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. INMe

    The writer of this article had no faith to begin with. Tim is right, any real church I have ever been to sticks to the Bible, teaches from it the rest is all just media spin and hype based on a couple bad leaders. Those bad church leaders gave those people looking for an excuse to live their lives according to their material wants and desires exactly what they needed. It doesn't change the fact that this country is going to ruin the farther we get from God. Any child can see that but faithless fakes like this writer try to whitewash it by using academia.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Danman

      Santa Claus is coming to save us all, really really soon, so be good for goodness sake!

      February 29, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Creag

      Prove that your personal idea of god exist and then maybe I will think this is more then ramblings of a mad man.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  2. Thank you

    You're completely right. As a 20-something coming out of school, with an alarming amount of disrespect for the Church, this article has reminded me of the most important thing I ever learned from my Christian upbringing. And that was acceptance; acceptance, love, and a kind heart. Being on my own in college, and being exposed to various viewpoints, I was made well aware of the disonance between what was preached, and what was actually practiced. That's why I 'left the church'. For now, I will pray for what I believe in on my own.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  3. Boisepoet

    They leave because they learn critical thinking skills in college, which leads them to question the fairy tales of their youth, which leads them to understanding that mythology (religion) is about stories of mankind attempting to understand the world they lived in. Wouldn't you think it strange if a 20-something still geniuinely believed in Santa Claus?

    February 29, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  4. brenda russell

    what people do and say is not god. the only thing god ask of us is to follow the 10 commandments truely the world would be a better place...... also in the bible it says few will make it to heaven so maybe people are leaving because its just easier to blame others and just avoid whats right

    February 29, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Primewonk

      " the only thing god ask of us is to follow the 10 commandments truely the world would be a better place."

      Your first commandment says that I must worship only your god – under penalty of death and eternal torture.

      On the other hand, my first amendment says that I can worship your version of god, some other version of your god, totally different gods, or no gods – no threat of death or eternal torture. Guess what? My first trumps your first. I win. Every day. Every time.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Boisepoet

      Maybe people stay in the church so they don't have to confront reality or think for themselves...

      February 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  5. Kurt

    You are right not to blame college itself. As a kid, I never found church all that exciting. Going to college meant being away from what I felt was forced labor – so I stopped going. This would have been true no matter how I "escaped." Added to that is people's desire to kill for their god (even in biblical times). So there's the real "hypocrisy" – not Franklin Graham-type people – the Old Testament itself ignores the Commandments, so I'm out.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  6. t.sarcastic

    I've noticed that the recession hasn't slowed the church construction business in the slightest. It's people like Mr. Santorum that give religion a bad name.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  7. Jon

    That is encouraging. Faith and religion have been around for a few thousand years (the big three anyway) and were at one time the source of all knowledge. Knowledge based on revelation and not observation, aka Science. As our species has gotten smarter, we have learned that the religions were based around 1st century knowledge. The young adults that are leaving the church are doing so because religion has it wrong. There are truths revealed in nature that far exceed the "miracles" of scripture. That there are many ways to be a kind and decent person without referring to the bible. It seems like a sign of better times because future generations won't be held back from old-world dogma but will embrace a more global civilization. After all, we are one planet.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  8. Chris Sanchez

    Tim – you nailed it. Thanks.

    My family is catholic. My wife and I are catholic only by tradition. We have baptized and will raise our kids Catholic; they will attend Catholic school. Having said that, the leadership in the Catholic church is alienating itself by holding onto outdated rigid positions that conflict with the modern world. The Catholic church is not he only one is this jeopardy, it is just the one I am familiar with the most. They will not listen to us because of the mentality that preaching is one way and we shall conform to their commands. But without some adaptation on their side, or dare I say some evolution, may priests and preachers are going to find themselves with thinner and thinner herds.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Its time mor ministers became like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and need I say Jesus of Nazareth. They shud teach us to LOVE God, ourselves, our Christian brothers and sisters as ourselves, our neighbors as ourselves and of course love our enemies too. That type of Christianity does not fade.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  9. non-sequitor

    it is so obvious that the explosion of higher education has created more agile and educated minds that can critically think and make decisions for themselves. Religion is being dragged into the modern ages by the leading edge of secular progressivism. Santorum is kicking and screaming the whole way.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Duktig1

      Non-sequitor, I appreciated your response to my post. Unable to respond directly to your post about my post, i am responding to your post. In any case, who says that the scientific method cannot be applied to faith? Just because I indicate that science does not have all the answers doesn't mean I do not respect the process. Individuals apply faith to how they live, they observe the impact that it has in their lives, they continue down a path, that continues to reinforce what they believe or feel. I know it might seem a stretch, but to assume that the only ones that evaluate their surroundings, the impacts of psuedo experiments and the like are scientists is also wrong. So, thanks for your post. I do follow research and I find it interesting. In many ways what I see reinforces what I know, just as what you see reinforces what you believe as well.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  10. Duktig1

