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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. Mickey

    All true... I've been railing against this kind of political rhetoric ever since Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority machine. Two things however.
    1. Both parties use the bullypulpit for their own uses. Even the President, at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoked scripture to justify his social "fair share" policy of tax hikes. Little has been reported of him doing the very things that Republicans do so well.
    2. We, as individuals, must be careful to not let "hypocracy" be our excuse for ignoring Christ's teachings. Christ was surrounded by more hypocracy that we will ever know, yet he still went about the business of his Father.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  2. Tom

    Excellent. Very well put!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  3. John _Atlanta GA

    Science flies you to the moon
    religion flies you into a building!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • PrimeNumber

      Science flew us to the moon so we could acheive military suppority over the Russians. Godless capitalism versus godless communism.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • oswaldo

      Well if we are talking about lost kids that don\'t have godly pternas... as a missionary (now SAHM and wife to a missionary) with Child Evangelism Fellowship I must say you (the church) must go to the kids. It\'s not good enough to teach sunday school classes of kids \"About\" Jesus. You MUST share the Gospel with them! Most of our churches teach Bible stories to children... which obviously I have no issues with... but I bet the reason these kids end up leaving is because they never became Christians! As someone who taught kids sunday school for a long time I can tell you most of the curriculum DOES NOT share the gospel... or it does once every 5 weeks or something like that. That isn\'t good enough! You can\'t expect kids to stay in church if they never accepted Christ as their personal Savior. For kids outside of the church? Go to where they are. Schools (yes you can do it, visit cefonline.com) community centers, parks, wherever kids are and tell them why Jesus came.Kids should know Bible Stories but if they don\'t know the Gospel then they can\'t be saved and won\'t stay in church.

      May 19, 2012 at 2:25 am |
  4. Dentist

    Its funny how the only pastors he refers to are all white, and he not once mentions the hate that Reverend Wright spewed forth.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • John _Atlanta GA

      Yeah, because that one 20 second clip you idots watched over and over and over again on FOx news is so relevant.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Timmy

      what does that have to do with the point of this opinion piece. sounds like another canard someone wants to use to distract attention away from root causes. actually, you're the perfect example of what he is talking about. bravo.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  5. hippypoet

    you can't fake what isn't real and when proof is required for belief there will be a lack of followers!

    deal with it...or make up new lies to get them back – the vatician has no issues with being hypocritical, its part of the job!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Jim in Washington

      Christianity in nits evangelikkkal is well matched to the Red State Bubbahs' mental capacity and in that sense is a case study of successful marketing. Good news for the perps, but bad news for those of us who do not want to nuke Muslims.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  6. PrimeNumber

    This leaving of the church began in the '60's. It was not so much problems with the church as it was the attraction of the zeitgeist. When kids hit college, suddenly they are thinking for themselves, unfortunately with little life experience. They, along with atheists, insist that hypocrasy is one reason for leaving. Outside the church, here's what they'll find: more hypocrasy. And human nature with all its self-inflicted problems. They can leave a church, but they cannot get away from humanity. Then, they become cynical middle age people or find some kind of spirituality.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Just Me

      Sure, but hipocrisy is a universal human condition. In the case of Religion, it is claiming to speak for God's will - which, it can't possibly understand any better than a so-called 'atheist'. And religion has nothing to do with Faith, as I hope you already know. The human race, and most especially the current crop of politicians, simply must own-up to the reality that Religion offers no solutions to our problems - it's nothing more than a feel-good security blanket for those unwilling to confront the real issues of life and the world.

      If there's one thing the Jesuits taught me, it's that God, whatever God's nature might be, wants us to use our minds to solve our own problems.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  7. Mbane18

    People in Europe are eductated and Christian. However they are Catholics, protestants and Leutherans. In the USA they associate CHristianity with Evangelicals so they stay away. No one wants to be associated with those nutcases.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  8. paavo

    Why can we not have both as Christians. Love of God that shines thru in our actions in helping the poor etc. Action in standing up for what we believe in a loving but firm way. Lack of one or the other will destroy our country and civilization. You do not have to go very far back in history to see what happens to cultures and societies when people allow themselves to be marginalized as Christians and the church have been in our country for at least 50 years now.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  9. jknbt

    Jesus' first coming was to an evil and adulterous generation. Looks like his second coming will be against the same backdrop. This is called the great end times apostacy in scripture. Reread Jude & IIPeter....kinda grim....

    These people will be back in churches in swarms to Sunday after the Rapture...."You better get ready while you can"....

    February 29, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • lloyd roberts

      Don't be so sure with the scriptures that the church allowed you to read. There were many other scriptures that the church does not want you to see and has made a concerted effort throughout history to keep from your eyes. Stop quoting the very limited scripture the church elders let you know, for the true secrets are what they have kept from you to control you

      February 29, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  10. Joe

    Education is without question the greatest enemy of the church. The more you learn abour history and science the sooneryou realize the church is just about money and power like any other business.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      How does learning Science and History teach you Accounting and Business Administration, Banking, etc. College students are not leaving because of their academic brilliance. It is mostly time constraints, academic pressure, spiritual abuse and hypocrisy of church leadership. Also college lifestyle.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • priestnking

      The problem is these political people do not represent true Christians. A real Christian is one who has realized that this world is not their home, and they look for a city to come, the heavenly Jerusalem, a city not made with human hands! Trying to force Biblical ethics and morals on an unregenerate society does nothing but make you look ridiculous. The man must first be born again, as instructed by Jesus Christ in John 3. After this, they are alive to God through Christ, and then they will have reason to live a righteous life, and will be full of love and grace. Trying to manufacture this through rules is never taught in the new testament. Neither is starting a "Christian" nation. I don't think any of these folks have actually read the Bible

      February 29, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  11. Jbird

    This is the Georgia Guide Stones rules... AKA rules of the NWO= globilization ..... People are leaving church because its already stated people will leave church and become mmore away from the true religion to form the one world religion....

