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. TINY Tim

    Truth is, we don't need anymore Christians...but we sure could use a lot more Tony King's.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  2. Nii Croffie

    @Jackdaw I hope u do keep reading the Bible. You can click on my name and I will send you more theology texts via e-mail. Check out MERE CHRISTIANITY and THINK AND GROW RICH TOO.
    @jiim-The Bible even if it were a book of fables inspires me 2 lead a rational, happy n healthy lifestyle. Why change?

    February 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Why change? I just think that it's good and reasonable to care about why you believe what you believe. I dont think that it is a healthy world view to believe things for which there is no evidence. You can believe what you want, it is when these political religious nuts get into office and attempt to circ.umvent the consti.tution where I draw the line.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Think and Grow Rich Too????? Are you pandering to me as one of those evangelical mega-money-churches? Abominating the positive message into some perverse prattle about how Jesus can be the path to your financial gain? You are corrupting the good message for your own capitalistic carpet-bagging goals. You should be ashamed of yourself and I am quite turned off already. Christians like you make me puke. Clicking on your blue name will be the last thing I do.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • catholic engineer

      Nii, Mere Christianity was a very pivotal book for me. And speaking of C.S. Lewis, he had a genious understanding of the power of allegory. I have often thought that if we insist on the literal interpretation of Genesis, it loses much of it's power. As allegory, it has many layers of meaning. Consider Woman. As we know, women are very relationship oriented. Their relationships to friends, parents, children, husbands, etc. are extremely important. How appropriate for a being that is created from the rib of another person instead of the earth's dust. It seems atheists (and many believers) miss the deeper meanings of scripture when they focus on literal interpretation. Atheists discard the Bible as "only" myth, when myth was the earliest form of science, humanity's attempt to explain himself.

      (Oops. Got carried away)

      February 29, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  4. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    "Christianity in America is in danger"....REALLY??? I hope the writer of this article doesn't call himself a Christian. Jesus Christ said "the gates of hades will not prevail against the Church". What kind of "christianity" are you referring to? If you mean the prosperity "gospel" or the "feel good" gospel, where God will bless you no matter what and God is all about you, if you are referring to this "gospel" which is humanism in disguise then YES it is in danger in America. But the Church of Jesus Christ (and no I don't mean latter day saints); the Church against whom the gates of hades will not prevail will NEVER be in danger anywhere in the world! This Church is what represents Christianity and this Church will forever be faithful to God and God will forever be faithful to His Church. If you to know a little more about Christianity, please STOP listening to Joel Osten. Go read the Bible, read the book of Acts! Also, go listen to Christian forefathers as Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edward, George Whitefield....and you can also listen some present day preachers like Paul Washer, John MacArthur, John Piper, Voodie Baucham...etc...

    February 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • The Call of Reality

      I wonder how many followers of dead religions felt this way? Surely there was some guy in Norway a few hundred years ago saying, "People are going to be worshipping Odin FOREVER!" To quote Thomas Jefferson: "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors."

      February 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  5. Primewonk

    Olde English D wrote, " God doesn't change –"

    So when god commands that you go and kill gay folks, that hasn't changed?

    Or when god commands that young unengaged girls who are ra.ped must marry their attacker, that's still in play?

    February 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Apparently. I'll be stoned for eating bacon on Friday.......

      February 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @Jack draw – dude, I have got to get your bacon recipe if it gets you stoned!

      February 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  6. Nii Croffie

    I am a spiritual christian n as such there is nothing that will make me lose my faith. However there r reasons people give 4 leaving n they r valid in their eyes. The Church must go back 2 its doctrine of love n live it out 4 unbelievers so that even if they don't convert they will have an example.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      I have met a lot of christians and read a lot of theological works, bible included. I have seen little in the way of "example" to live by.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • jimtanker

      There is NOTHING that would make you loose your faith? IF it were somehow proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that your entire religion is false you would still believe in it?


      February 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  7. LouSan

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Mahatma Gandhi

    February 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  8. The Jackdaw

    People who can think for themselves usually go to college. Thinking for yourself also tends to lead you to the natural conclusion that there is no “god”. Not being able to think for yourself leads you to a job pumping gas, a belief in “god” and to believe in things like the first column on the flow chart at the following link:


    February 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  9. TheWiz71

    Posted a comment which didn't make it through – simply thanking the author for his comments. Many of those in authority in the Christian faith which I hold dear have much to answer for.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

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      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!