    I have a BA in psychology, an MBA, and am finishing my Ph.D. in psychology. I am also religious. In my studies, I have not been convinced that Science has all the answers, because scientific "truths" keep changing with each new discovery. I certainly have an open mind to things that come up, but I hold off judgment until the whole story has been written. I think the reason people abandon religion is because it is easy to do; no demands, no requirements, no obligations except for those that you invent yourself; it fits our make yourself happy culture that is evolving. So, just as Maher says Religion is an opinion, so is anti-religion.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • non-sequitor

      Science doesn't claim to have all of the answers, but it does seem to be the best way to go about gathering, examining, categorizing, peer reviewing, and testing data. If you aware of a better way, please let us know. If FAITH were a pathway to truth, would we use FAITH instead of the scientific method? And wouldn't that pretty much END the debate? You are on very weak philosophical grounds here, Mr. PhD candidate.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Noxx

      10 years ago tell someone you're an atheist think about how much flak you would take. Then say it's easier to jump ship than to just say it and not be it. The fact that more and more people are saying it is merely it becoming more and more acceptable to not be it. It really just comes down to social acceptance. The vast majority of "Christians" I knew while I was and attended church were NOT Christians by practice. They only went because they had to, it was a group of friends (not fellow Christians), and/or to meet girls. Some people saying, not even knowing they are *not* practicing it and are truly NOT Christians. If this jumping ship continues, don't be surprised to see less of it among "respected" figures in the media and politics as it no longer has any benefit to their career.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Nat King

      Science is empirical and based on reality–our understanding of which is in flux and adaptive. This is not a weakness but the true strength of the scientific method. The evidence (for what exactly?) will never all "be in" as you suggest (at least not within our lifetimes) but our ability to inquire and be unyielding in our passion for chasing the unknown are the best motivators that we have for creating progress.

      Religions, however, are dogmatic, out-dated, frequently regressive, oppressive, and untrue. If you really have the credentials you claim to have I only hope you leave this sort of soft-minded thinking out of your research.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • SkepticalOne

      So, you prefer religious "truths" because they are unchanging no matter how much evidence mounts against them?

      February 29, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Creag

      I have a masters in Biology but that means little to this discussion. No one has ever said that science has all the answers. But science is the best way we are able to understand the world around us. There has been no better method of attaining knowledge as science. I don't know exactly what scientific "truths" (I have never heard any scientist use the word truths) you say keep changing, but science is always supported by evidence. If you have new evidence that shows that something you thought originally was incorrect then of course you would adjust to this new evidence. This should not be seen as a weakness of science but as a strength. I don't think people are leaving religion because its "easy" people just no longer see the value in it. I personally left after I realized I had no reason to believe any of it besides being raised as a christian. I think the more we teach our children to think critically the more and more of them will leave religion behind.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  11. smartaz

    Its because the most publicized "Christian leaders" tend to make complete JAs out of themselves. You have the Westboro JAs, Pat Robertson, and Harold Camping becoming your poster children for Christians over the last decade. You have many, many more TV Christians just robbing ignorant people. The good Christians get overshadowed and embarrassed by these people. 20 years ago I could name you some good publicized Christian leaders. I'm not sure I could name any today.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  12. Joseph

    Excellent article, thanks for your thoughtful comments....

    February 29, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  13. Isitbetter

    If people are getting a challenging education in college, they should be thoughtfully questioning what they learned as children. From my perspective, the intricacies of nature that I studied in college pointed directly to the work of a master creator. Whether art, literature, or science, I was struck that every little person I studied is trying to understand and recreate their little piece of what God has laid out for them to appreciate. With maturity comes a realization of limitation and with humility comes an understanding that many people are greater and more worthy, and God is far more intelligent and powerful than the little people he lets roam the earth. Religion does not corrupt a person. Whether one professes faith or not, all people are born vulnerable and temporary. Every person makes mistakes and every person has imperfect judgment and can make bad decisions. People are limited, some much more so than others, but all much more so than God. Religion gives us a hope and a pathway to strive beyond the imperfection of this world to a place closer to Him, which is Love, and in true love we find the closest form of perfection available on earth. This is a journey that is available to everyone and is a personal one not relying on anyone else but a direct relationship with the Amazing Creator we call God. If the imperfect and hypocritical lead you to Him, which we all are is some way, then God is still using us for His Good, thankfully. The best things in life truly are free – love, beauty, truth, hope, happiness, but we all need to work to care for the friends and the little piece of earth God has provided for us. Alll the while, even when focused on taking care of our friends, family, and things, we are still vulnerable to the imperfections that make us human and ungodly – greed, jealousy, hate, fear, selfishness, selfcenteredness. Again religion gives a hope and a pathway to live in a right way. All will fall short, we a born limited and imperfect, and for those who are famous their fall will be very public. Stupidity is pervasive in people, as is intelligence, choosing good choosing bad are pervasive as well, and this duality exists in each person and on a global scale. All the above being said, for me I have found looking to any person, I do not find God, I find imperfection, frailty, temporality, but looking to the underpinnings of our world – atoms, molecules, DNA, gravity and entropy, birth, reproduction, death, ecosystems and evolution, societies and cultural variety, the earth's rotation and revolution, an ever expanding universe – I find something much more expansive, perfect, and permanent and am awed by the work of God.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Common Sense

      Do you really expect anyone to read a 20 line run-on paragraph? Get a life and stop with the cut and paste garbage. If you want to state a point make it simple.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Danman

      I didn't think a world view was a "comment" awh well....

