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. Nii Croffie

    The brain of a human has the functions of intellect, intuition and instinct. Psychaitry has proven that intuition is superior to intellect. It is therefore outdated to suppose that a religion based on intellect like atheism is best. Atheists who take the EQ test will mostly fail.

    March 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Spiritual xtians who take obeying the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself as the greatest virtue are not afraid of losing their faith.Dogma n ritual is unneeded. Pious Xtians with dogma n ritual as well as religious Xtians who r all about ritual r alway @ peril of losing their faith.

      March 4, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  2. Doug Daniels

    If you want to read some ideas about why young people are leaving the church, check out:

    David Kinneman: You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church...and Rethinking Faith
    David Kinneman: unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters
    Dan Merchant: Lord Save Us From Your Followers

    March 4, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  3. A true christian

    Tim King is correct, but then again he is wrong. Young people are leaving the ESTABLISHED CHURCH in droves because they realize what a corrupt organization they are are, They are all branches of the Roman Catholic Church which is more about Religion than relationships, and God wants a relationship not our religion.

    These young people he is talking about are flocking to non denominational churches by the thousands, Passion City Church for example where 45,000 college age students just gathered for a 3 day worship festival in Atlanta.

    The fact is that young people and some who are not so young are leaving the Earthly Organized Religious Organizations and seeking the church of Jesus Christ.

    When "Church" numbers are calculated, non denominational numbers are not included, they are not considered by whoever these mighty men are that consider themselves the "guardians of all things religious" (May God protect us from the "Fat cats" of the Church on Earth).

    The church of Jesus Christ is alive and well and increasing in numbers. It is the Religions of this world that are failing, which is no surprise since Christ said that they would, and not that this was to happen in the last days.

    March 4, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • A true christian

      sorry, should have said "note this was to happen in the last days"!!

      March 4, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'A true Christian' contains a series of Hasty Generalization fallacies and is an instance of Wishful Thinking.


      March 4, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  4. Angie

    Tim King – Rock on and keep speaking out. While you may not have everything 100% correct – the points you are making are valid in every way. What most stood out to me were your statements regarding Christianity in ACTION. Having 15 homeless people to YOUR home for a meal and to spend the night...I applaud you. If we had more action regarding true love and caring and support for our fellow men, and less reactions to verbiage that flys around the airways – the world would be a better place for it. For me, I respect what you have to say – because you are doing more than sitting in a high tower and blogging about your Christianity and views. You are living them.

    March 4, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  5. syzito

    Christ never taught peace and love.He said to accept him as the messiah or burn in hell..........That's peace and love?......What rock have you been hiding under all your life?

    March 4, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • A true christian


      Actually Christ never said we would burn in Hell, that was introduced by the catholic Church to control people. Get yourself a good Interlinear translation bible and read what Christ did say and don't believe what these corrupt Churches tell you! Go to the source, that way you may find the truth.

      The very thought of a fiery Hell was introduced in the middle ages by Dante when he wrote the Inferno at the behest of the Church (Bit like CNN writing on behalf of the Democrats or Fox on behalf of the Republicans) you are far better off going to the original source.

      March 4, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  6. JCizzle

    "young people are leaving the church in droves." Best news I've read all day, and here I thought the news was all doom and gloom.

    March 4, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • A true christian

      Young people are not leaving the Church. They are leaving the building! The Church is made up of people following Christ, The church as generally thought of by the vast majority of people is a building full of self centered people who have no thoughts about the true meaning of Church. it run by a bunch of Overpaid money grabbers who would't be seen dead preaching the word of God outside the confines of their cosy little building.

      March 4, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  7. Jim P>

    "Santorum blames higher education"

    Well, not surprising: Hard to be well educated and still believe in your invisible friend who never seems to be around say when tornadoes are leveling entire towns and who supposedly has a soft spot for the poor but never seems to do anything much for them..

    March 4, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • A true christian

      So Jim P, you can't figure out why it is that we can Ignore god 24 hours a day 7 days a week, never talk to him, carry on in all sorts of disgusting behavior, deny his very existence and then wonder why he isn't here to help when we need him.

