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. Anon

    I have "faith and hope" that this continues. Christianity and the other religions are a complete farce. Always been and always will be.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  2. Anon

    How come you when apply logic to the bible, everything becomes one gigantic fairy tale joke?
    Apparently thinking logically is some kind of deadly sin.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • reason

      Knowledge and reason are the enemies of religion.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      The Bible does defy logic and reason of the natural man. The Bible is the written word of God. God is a spirit. The Bible has to be read and studied, spiritually, to understand.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • reason

      The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

      Rationally speaking, if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

      March 2, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      God is The Righteous Judge. I believe eternal suffering is the place reserved for those who willfully and purposefully reject Him. Furthermore, someone who never heard of God would be no different than an innocent child in the eyes of God, in my humble opinion.

      Rationally speaking, there is a just God and an afterlife, you will be judged on whether you accept him or not. Rejecting spiritual reason and deluding yourself in blind disbelief does not help your case.

      I can’t prove my faith to you unless you would be willing to accept my testimony and the testimonies of millions of others. The same goes for the existence of God.

      I do believe if people seek God using his instructions then they will be successful. If you search for God using human reasoning it is like someone doing a scientific experiment without following any guidelines or rules. It won’t work.

      I agree with you that there are multiply beliefs in the world. I would encourage folks to seek the only God through his son Jesus Christ. Seek and you will find.

      March 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Jesus

      “ Furthermore, someone who never heard of God would be no different than an innocent child in the eyes of God, in my humble opinion. “

      So the phrase your god is a living god is untrue since it should be able to reveal itself to someone without them having to hear it from another person…Oh that’s right it’s a man made concept and your god really doesn’t exist.
      “ Rejecting spiritual reason and deluding yourself in blind disbelief does not help your case.”

      Dude most atheist posting here are former Christians.

      “I do believe if people seek God using his instructions then they will be successful.”

      The more you actually do research and see the contradictions the more you know it’s all made up by men because there is no god.

      “I agree with you that there are multiply beliefs in the world. I would encourage folks to seek the only God through his son Jesus Christ. Seek and you will find.”


      March 2, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      God is living and does reveal himself to humans, myself included. I have read the post from some former Christians. Their experience was explained in the parable of the sower. The Bible does defy logic and reason of the natural man. The Bible is the written word of God. God is a spirit. The Bible has to be read and studied, spiritually, to understand.

      March 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • reason

      Robert, billions of good people know of Christianity and willfully, purposefully reject it because they were born in another part of world where the one true religion is different. Your god is an evil deity if it would send them to hell.

      Your testimony is countered by billions of people who contradict it and claim they know the true religion, that you are rejecting truth and that you are going to hell.

      No just god would create human beings capable of reason then punish them for eternity for being rational.

      March 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Jesus

      "The Bible has to be read and studied, spiritually, to understand."

      The god in your bible is an evil god, not a loving one but you are too brainwashed by your cult to realize it. Here's a hint why did your god create a hell to punish those that don't love it. If your god is so powerful why does it allow the devil to continue to live. DUH – your god is a tyrant and a control freak. LOL!

      March 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      I believe that Jesus is the only way and honestly that is all I know. I believe God is merciful and knows the hearts of men. What happens to folks who may have heard of Christianity but it is not accepted where they live? Good question, I honestly don’t know. I would hope he would be merciful with them.

      Through the use of spiritual reasoning, those who seek the truth will find it.

      March 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Anon

      Hey Robert, it's time to take your happy pills.

      March 2, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  3. Alex Wright

    Check out Blue Like Jazz: The Movie - I believe that it is applicable to this conversation. It's based on the NY Times bestseller Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.
    a href="http://youtu.be/GOglQgyxYkI" target="_blank">http://youtu.be/GOglQgyxYkI

    March 2, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  4. Jesus Loves You

    The problem here is knowledge and critical thinking. They have no place in a college education.

    College students need to learn to make decisions based on emotion and superstition. A recent Pew Research study found the more people know about religion the less likely they are to believe. We need to stop educating them on world religions, that is how they are figuring out all religion around the world is the same stone age BS just swapping names, terminology, and locations. The sciences are not helping one bit either.

