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. flafreethinker

    Religion is big business. It is always about the money, and no matter what creed or faith you may follow, all that is necessary is to keep contributing to the collection plate. The whole god thing is bogus. Fear and hate and bigotry and malice is what religion is all about. The politicians that cater to the right wing fanatics and the fools that make up the networks are the most evil group of sub humans ever. Atheism is our only hope. Here is to a secular world.

    March 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  2. Steve

    Reblogged this on Steve Dang and commented:
    This is a really great post by Tim King talking about the Exodus of Christianity in our generation.

    March 12, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Peterson

    The question is if people really leaves the faith because of this? I don't think that anyone would stop being a christian just because one don't like what others say (because faith in Christ is the only way to avoid hell, John 3:16-18). That people make statements like these is correct if they doesn't goes against what the bible says ("As Jesus states, we are the salt of the earth, Matthew 5:13. In the ancient world, salt was considered a necessity, due to its preserving qualities. The word salt, therefore, acquired connotations of high esteem and honor in ancient and modern languages."), see also that Jesus spoke againts the farisees and look at: "Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible (from http://www.bible.cc): Ye are the salt of the earth,.... This is to be understood of the disciples and apostles of Christ; who might be compared to "salt", because of the savoury doctrines they preached; as all such are, which are agreeable to the Scriptures, and are of the evangelic kind, which are full of Christ, serve to exalt him, and to magnify the grace of God; and are suitable to the experiences of the saints, and are according to godliness, and tend to promote it: also because of their savoury lives and conversations; whereby they recommended, and gave sanction to the doctrines they preached, were examples to the saints, and checks upon wicked men. "

    March 11, 2012 at 5:30 am |
  4. blaqb0x

    Pat Robertson endorses legalizing pot. At least, he's trying....

    March 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  5. Timothy

    I was raised as a Christian. It is the singular reason why I despise all religion to this day. The biggest reasons to NOT be a Christian were given to me by the people trying to indoctrinate me in the first place. Why can't you Christians understand that you can't force feed us your beliefs? The more you try, the harder we will spit them back into your faces.

    Let me reiterate: I am anti Christian, and will never be a Christian because I was raised as a Christian. The fault is yours, Christians, and no one else's.

    March 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  6. Channing Smith

    If the students were taught they had a purpose for living and were given a Gift to be successful in that purpose...they would not leave college without a faith commitment.

    March 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  7. Steve M.

    I left Christianity because I became overwhelmingly convinced it was not true. You can blame yourselves all you want–it isn't going to change that.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • Kyle Smoker

      I agree with Steve M (but with a caveat). I left because, at the end of the day, I became convinced that it simply wasn't true, and nothing they could've done with regards to their political rhetoric or their view of the "outside" world would've changed this. But, not everyone is like me. For me, the hypocrisy, the frustrating inconsistency, the lack of compassion or understanding towards those who were different from them, and the lack of anyone seeming to truly experience the presence of God in the way that the Bible we should, all these things were catalysts which caused me to open the door to the possibility that maybe all of it was simply not true, and once I had opened that door and started asking those kinds of questions, the outcome was inevitable. But, not everyone has the temperament to go ahead and ask the kind of second-order questions that I did, and even if they did, they may not come to the same conclusions as me, and, so, for these folks, I suspect it is probably sufficient for maintaining their faith, if the hypocrisy, the inconsistency, the us-against-the-world mentality, and the callousness towards others is dealt with. The metaphysical truth of Christianity aside, the church itself (as well as the spiritual lives of those within it) would be much more healthy and attractive to those who are thinking about leaving, if King's comments could be taken to heart.

      March 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  8. Dan

    I agree with the author when he says that the church needs to turn its attention inward to see why the younger generation is leaving the church. I also agree that the hypocrisy that is evident in the political issues that religious leaders fight for is part of the problem. (Jesus was much more concerned about the poor and the hungry than he was about gays, contraception, etc but you sure couldn't tell it by listening to the issues church leaders choose to fight for in the political arena.)