      If you abused your earthly father even half as much as we abuse our Heavenly father, would you expect him to be there for you when things got tough?

      You specifically mention Tornadoes, I spent a lot of time doing relief work last year following the Tornadoes that swept through Alabama and Georgia, and the people that got back on their feet the quickest were those of deep faith in Christ and God.

      God never said that he would prevent bad things from happening, he did say however that he would be standing besides us to help us through. Something that he has never disappointed me over.

      March 4, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Comment by 'a true christian' contains a variety of common fallacies, including instances of False Cause fallacies,Hasty Generalizations and Unrepresentative Sample fallacies. A False Analogy and a Complex Question fallacy are also incorporated into the same post.


      March 4, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  8. AGuest9

    Passed a church sign this morning. It read "Keep christ in christian". The minister must have read the Belief Blog once or twice.

    March 3, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  9. paul

    I'am a good person and have Ethics and I don't like Religions telling me I'am not a good person. No such thing as the Devil or God. Religion is a bunch Fables from thousands of years ago, get with it, it's 2012 .

    March 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • A true christian


      If there is no God, Where did you come from? Do you really believe that you evolved from the Neolithic Slime?

      March 4, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  10. paul

    I'am a good person and have Ethics and I don't like Religions telling me I'am not a good person. No such thing as the Devil or God. Religion is a bunch Fables from thousands of years ago, get with it's 2012 .

    March 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  11. theminesweeper

    i couldn't disagree with tim king more. he says that we're looking for an "outside enemy to blame" when we should be looking right at our churches. but as christians, there is an "outside enemy". we call him satan.

    yes, jesus wants us to be tolerant and love everyone, of course. that is something we all struggle with (myself especially), but he never said that we shoudn't fight against the things and ideas that evil (satan) has put forth and/or the things that god has told us are evil.

    this author is very much how i view what i call "new age christians" (has a nice ring to it, i think). it's not an insult. i just believe that they've twisted the bible to conform to their agenda......which in the end is very liberal or at least, more liberal than a christian should be. they're argument is that politics has no place in christianity. unfortunately, it absolutely does. if the government didn't decide on things that AFFECTED christians then yeah, i'd agree with him, i suppose. but the government does decide on things that affect me and every other christian in the country: gay marriage, abortion, personal religious liberties like homeschooling and bible studies which are currently being outlawed or having aspects or portions being outlawed, church liberties as to what they can and cannot say rgarding those issues for fear that they will lose their tax exempt status. there are so many more issue but i know you get the idea.

    do i believe that if those children were raised in strong christian homes they wouldn't be so easily influenced by liberal college professors? yeah, absolutely. but i don't think the hipocracy comes from churches not being liberal (eg "giving" and "accepting") enough because they're supposedly too "republican". i think the hipocracy that children see are their parents going to church every once in awhile or even every week but then never reading or teaching their children god's word/bible, never talking about it once church is over with for the week, and never showing how YES! you CAN be a loving, caring, tolerant, and giving christian and still be VERY conservative.

    i believe that this whole "true christians are liberal because that's what jesus would be" is a lie put forth by people with an evil agenda and can be traced back to satan himself. the socialists/communists/whatever you wanna call them said a long time ago that they best way to change the u.s. was to infiltrate their education systems, their government and wherever else they could infiltrate in order to make a difference slowly by changing things to suit their agenda. i think this is just the same thing.

    if king thought about it, maybe he'd realized you can disagree with someone (gay, straight, muslim, etc) and speak out against the evil or their actions and still love them like jesus loves us. jesus never said we couldn't speak out against anything......just the opposite.

    one last thing, i dont' believe king and everyone else who agree with him is evil..........just deceived.

    March 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • geeky

      So these "new age christians" who have different views from you on social issues are not evil, just deceived. Can you hear how pompous that sounds? This is the hypocrisy that turns people off.