    1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
    2. Guide reproduction wisely – improving fitness and diversity.
    3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
    4. Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason.
    5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
    6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
    7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
    8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
    9. Prize truth – beauty – love – seeking harmony with the infinite.
    10.Be not a cancer on the earth – Leave room for nature – Leave room for nature.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  12. William Demuth

    Don't sweat it!

    It is just the buggery victims moving on.

    As soon as the priests stoping pumping the kids heads full of nonesense, and their rear ends full of "Jesus Juice" I am sure they will all return!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  13. Tam

    Well, maybe the type of Christianity these young people are leaving is the kind that loses a lot once you learn more? Thinking for yourself, not blind obedience, not literal interpretation of scripture. Education is the key to everything. Not educated? Then you support Palin, Santorum, and the rest of those who fear books, education, and even the evil teleprompter!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  14. flatbushfred

    Great article and right on the money. But in the list of stupid battles that the so-called religious right seems to think is important, don't forget to add (and this may be the stupidest one of all): The War on Christmas!!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  15. scchief

    Excellent article. Back in the '80s, as a 20-something, I finally stopped going to church because of the hyprocrasy–at the time I couldn't resolve the behavior of organized religion but it was troubling. Several people's comments on this article ring very true and it's a discussion we have to open as a society. Whether or not you believe in a god, the uniqueness and promise of America needs a set of "social/moral/ethical standards" that religions gave us during times of progress and turmoil. Although we may individually be "smarter" when challenging the tenets of religion; better is an entirely different question.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • GreenWoman

      "Whether or not you believe in a god, the uniqueness and promise of America needs a set of "social/moral/ethical standards" that religions gave us during times of progress and turmoil. "

      Lots of us don't need religion to give us a set of "social/moral/ethical standards." Many of us go through our lives doing the right thing without needing a church to tell us what that is. Too often, representatives of the church do the wrong thing, then cover it up or cloak it in divine right or patriotism or some other nonsense. If people can't treat their fellow man in a decent manner without the fear of God motivating them to do so, they're a good example of a moral failure, regardless of whatever religion htey profess to follow.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  16. Dzerres

    Not to mention the buggering of little boys by Catholic priests, they money grubbing of televangelists, and the willful ignorance of science and geology.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  17. Dave Bradshaw

    There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time was called the Dark Ages.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  18. Enlightened4

    Guess grist turned to science with the 2001 attacks. Only an uneducated person would believe that science is the answer. Although you can be educated and ignorant at the same time. Makes ya understand why "narrow is the gate" because there are so many deceived.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  19. KAJD

    It's not just the young ones leaving the church. As a mother of 4 and grandmother of 2, I have turned my back on organized religion. The churches are full of hypocrites with double standards trying to control the lives of others. I have lived long enough to recognize what is real and good, and what is not. My faith in a higher power greater than any one of us can fathom is firm, but I have chosen to do without some earthly creature painting my canvas for me.

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

      Very well put.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Jimboe

      I am in the exact same point in my life.

      It's not atheists or liberals causing people to move away from organized religion. It's people like Santorum who spew hate and rhetoric in the name of "the bible"......I don't say "God", because I don't think that is who they truly worship.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • PrimeNumber

      I can well understand people who leave churches because of hypocrasy. But when they reject God in the name of "Reason" , that's another matter. People have been saying that Reason has done away with God. Now with God gone, who's the next most important thing? The "reasoner" himself. He's the center of his own universe. Now, let him use reason to figure himself out. What does he find? A creature who thinks one thing in the morning, and unthinks it in the afternoon. He thinks he knows what he wants, but when he gets it, he isn't satisfied. He can't resist urges that he knows will get him into trouble, but can't master himself. His reason and his emotions tear him in half. Some parts of his inner self he doesn't even have access to: he cannot be under the microscope and looking through it at the same time. "I cannot grasp all that I am." (Augustine). In other words, reason is helpless in understanding the self. How, then, can the "reasoner" hope to use Reason to reject something like an Infinite Being?

      February 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  20. CJ

    If Christianity is in danger (and I'm not convinced it really is), then to just simply and blithely blame the church for the problem as this article basically does is just as over-simplified as blaming education or liberalism. The issue is a very complex one–there is no one factor to blame for such a situation. Secularists love the idea it's the church's fault; religious people love the idea that it's secularism's fault. In reality it's not merely an either/or situation and there may be many other factors at play as well.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • KAJD

      How do you equate liberalism with putting christianity in danger? Typical skewed right wing view. Liberals are far more familiar with the Christian philosophy of loving thy neighbor, feeding the hungry, helping the poor and judging not, as we are all created by the same loving God, than any hypocritical Republican is! Why don't you research what the word actually means. Maybe you've been paying far too much attention to the right wing propaganda machine.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:23 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.