      February 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  10. Craig

    The rap... Oooooh! You mean that thing that was supposed to happen twice and never did? THAT rapture? Yeah, here's the thing... I stopped talking to invisible people a long time ago.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Twice? According to the bible it was supposed to happen 2000 years ago. It has been predicted at least 20 times in the US alone.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      jiim at it agaaain! Keep on spinning but it is ur version of atheism that makes me feel safe among the worst Christians. Heck even Mormons.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  11. David

    Amen, Tim King, Amen – I no longer attend church not because of college, but because of the rampant, and too often reinforced, hypocrisy in organized religion. The Church is in trouble and it's because it is sick from the inside. Get their house in order first.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Matthew

      The church has always been sick from the inside; it is full of people. And yet that is the body Christ calls us to belong to. The church is full of hypocrisy and will always be. But the point is not to put our faith in people, but in Jesus.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • The Beagle

      @Matthew – The problem is that the Bible teaches that Christians WILL live differently. (See the first half of Romans 9, for example.) When that does not happen, it seems to some of us that Christianity is medicine that does not work.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  12. Leanna Ellis

    It seems to me that you are doing the same thing that you are accusing the church and religious leaders of doing–blaming others. Churches are made up of people and people make mistakes and sin. Unfortunately, I'm afraid your image of Jesus is politically skewed. Reread the New Testament. Yes, Jesus loved. But he also drew a hard line. Folks wanted to kill him. He wasn't afraid to call things a sin. Political correctness has kept Christians from calling a sin a sin. As much as you want to blame Republicans for using religion, the Democrats do the same thing.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Grace Russell

      Oh, for God's sake–literally!! Stop trying to wiggle out of this. You KNOW that Tim King speaks the truth here, yet you can't bear to face it. Unlike Republicans, Democrats have NOT been using religion to advance themselves politically, at least not to the level the GOP has done that. But if I'm wrong about that, I challenge you to present some examples of ways that Democrats have used religion to advance themselves politically. I don't think you can do it.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • sam stone

      Perhaps it is not "political correctness". Perhaps it is just that people do not feel the same about what is "sinful" in 2012 than they did 20 centuries earlier

      February 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  13. Cave Johnson

    i think you had a lot of good points in there. For me leaving Christianity was about what Santorum was saying. When he says, "Higher education leads to atheism," I heard, "Stay faithful but stupid." I had to weigh what was more important to me, the ability to learn all I could, or my faith. Learning, obviously, won out. I left because Santorum made being religious comparable to being ignorant in what he said. Nobody wants to be ignorant.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      And he demonstrates complete ignorance of classical Christianity – which upholds the exercise of the God-given gift of human reason as a virtue. I believe that Jesus died to take away my sins, not my mind.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  14. jknbt

    they will all be back in church in droves the Sunday after the Rapture. Are you ready for the Rapture?

    February 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      What "Rapture"? It is a heretical notion without Scriptural or theological background, the idea of which only appeared in the United States about 150 years ago.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Oh, I have never thought of it that way. Your circular argument has convinced me to believe in your invisible daddy figure!

      February 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      The word “Rapture” may be everything you say. However, here are some scripture references for the concept. For example, Matthew 24 “ …38For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,
      39And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
      40Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
      41Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
      42Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come…”
      Also, 1 Thessalonians 4 “….16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
      17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord….”

      February 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  15. steve wishnevsky

    Or as the hippies used to say "May the Sweet Baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind."

    February 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      They also said: "Lets be drug using bumbs and convince ourselves that we are changing the world maaaaan."

