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. nancylynn03

    thank you Tim, well said. I completely agree with your comments.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  2. 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 supersti.tion. 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 9:39 am |
    • Noxx

      LOL. I am pretty sure this is a Troll, but what a great way to demonstrate why people are turned off.

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

      I hear you. Teaching reason to young adults after leaving the nest and a lifetime of indoctrination just is downright evil. Who do these universities think they are putting emphasis on evidence based decision making? Of course we should continue to teach our young that Islam and Judaism are fake and to question these cults...but not Christianity of course.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • asdf

      I think we also need more made up science to counter-act reality. Like, did you know that I found a stick in the mud that proves conclusively that the earth is only 6000 yrs old? And I made a grilled cheese on my virgin Mary grilled cheese press and it came out LOOKING LIKE THE VIRGIN MARY! That's all I need to KNOW!

      February 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  3. David

    Teavangelicals, as the say in the cartoon Pogo, "we have met the enemy and they is us".

    February 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Joseph

      sadly, so true...

      February 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Tom Paine

      So does evolution.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Common Sense

      Silly human, you pray for me, I will have a beer for you.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Primewonk

      Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!
      Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!
      Spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam
      Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam!
      Spam spam spam spam!

      February 29, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  5. Idol Girl

    I agree with the author. The hypocrisy is a turn-off.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Joseph


      February 29, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  6. OhMyMy

    Christians in the US are converting to Islam or Atheism.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • David

      Actually, from in the box dogmatic religion to out of the box free thought. Islamic conversions are minute compared to Christians becoming more secular.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. Noxx

    It's because Christians feel the need to increasingly push their religion into the government with gay marriage laws, abortion, and pretty much every aspect of it. This is country of religious freedom, yet our money states "In God We Trust" and the pledge of allegiance states "One Nation Under God" which are both things changed in the mid 50s because of Communism. If Christian leaders weren't so oblivious as to spout things that a simple Google search can disprove in a matter of minutes people might have more respect for them. Instead College aged people begin to question them, and stop following.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  8. Jimbo

    I went to college but I realized it was a bunch of BS when I was in 6th grade. It's pretty obvious to the open mind.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  9. Common Sense

    Education. The mortal enemy of religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  10. Sybaris

    Uh, the reason why they are leaving is because the answers don't stand up to scrutiny. For that matter no religion stands up to scrutiny.

    This is not surprising.

    As a child we believe in monsters and fairy's and the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, but we grow up. Our society is growing up, the average level of education is increasing, the belief in myths and fairy tales is deminishing.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • jungianmorsels

      Except THOR. Since THOR makes THUNDER and i can actually hear thunder and see LIGHTNING.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  11. ABCD

    The statistic that Santorum quoted came from a report that also noted that considerably MORE of young people in the same age group.who DONT go to college leave the church or their faith.. but mentioning that wouldnt have supported his "argument."

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

      I haven't seen the study but have a comment about it as someone who works in a statistical field. What's important isn't whether a higher number of non-college-educated people drop out of the religion than the number of college-educated people, but whether a higher PERCENTAGE of non-college-educated people drop out than the PERCENTAGE of college-educated people. This controls for baseline differences in the number of people who are vs. aren't college educated in the population. If a higher percentage of non-college educated people drop out of the religion, then indeed, Santorum's argument doesn't hold water.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  12. SouthernCelt

    "an entire generation...leaving the church"? Like sweeping generalizations much?Ever read history? Most of the Scientists of the past were either Priests or very religious since they were the only educated people around. Try reading the First Commandment. If you had no faith or weak faith when you entered College there is a very good chance the liberal excesses in College will weaken your Faith further or remove it completely. I, on the other hand, as well as my nephews and nieces (raised the same way) explored and increased our Faith once beyond our parents "control" and still believe to this day. How you believe is every bit as important as what you believe.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  13. ML

    This article is right on the money! When faith is politicized by the GOP it divides the country into the "good and the evil" camps. Hypocrisy at its finest!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  14. rockysfan

    Thank you. I've always thought the churches should look within to find the reason so many leave. I left at 16 and will never go back. Do I beleive, you bethcha, just not in organized religion. Religion does NOT belong in politics. They (the churches) want to play, then they can pay (taxes) to do so. Only fair, just sayin'.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  15. snowdogg

    "Rather, the exodus is about hypocrisy."