    The focus of education needs to be indoctrination, not the pursuit of truth and understanding.

    March 2, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  5. Ashley Morris

    In 2009, I graduated with a BA in Religion. The four years it took to get that degree were some of the most challenging years of my life. I constantly questioned my personal beliefs regarding faith and Christianity that I established years before entering college. I spent my childhood and high school years being extremely involved in the Methodist Church that my family attended, and my faith was firmly grounded in Christianity. However, my family has always stressed how important it is to treat every person with love and respect, including those with different or no religious beliefs. I feel so lucky to have grown up in that environment!

    It disappoints me that the true messages of love and peace that Jesus taught are often lost under the unethical rantings of some of the most vocal Christians (Westboro Baptist Church, anyone?) who preach messages of hate and judgment. Is it any wonder that people tend to shy away from Christianity? Charles Veenstra and Daryl Vander Kooi established Christian ethical standards that should be upheld when communicating with other people. According to them, “humans deserve full respect as reflections of God’s image. We should communicate with others in the same loving and respectful spirit we worship God.” (Johannesen, et al., 2008). They also stress the importance of being transparent and honest when communicating.

    Maybe if more Christian leaders employed these standards, people would be more receptive to the religion.

    Thank you so much for your post!

    Ashley Morris
    Graduate Student | Drury University
    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2009). Ethics in human communication. (6th ed.). Waveland Pr Inc.

    March 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  6. equitablepolitics

    Reblogged this on equitablepolitics and commented:

    March 1, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  7. Cameron

    I applaude the young people leaving Christianity. I hope they are making their decisions in least in part to reject supernaturalism, mythology, and the tribalism of religious doctrine for a reason based, rational approach to life in the 21st century.

    March 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Dean

      i believed exactly as you until I listened to astrophysicist Hugh Ross and began examining his arguments. Reasons.ORG. Check it out.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  8. ThermalJockey

    I'm not religious. This post stated some of the reasons why I started questioning my faith 45 years ago. Yes, the same reasons were there then. Not as obvious, sure, but there. I guarantee that this article gives a good account of one reason people leave the church. Is it the main one? I have no idea. But it certainly is a big one.

    It's hard to listen to people who are clearly moraly and ethically challenged tell you what you are doing wrong with your life. It certainly doesn't make you want to stay in or join their church.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Dean

      Very true. Don't let men chase you from God. So many people turn from the truth because people suck. Check out Reasons.org.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  9. a60639

    You know, the time they graduate from elementary school, 76% of children have lost their faith in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. Think about THAT before you sign em up for kindergarten.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • AlyCat

      That makes no sense,.. it is illegal to not put your children in school... no one HAS to go to church

      March 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  10. a60639

    If I had to choose between my education and my faith, education would win every time.
    Oh wait, it did. What's the problem again? I think it's pretty predictable that there would be a negative correlation between education and free thought and belief in fairy tales.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Dean

      Exactly. Nothing wrong with free though. God wants you to think for yourself and he wants you to test him. Take a look at Reasons.ORG

      March 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  11. ravingsofanimperfectman

    Reblogged this on ravings of an imperfect man.

    March 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  12. Fabio ( from Brazil )

    Nowadays, we`re living difficult times concerning political interests and Christ`s interests.
    People don`t understand that what really matters is to follow Christ, don`t mind what happens.
    For a christian it doesn`t matter the laws about gays and contraception...he/she will still defends the teachings of Christ about these subjects. For a true christian, it doesn`t matter if liberal professors on colleges are teaching things different from the teaching of Christ. He/she will always defend Christ. And what is the best way to know what Christ wants for us? Reading the Bible and accepting the teachings of the Catholic Church. If we put ourselves against the imoral and relative teachings of the today`s world we`re already making our part. Don`t forget that the Soviet Union has failed trying to put it`s comunists ideas in the world through the war and violence. Now, the comunists are trying to " teaching us" how to deal with the differences and to "accept" every imoral thing in this world, beginning to change our culture FROM INSIDE. And I`m talking about religion too! Be carefull guys, here in Brazil the situation is becoming worse and worse (SORRY FOR THE ENGLISH)

    March 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  13. Morgan

    I want to say right now that I don't think all Christians or all churches fall under this observation I'm making, but there is a lot of it.