    However I think the author misses a very important reason young adults leave the church: All too often the church isnt teaching them how to challenge, examine, and grow in their beliefs. Children are taught a very basic almost fairy-tale version of Christianity and that's fine when they are young. However as they grow up the fairy-tale faith has a hard time withstanding serious introspection. For example, a serious look at Genesis raises questions about how literally we should take the creation account. (The order of the events of creation in chapter 1 & chapter 2 do not entirely match up. The name Adam means "mankind". We suddenly jump froma world with 4 people in it to a world with lots of people in it.) Unfortunately all too often churches dont teach people how to question their beliefs. Take ownership of their beliefs. Grow in their understanding of religion and faith. If the church doesnt face these issues and teach young adults how to critically think about their beliefs, then they go to college and are presented with these problems and they still have a childs fairy-tale understanding of religion. Its no wonder the fairy-tale faith doesnt hold up very well.

    March 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Lisa Daughtry-Weiss

      Your comment is exactly why I am attending this conference on Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity: http://children-youth.com/ This is a group of Christians who are trying to address this need.

      I am starting now with my six year old to encourage him to think of his faith from a critical thinking, social justice perspective so that he won't be shocked when he gets to college and learns about the issues you raised. The CEO of the organization where Tim works, Sojourners (www.sojo.net), and his family are leading a workshop at the conference. Hope to see you there!

      March 7, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Kyle Smoker

      I think Dan makes a very important point as well. It's the fundamentalism, not just as it is expressed in politics, but with regards to theology and and the faith itself as well. It is this fundamentalism, the false premises upon which it rests, and its spiritual bankruptcy, that often gets exposed as kids get older or when they go off to college. Santorum's comments reflect such fundamentalism. Well said, Dan. Very well said.

      March 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • K.

      Well said on all points!

      I'd also add that the anti-women faction in the church isn't helping matters either.

      March 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  9. Don Jones

    My take: Blame religious leaders who misrepresent the word of God, telling lies about Him and twisting the Bible's truth until it makes no logical sense whatsoever. Blame religious leaders who preach the teachings of men rather than the God's Word; subverting the truth for their own power and glory. Jesus spoke of such ones during his ministry on Earth, and was murdered for it. Matt 23:33

    March 6, 2012 at 4:27 am |
    • walk and talk

      There is truth to this article, but it falls short in it's explanation of why kids leave the faith. When kids sit in school over 40 hours a week and not one time is God mentioned by any of their teachers, that makes an impression on a kid. When God is not a god of history, of biology, of astronomy, of literature, of art, of science, etc. that makes an impression. It's as God is dead to these those teaching our children. Children's hearts begin to leave God in middle school. The church doesn't do a very good job of combating secularism at the point where it attacks faith, which is the authority of Scripture.

      Of course, believers need to be authentic and show integrity in their lives. But here again, the problem is not with the preachers on TV as much as the immediate people in kids lives, namely their parents and those in their church.

      Then there is the media who give non-Christians that are hypocrites and lead double standards a pass. And the trash they are feeding our kids in movies and reality TV is poison to their souls and minds. But again it is parents who are not doing their job that is the real problem. Parents will one day stand before God and give an account if they raised their kids in the ways of God.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • jimtanker

      It's not as if god is dead, it is as if it doesnt even exist at all. Your god is not part of biology, history, or science because there is no evidence that it exists. Those disciplines use evidence to work. No evidence, no god.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • walk and talk

      There's a reason why they call it the THEORY of evolution, or the Big Bang THEORY,.. because it is theory, not fact. Science requires faith too. Sometimes a lot more faith. So if the big bang happened, where did the gases and materials for the explosion come from?

      Archeology, fossil records, science and all the disciplines give much support for the Bible's claims. But, no one can make a horse lead to water drink it. One cannot prove or disprove that God exists with science because God is outside the paremeters of emperical science. That's why it's called faith. But together with science, philosophy, and reasoning, we can discover lots of reasons why God would exist. If your mind will not consider reality outside of the physcal or "natural" world, you're right. There's nothing that I can do to change your mind.