      March 4, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  12. Rick Schenker

    Response written by Ratio Christi on our blog... here is part of it

    Hypocrisy is a real problem, but it is not the problem. We can be pleased that King did stay with the faith and is encouraging others to do so. But it could be that just as he points out some political battles may not be “the real battles,” the charge that he brings forth is itself not “the real battle.” It is still an important one to fight, but let’s remember where the real truth lies, the truth Ratio Christi seeks to defend. We do not seek to excuse the transgressions of Christians, but we seek to defend the claims of Christ.

    Read the whole response on Ratio Christi's Issues and Answers blog.

    March 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  13. Brenda Maronde

    Mr. King, Thank you for your insightful words. I totally agree with your thoughts on focusing on ourselves (Christians) and serving others. It is much easier to find others at fault instead of self-analysis. A politician's religious affiliation does say something about his/her philosophical beliefs; however, the next question should be, "Does he or she live out those beliefs and allow the liberty of others to live out theirs?". I believe wholeheartedly that the world would be such a beautiful place if we chose to live like Jesus advises us to. However, I also believe wholeheartedly that America should continue to allow others to choose to live with a different God, or without a God entirely.

    March 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  14. mms55

    anyone posting on here say's god spoke to them is a liar or mentaly ill period.

    March 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • PhilB

      Wouldn't that then also include Moses, Abraham, Mohammed, Paul and a host of others?

      March 4, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • A true christian


      I assume that the reason why you feel that people that have heard from God are either mentally ill or a Liar is because you have never had him talk to you. I wonder why he never has?

      March 4, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  15. deborah

    I have 9 page testimony the true Spirit of God came upon me and I am a witness to seeing in the spirit realm satan ruling all christian churches thru all decieved church leaders of
    the world. I am a witness to seeing the mystery of Iniquity (mass spiritual destruction of souls-blood bath) in the churches and among many deceived
    christian believers in the spirit realm. I am a witness to seeing two identical jesus in the spirit realm. luke 4:5-12. these churches and organizations are
    full of demons, devils, dragons, and every hateful and unclean bird in the spirit realm. to the natural eye everything looks wonderful and peaceful in these churches and places of worship but in the spirit realm works of iniquity to the destruction of deceived believers souls, worship of false god,
    powers of sorcery(lying signs & wonders)2thessalonian chpt 2!all churches are
    babylon the great mother of harlots, abominations of the earth! 1 peter 4:17, God is sending judgement and the plagues on the houses of God. Come out my people and be not partakers of their plagues, sins, & iniquities! Seek true God at home for heavenly Jerusalem not the earthy one! I have warned you! God and his son bare witness as you read. your blood and the blood of many decieved
    christian believers and the slain of the earth are not in my hands in jesus christ name amen. I bind Acts 26:17 and loosen you from the powers of darkness
    in jesus name. Heed to God's warning now don't delay. May God have mercy on you and your families souls in jesus christ name amen! request 9 page testimony solidaszarock@aol.com

    March 2, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Jim P>

      You should consider having someone check your air supply, I think you're running a little low on oxygen.

      March 4, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  16. A. H. Wright

    I don't want to read all the comments, but I agree with many of the authors point. I would add, though, that the Church also includes its members. The blame lies not only with the leadership, but with those who made them leaders. Christianity everywhere needs soul searching. We've become decadent. Enormous churches with well coifed pastors who clearly have not given away both coat and cloak. Infidelity? Divorce? Abuse? The solution to the Church's problems is not more Grace–it needs more repentance.

    This may erode my Christian cred, I assert there is a hope. Here are some links to some sermons that discuss where I think our problems really lie:

    We see pride as much in our politics as in our church.

    March 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Anon

      I hope that the three abrahamic desert blood cults are reduced to mythology status in the near future.
      It's for the better.

      March 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Scott

      Do you take the book of Mormon literally? If so, where are the elephants that walked the US? Why does it say jews had steel weapons before they were invented? Sorry, but I don't.

      March 4, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  17. 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 3:41 pm |
  18. 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 3:17 pm |
    • xx

      It is thoughts such as these they are steering youth away from Christianity. Creating a generation of people who are not able to think for themselves is absurd and will not enable the betterment of society in any way. To say that we should not be taught about world religions because THAT is what is making youth think that Christianity isn't true, says a lot about how credible you actually think Christianity is...if it is in fact the way, then learning about other religions shouldn't hinder that. Humans were given the gift of free will, therefore, let individuals choose the path they see fit.