      February 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Sucka Punch

      That would be " BUMS"

      February 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Drugs ruin your ability to spell.....I was just trying to be accurate

      February 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  16. eillem123

    I blame the media and the public schools and ultimately the government for the fall of Christianity. When I went to school, prayer was commonplace everywhere, including the schools. Christmas was Christmas and nobody had a problem with that. Jews and other faiths did their own thing and I do not remember ever thinking badly of them. In fact, my grandmother always said, "as long as they do good and love God, I've got no problem with anyone". As far as islam goes, I associated it with Alladin's lamp and flying carpets. Of course, now that I have read parts of the koran, and seen and heard what islam is about, I believe it is just a brutal cult that needs to be eradicated.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Army MP

      Your comment is a perfect example of what the article is trying to say. Jesus teaches one thing and you say eradicate the non believers. Keep in mind the Old Testament has some very brutal stories in it too.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      ...And I was kinda, but not entirely with you for most of your post. And then you lost all credibility with that last sentence. Sorry, but as soon as it becomes safe to "eradicate" any religion, all others stand at risk of being "fair game". You are obviously completely ignorant of classical Islamic culture – the same culture that preserved the works of Aristotle after the collapse of Rome, from whom the European Christians got the idea of the university as we know it, and the same culture that for many centuries was much more scientifically advanced than Christian culture – but then, the Islamic fundamentalists are ignorant of that history as well.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • ARealAmerican

      You should be ashamed of yourself, you are a perfect example of what is wrong with our country. I am embarrassed that you share my faith, grow up and learn some tolerance.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  17. Nii Croffie

    Romans were pagans not atheists. I wonder why Christianity was so offensive to them. Atheists believe they are winning a religious war where theirs will come out on top. Unfortunately most have not researched their faith well enough. I don't know how logic and the Scientific Method promote atheism.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Primewonk

      The Romans, as the captured new territory and new people would add those people's gods to their pantheon of gods. It's one of the main reasons new people were easily assimilated. After "converting" to christianity and outlawing all their other gods, the Romans had a lot more trouble with assimilating newly conquered people. It's one of the reasons the Roman Empire collapsed.

      Atheists are not fighting a religious war. We simply want you theists to start obeying the Consti-tution.

      Finally atheism is NOT a religion. Otherwise, not collecting stamps is a hobby, and bald is a hair color.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  18. Reality

    From the college ranks, a prayer:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

    February 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  19. gail

    unfortunately people today want to do whatever – nothing is wrong – do your thing. There are certain truths that cannot be denied. Take a good look at the Romas empire and see what lack of morals and do your thing did to that great empire. I am so tired of people putting down those of us who do believe in a supreme being and fundamental truths of right and wrong.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Grace Russell

      I have an idea: You leave US alone, and we'll leave YOU alone. Problem is, people like you don't know HOW to leave nonbelievers alone. You think it is your God-given duty to evangelize us into a coma so that we'll just accept everything we're told like you have. Go away. Go far, far away.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      I would like to point out that Rome only fell apart AFTER Constantine converted. Perhaps Jupiter was a jealous god as well.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  20. Realist

    "It appears to me that direct arguments against christianity and theism produce hardly any affect on the public, and that freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which comes from the advance of science"
    This is a quote from Charles Darwin. In college we learn Scientific Method and the Rules of Logic. If a theory is proved wrong then it is dismissed. It is wrong Not a Miracle.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      I learnt that in Junior High and it didn't make me an atheist. Only enabled me to follow Theology and Science texts better. Are u sure u actually read the Theology of Christianity or u just rejected Sunday morning sermons?

      February 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      Unfortunately, Darwin forgot that the field of genetics, which is a cornerstone of the evolutionary process as we have come to understand it, was pioneered by a Roman Catholic priest. There is nothing inherently contradictory between religious faith and rational scientific inquiry – they have two different purposes and ends. It is not the purpose of most world religions (particularly not the 3 Abrahamic faiths) to explain the natural causes and mechanical workings of the universe. Even a great many early Christian writers recognized this to be the case – most noticeably Origen of Alexandria, who actively derided the very idea of an historical Garden of Eden. It is the purpose of most faiths, however, to explain the meaning, purpose, and destiny of human life. It is the purpose of science to explain the hows and whys of the origins and mechanics and natural processes of the universe. It cannot begin to address metaphysical questions or concerns, any more than faith can explain how the universe came into being.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Christians are also not doing much to promote their own beliefs in the media. If a minister is asked for a political comment he can respond with a no. We can preach love rather than cook up New World Order conspiracies. If we r told something is wrong we must look in2 it n change. Love is de answer.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
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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.