    I don't think it's just 'politics' that are driving kids away. Kids today are growing up in a global community where they are exposed on a daily basis to different cultures and views that weren't there even 20 years ago. We are enforcing free-thinking, open-mindedness, and acceptance of all in our schools. And when kids begin to feel that maybe they don't fit in with Christianity, or don't agree with its values for whatever reason, they have the ability to say "you know what, I don't have to be Christian. Lots of people aren't. It's okay to believe what I want to believe."

    And yes, it's more likely to happen when they go to college because for most of them it's the first time they are away from their families and home communities, and are therefore, in a sense, 'free' to experiment with other ways of life. There's nothing wrong with it. Some choose to leave Christianity, and some grow stronger in it. In the end, does it really matter?

    March 1, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  14. Michael Sawyer


    March 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • James Y

      It's a good article with fair points. But I don't think these large issues account for why *most* young Christians leave the church. I don't think many young Christians care, and/or are in tune with these issues. I think most young Christians who are currently leaving the church are doing so for a much simpler reason.

      For the last twenty or so years youth groups in churches are social clubs. These young people are entertained not spiritually trained. Sure they are given simple moral lessons and Christian punch lines, but even the important lessons are wrapped in incredibly entertaining packages. And any serious study is demoted to simple tasks: they are encouraged to memorize a passage, but not made to read the Bible. Which means two things when they grow to old for youth group: (1) most adult churches are too boring to meet their expectations, and (2) they never really knew their own faith to begin with.

      This is also why I think the growing churches are the ones most socially designed. Because the new generation of adults have come to associate good church with social church. That's my two cents anyway.

      March 1, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  15. Hayden71

    The sad thing about this article and what it is addressing, is that there are far too many false conversions. Too many people in the U.S. "profess" but fail to "possess" Jesus Christ. If a person is truly saved he/ she may be stumbled or shaken by the attacks of the devil but they will never ultimately forsake Christ.

    The biggest evidence of a false conversion is when a person makes a flippant profession that they're saved, then when pressured, they completely abandon it and become antagonistic toward Christ and his people.

    Read Matthew chapter 13 and it'll become crystal clear that what I'm saying is biblical and true. Too much of Christian profession in the U.S. is counterfeit Christianity.

    I can sit in a garage and say I'm a mechanic all I want and yet be a fraud, just the same way that sitting in a church does not mean that someone is necessarily a Christian. Jesus said, "Ye shall know a tree by it's fruit".

    March 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Hayden71

      ...and by the way, colleges have become largely overrun by atheistic and immoral professors who seem to have an agenda against anything or anyone associated with God and Christ.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Fuddly

      No true Scotsman.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  16. ex-christian

    is it possible that a kid out there becomes an ex-christian because he finds it difficult to believe in the stories of the bible? too many people take the bible literally. because if one thing in the bible is a metaphor, then what is stopping the entire bible from being a metaphor? any healthy mind will question whether a man could cure a single person at a time and cause small miracles in a single place, but not in two places at once. can a man really turn water into wine without any tricks? a normal person who is not deluded will doubt it. no, it's not satan trying to test your faith. really, it's OK to wonder why a man who came back from the dead (after brutal violence was inflicted on him) would come back fully healed EXCEPT for the wounds in his hands, so that he'd have proof it was really him. it's as if your brother came back from the dead and you didn't recognize him until you saw a hole in his hand. as if only your brother had the means to put a hole in his hand.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Hayden71

      There is no such thing as becoming an ex-christian. If anyone claims this then it was proof that they were never one to begin with.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Marbe

      Either you believe or you don't. You would probably find it hard to believe that after some friends prayed for my seriously swollen sprained ankle, within 1/2 hour, the swelling was gone and the ankle completely healed. I was able to watch the ankle's swelling just vanish like a balloon with a small hole in it. This is not the only miracle that has happened in my life.