    More likely it is because many people of all ages are not buying into the "higher being" myth. Besides, spirituality is not an exclusive commodity of organized religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  16. Jeepers

    There were a lot of factors that made me turn away from my religious upbringing, but the one that probably stands out the most is the evolution debate. My mother believes the earth is 6000 years old and was populated by Adam and Eve. And, yeah...I took college biology, which pretty firmly cemented my knowledge of the subject. Some might call that "liberal." I call it an education. There were other factors, but that was probably the straw that broke the camel's back for me.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      There are biologists who r Christians n Christians who r Evolutionists. Find another reason.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Jeepers

      As I said, there are several reasons.

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

      And maybe I could say to you to that your reasons for whatever you believe are not adequate. But that wouldn't really be my place, now would it? Unlike a lot of the religious people I know, I don't feel the need to try to control what anyone else thinks. You seem to fit right into that mold.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Primewonk

      Nii – Like Jeepers said, it's fundamentalists who are the problem.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  17. Common Sense

    Hmm. It seems that the more educated one is the less likely one is to believe in silly fairy tales. Strange.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Carlos in FL

      Just remember – this country was founded by people who believed in what you call "fairy tales". I wouldn't call your response "Common Sense" – I'd call it biased to the point of extreme prejudice. Granted, that's your right, and I don't question your right to it, regardless of how bigoted it is.

      The fact is that the issue isn't with college. We live in what I have long referred to as a "Big Mac-Wal Mart" mentality – instant gratification. Live for today, nobody else matters, do what you want no matter the consequences – all of that has contributed. It's a constant barrage of commercials, ads, shows, everything screaming it at people. If you do not have a strong faith base you cannot sustain college.

      I went to college. I took college biology, etc, etc. It didn't make me question my faith – it reinforced it. The Theory of Evolution (what people don't want to accept is that it is still simply a "theory") doesn't hurt my beliefs, and I don't worry about the so-called "missing link" showing up some day.

      We live in an increasingly liberal society which dismisses church to a once-a-week visit to the building of your choice. I look at what the world and society are becoming, and I have to ask – this is what is called progress?

      February 29, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Noxx

      @Carlos. Reportedly believed. There's no proof either way. Christians have forged their belief and I'm sure non-Christians have forged their lack of belief. The country was founded with religious freedom, not as a Christian nation. This leads me to believe they were more than likely NOT Christian.

      And to throw in a word "bigoted" in relation to his comment? Seriously? What a massive misuse of that word. One more reason Christians continue to make themselves look even more ridiculous. You my friend, believe it or not, are a shining example of the hypocrisy people talk about.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Common Sense

      Carlos, I'll bet you have calluses on your knees to match those on your critical reasoning. I will have a beer for you.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Primewonk

      Carlos wrote, "I went to college. I took college biology, etc, etc. It didn't make me question my faith – it reinforced it. The Theory of Evolution (what people don't want to accept is that it is still simply a "theory") doesn't hurt my beliefs, and I don't worry about the so-called "missing link" showing up some day."

      You are either lying about taking college biology, or you need to get your money back for those courses. You failed to learn even the basic lexicon of science – the scientific definition of the word theory. Also, folks who understand science in general, and evolution in particular, don't use terms like "missing link".

      February 29, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  18. Shane

    Hmm, I can't imagine why more knowledge and the logical thinking that comes from a college education could cause someone to stop believing in God.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Common Sense

      My thoughts exactly.

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

      I don't have any data – so this is just my opinion –

      I would think that coming from a fundamentalist church would be one of the indicators, especially if you end up going to a non-religious school, and especially if you take any science courses or ant religious studies courses.

      Imagine that all your (young) life you have been told that earth is 6000 years old, that Adam and Eve were real, that there was a global flood 4000 years ago, etc. And then you are exposed to actual science and facts and evidence that shows everything your religious masters told you was a lie.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 29, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Brian

      If that is true, whey are their Atheists? Prayer makes you feel better, and that is a good thing. It does nothing more.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • HailOdin!


      February 29, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Common Sense

      Prayer, like religion, is the opiate of the ignorant masses.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Guest

      Tell that to the kids who died because their parents prayed instead of seeking medical attention when they were sick. Prayer gives hope, knowledge gives answers.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Primewonk

      Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!
      Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!
      Spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam.
      Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam!
      Spam spam spam spam

      February 29, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  20. Ken

    It just might have more to do with our so-called religious leaders than anything else. Educated people just won't buy the BS being spewed from the pilpits.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:31 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32
About this blog

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.