come one, come all, come see the hypocrisy that once won but now will fall!


    February 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  18. Scales of Justice

    Great article! All I can say is AMEN!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  19. Graham

    My mother once changed plans to spend time with me and instead went to Graham's camp in NC. We hadn't seen each other in a long time. After some gentle questions, it came out that her church family was more important. So be it.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  20. grist

    The young are starting to realize that there really are no gods. We live in an age of Science. They realize that the scribblings of bronze age men are not so important in a modern society. I think it is education which will destroy religion. College is part of that. As kids learn that the earth really is a lot older than 6000 years and that we really did evolve, the need for religion diminishes.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      If ur Xtianity if u were one was based on the Easter Bunny nd Santa then Bye Bye.! I don't see how u can even preach on that! Religion is deeper than ur religion makes u think. The philosophies didn't come from stupid people. As Crown Prince of Egypt Moses was educated in Science, Religion and Arts.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:45 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.