      Have you ever read the story of George Muller, who became a Christian in his late teens/early 20s? He started out like all the other pastors in England, charging pew rent so that the wealthy got to sit in the best seats in his church. One day at church, he was convicted about this and decided to do away with this practice, even going so far as to let his people know that he would no longer ask them for any money at all. If what God said in the Bible was true, then why couldn't he trust Him to provide for all his needs? He lived another 60+ years without asking another human for a dime. In those years, he built an orphanage that cared for over 10,000 orphans. One day, he sat at an empty breakfast table and thanked the Lord for what He would provide for breakfast. Within a minute, a knock at the door announced the arrival of a local baker, who was awakened at 2:00 a.m. with the impression that he MUST make bread for the orphans. A couple minutes later, the milkman arrived. "My cart broke down just outside, and all the milk will spoil before the cart can be repaired. Could you use some milk today?"

      Many people would say these things are just coincidence, but it's interesting that every time there was a specific need, that need was answered when asked for in earnest prayer. You may even want to grab of copy of George's biography. It's a very amazing read!

      March 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  17. dinak

    Christians tend to vote republican because democrats promote laziness and assigning school and job openings based on appearance – both are unethical. Liberals embrace unethical practices and promote them. That is the difference.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • christian

      unfortunately, christ's principles cannot influence our way of thinking about policy. for example, we would never sit back and allow ourselves to be attacked, then turn the other cheek. christianity has no place in our laws.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • todd in DC

      Unethical practices like, women have the right to have a job, children have the right not to be bought and sold?

      Seriously dude, did you ever actually read that bible thingy, or do you just listen to Rush Limbaugh a lot?

      March 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Hayden71

      Hey Christian....I'll take it one step further. Politics have NO place in the Christian's life. In a democracy the masses rule and if you want to last as a politician you will have to compromise your moral position and do what goes against the teachings of Christ.

      Many Christians who get involved in politics do it with the right intentions but end up either voted out, or compromising their Christianity.

      Christians need to take the focus away from politics and try to reach as many people as possible with the message of the gospel.

      This world is is like a ship going down. If a ship is sinking, do you try to patch up the holes or do you try to save as many people as you possibly can. The answer is obvious.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • MEK

      I am a Christian and a Republican. I vote the way I do with good conscience for one simple reason. I believe the best thing a society can do for its people is to help them, encourage them, and give them incentives to become self sufficient. One of the primary teachings is "Give a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach him to fish he'll eat for a lifetime." We are creating a society today that isn't interested in learning how to fish, because it is to easy to have fish delivered on a plate at the cost of others. The idea of loving everyone is spot on. Caring for others is spot on. Following the life of Christ is spot on. To demonize a political party because it is expecting everyone who can "pick up your tent and follow me" is wrong. We ALL should be helping our fellow man stand on their own to feet and feel the love, joy and satisfaction of having self esteem and accomplishing something. Have you ever thought why the US has accomplished so much in JUST 250 years? It is because we followed the teachings of the Jewish and Christian faiths. We made sure we taught people how to fish. Today, we have more people who just want to eat, and not wanting to fish. Young people are leaving the church because it isn't "fun" to live a life of Christ. There is discipline and responsibility that comes with it- and tough choices. Politically, that's also being a Republican.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Rachael

      MEK – You took the words right out of my mouth.

      March 2, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  18. Lisa Johnson

    Any faith that does not allow for intellectual growth will lose believers. Fatih Development, like Moral and Cognitive development changes through the life stages. Rigid belief systems that do not allow for questioning a redefining will fail to serve the needs of it's believers.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Hayden71

      Lisa...there is no such thing as "losing believers" then those people becoming an ex-christian. If anyone claims this then it was proof that they were never one to begin with. Read Matthew chapter 13

      March 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  19. Art

    In college I learned to think for myself. I spent several years of intense struggle, learning New Testament Greek, taking courses in higher Biblical criticism, investigating other faiths and basically seeking to disprove the whole enterprise as nothing but a charade.

    So when I chose to come "back" to Christianity, my faith was much more conscious, developed and stronger as I had learned to strip away those elements of faith that don't matter – generally the minutiae of doctrine – from the things that matter – the paradox that by being a true servant, i.e learning to love, I share in ruling in the kingdom that is not of this world.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  20. mike

    religions, All religions are like the ligth of a candle, it needs total darkness so it can shine.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:13 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.