      March 3, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Jack Vigdor

      To XX
      The above poster "Jesus loves you" is being cynical. He is trying to make a point.
      The point is, that when you teach someone critical thinking and expose them to more ideas, they begin to see the silliness, the primitive stupidity of Christian theology. God gave us brains and the ability to reason. Science is merely a method to uncover real truths about the universe. The perverted interpreting of some ancient text by Christians and Muslims encourages people to not think clearly. If you want to learn about the world and universe, explore it empirically instead of listening to bitter, angry, misogynistic men who call themselves preacher, ministers or mullahs or imams.

      March 4, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • PhilB

      Where's the sarcastic font when you need it?

      March 4, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  19. mrklrsn

    I agree with Tim King that Christianity is killing itself, but since I attended a christian college, it was college that provided many of the necessary nails to hammer down the lid of the coffin and bury my faith. I too graduated from North Park in Chicago. I knew Scott McKnight or should I say I experienced his condescending ego first hand on a number of occasions. I tried to ask honest questions about how faith and reality could coexist and was publicly renounced. I wondered why certain 'sins' like smoking and drinking were so taboo while seriously considering equitable wealth distribution and social justice was relegated to gimmicky lessons like inviting a few homeless people for dinner one night a year. Christianity is dying because it doesn't even attempt to live up to it's ideals. Jesus said many amazing things but I've never met a Christian that cared about any of them. Sure they might discuss them briefly in a Sunday school class or even teach a semester long course where they effectively explain away the concrete necessity to actually care for immigrants or help a neighbor in need. When it comes down to it Christians are too busy being self-righteous and moralistic in speech and materialistic in action to climb out of the grave that Christianity has dug for itself.

    March 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  20. momoya

    @Robert Brown

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

    The problem with that is that you have no way to verify the results of this practice. You read and study spiritually to understand and come to a conclusion; your neighbor reads and studies spiritually to understand and comes to a different conclusion. You both maintain faith in your own interpretation because the two of you have no way to positively identify the correct interpretation.

    In essence, you are just arrogantly stating that you have some special ability to understand "god's word" that those with a different dogma and the former christian do not have. It's special pleading that isn't all that special because it's what every believer does.

    March 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      If anything I posted was taken as arrogant I apologize. That was not my intention.

      I do believe that God’s word is understood spiritually. I also believe the Spirit is free for the asking and anyone who wants it can have it. That shouldn’t make anyone feel excluded.

      March 2, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • momoya

      It's not what you say or how you say it that's arrogant; your belief itself is arrogant. You're claiming that truths of a certain nature can be determined by a process that cannot be tested or replicated. If an interpretation (through study, spirit, etc..) cannot be challenged and verified or falsified then it's just one opinion among many.

      March 2, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • reason

      Robert, momoya's point is exactly why your "testimony" and that of millions others is invalid. There are billions more who think they can communicate with a god or gods and who's testimony contradicts your own. Even within the same religion there is no concensus among adherents. Millions can read the Bible, or pray to their god, and get totally different results – from the same supposed god!

      March 2, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      I do have confidence in faith. I have confidence in God. I wouldn’t call belief arrogant.

      Jesus said come to me. So, the truth can be tested and replicated by anyone who chooses. I would agree that interpretation could involve opinion but nothing would prevent challenges.

      March 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      My testimony is not invalid. Pretend you and I were best friends, had known each other our whole lives, would you still say it was invalid? I don’t think so. You may disagree but not dismiss it as invalid.

      There are differences between denominations on interpretation. Find one you agree with and go with it. Ultimately, if it is a Christian denomination, you will be worshiping God.

      March 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • reason

      Robert, what you are saying is not reproducible or testable. People "find Jesus" all the time only to realize later they've been duped.

      March 3, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • DaGimp


      You can not prove that 🙂

      March 3, 2012 at 12:58 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.