      February 29, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Chip

      I'm sorry I wasn't listening. What did you say?

      February 29, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • DC from NJ

      I respectfully disagree with your statement that "From my perspective, the intricacies of nature that I studied in college pointed directly to the work of a master creator". As a person holding a Ph.D. degree in science, I can tell you that there is actually no scientific evidence for a "creator" and, in fact, all of the available evidence points in the opposite direction. In "confirmation" classes in middle school, I was repeatedly told that I should take it on "faith" that a god created the universe, but no one could tell me who, then, created that god. However, I do believe in the Golden Rule and that the world would be a much better place if we concentrated on making this life better for ourselves and our fellow man. In my opinion, it serves no purpose to "worship" a hypothetical god and to make decisions based on how we may be rewarded (or punished) in the "afterlife".

      February 29, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Noxx


      February 29, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  14. FadeToOne

    Blame common sense.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Common Sense

      I didn't do it! I have witnesses and if necessary I can hire more...

      February 29, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  15. atksys

    Orgainzied Religion is a BUSINESS...that is all it is...A TAX FREE BUSINESS currently losing a lot of its CUSTOMERS...and therefore sweating a little.
    In my opinion, God is not housed in a monolithic building built by a business, God is more likely to be found in a redwood forest or an open field...basking in the beuaty of it all...not handing out at the coffe bar in the back of some "franchised" Church Building. Sit down with 2 or 3 other believers under the stars in a meadow and just talk and find glory in what the Earth has to offer...it is then that a presence seems to truly be felt...NOT when someone yells "bingo" in the seminary hall.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  16. A guy with his opinion

    It seems to me that the one thing you hope that the youth get out of college is critical thinking. This skill will lead many to leave the faith they were brought up in. It also gives them the skills necessary to choose another faith, or not...

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

      Sounds like religious freedom eh?
      Freedom to choose.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  17. Paul

    I became an atheist during college simply because once I stopped being brainwashed on a weekly basis, I realized my old beliefs were just silly. Simply as that.

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

      Right there with you, Paul, except I'm 45 and just reached that point in the past 1-2 years. After 30-some years as a Christian, it's like a light bulb went on and I realized how much we indoctrinate ourselves, how much the church (any church) exists mainly to perpetuate itself, and how our brains are apparently just petrified to admit that maybe we've gotten it wrong all these years. This feeling of embracing reality is not necessarily "happy," but it is quite liberating.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Chip

      It doesn't matter when you become an atheist, as long as you become one.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • SkepticalOne


      February 29, 2012 at 10:24 am |

    I completely agree – it's the what these so called Religions are spouting. I had the youth pastor at my church tell me my husband was going to hell because he was Jewish. I haven't been back to church since. It's a shame that radical ideas about pushing the church's ideologies in such a radical way are completely alienating people. My faith is now within my self and until the sky opens up and God shows me the way to a non-judgmental place of worship – I'm hanging out elsewhere. I might even become a DEMOCRAT.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Lutheran Pastor

      Did your youth pastor say something like this..."I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). These are the very Words of the Son of God. Or did he perhaps tell you..."Salvation is found in no one else (Jesus)for there is no other name under heaven given to me by which we must be saved? (Acts 4:12). I can give you many more. Jesus died in order to save all including you and your husband, but all aren't saved and will be condemned to hell if they don't believe in Jesus as there savior. (Read John 3:16-17) If your husband is a true faithful Jewish person then he doesn't belive in Christ. You say you are/were are Christian. Why don't you believe what Jesus, true God, taught?

      February 29, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • SkepticalOne

      Looks like Lutheran Pastor just made your point.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Lutheran Pastor

      One more thing about waiting for your sign from God before you believe. "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah...and now one greater than Jonah is here." Matthew 12:39, 41 (That 'greater one' is Jesus, who just like Jonah after 3 days came out from the abyss, which is hell, and preached repentance.) Here's your sign....will you repent and believe?

      February 29, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  19. Tim

    I am been to many churches, and non are as the article discribes. The pastors I have heard all keep to the Bible and away from politics. I guess I just have a good choice in churches, any way I am also a College student studying bio-chemistry, and I still have my faith

    February 29, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Danman

      Maybe you should study English.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  20. WillM

    Church is for worship, not a place to camp out or huddle up. All people are hypocrits at some point. Why does the hypocrisy of the people in church equal a total disbelief in God or Jesus? If your faith is YOUR faith, then the hypocrisy of individuals or even organizations shouldn't shake that faith. Because then you didn't have a faith to begin with. My faith is based solely on the life of Jesus Christ. If you follow people, churches or any organization, you will get lost, then you are just a follower of other hypocrits. Jesus was the only perfect example and is why He became human, to lead us to the TRUTH, not to a religion or another person. He wanted us to follow Him, not anyone else. It is about Him, not any religious leaders.Trust and Love Jesus and He will direct your path!

    February 29, 2012 at 9:41 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.