      One of the main reasons that people deny God is not because the evidence isn't there, but because they don't want to submit to his authority for their lives. Sound familiar? You need to look no further than the hear of Adam and Eve.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • jimtanker

      It is completely obvious that you have no foundation in science and dont even know the definition of the word theory. Big FAIL!!

      March 6, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  10. Rach

    Absolutely lovely. Thank you for writing what needed to be written. Delightful and succinct.

    March 6, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • Very true

      I agree! That was wonderful. My experience was similar to his. Now I just do my best to attend to my own faith and actions as a Christian while trying to tolerate the mess that the church is creating for us.

      March 10, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  11. Basic Reason

    What Tim King says is correct, but misses an extremely key factor. What the comments are saying don't come within 100miles of that factor.

    The description of Christianity given by Tim King, and the only one witnessed by most of the commenters, is the one of "political christianity" that they witness on television political battle shows.

    I encourage Tim King to write more about, and the commenters to take first hand action with, seeing christians in churches, not on TV. I know many churches of many stripes, and none of them resemble the christianity that is witnessed to on TV. These people are there because they love the Lord, and want to spread what they found to others, both in spiritual terms and in loving/giving terms. They are democrat and republican and libitarian. Some are radical in their politics. But none of it matters inside the christian faith, and inside their churches.

    You don't watch Housewifes of Beverly Hills to see how your wife should act. You don't watch The Apprentice to see how most work relationships are. So don't watch political shows (including comedies) to see what chrisitians are like.

    March 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • KB

      Speaking as a young person who grew up a Christian: I look to my church for an example and what I see is people more concerned with fighting ideological and political battles than showing compassion and mercy to individuals around them. That's why I left Christianity.

      March 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Alan

      Amen to that. I've never been in a church that preached politics and anti anything other than what the Bible teaches us about sin. However the truth is in the Bible and we are called to love others, but not their sinful lives. So the question I keep asking myself and in discussions with others, is how do we deal with society's acceptance and approval of behaviors that are being shoved down our throat. When we know full well, historically where this road is going to lead us as a nation. And of course standing on a street corner screaming that God hates you is just pathetic.

      March 7, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  12. cgraw12

    Reblogged this on twentysomethingdotorg and commented:
    This was amazing! I relate completely!

    March 5, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  13. Muldoon in Ohio

    When Christian churches rail against contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other "sinful" behaviors, they are telling sinners to stay away – a distinct departure from Christ's teachings and His own behavior. To their credit, so to speak, Republicans have jumped on this bandwagon hoping to gain power, although everyone knows these secular practices will never go away.

    March 5, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  14. Justin

    Totally agree. This posts reminds me a lot of what I read about the current state of the church. Check it out and see a different angle! http://goo.gl/vHS2d

    March 5, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  15. Paul

    Young people need true spiritual leader, someone like Pope John Paul II. http://www.jp2love.com/celebrities.html It is not only my opinion.

    March 5, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  16. atheist knows best

    Religion is for those who don't want to work out moral reasoning for themselves. .

    It's for those who want to follow proscribed rules instead of doing what's right. Religion is for the amoral.

    March 5, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Bossman! U have not understood a word that I said, have u? Read again! I will state again that no religion atheism included do not have to be ends in themselves. Spiritual(emotional) maturity must be their end. This is achieved by loving your neighbor as yourself.

      March 5, 2012 at 2:53 am |
    • walk and talk

      I disagree. Morality comes from outside of man, not from within man. If we all did what was right in our own eyes, we'd have chaos.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  17. Anon

    Religion is for those who would accept the easy lie over the hard truth.

    March 4, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Then break with all religion including atheism. You don't have 2 b religious 2 love ur neighbor as urself. Just love ur neighbor as urself n enjoy ur life. If there is a moral deity like de Christ He won't protest. An amoral or immoral one won't either. Even if there isn't a God ur life will b full

      March 5, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  18. Nii Croffie

    Spiritual christians dont lose their faith easily when engaged in theological n legalistic debate cos God is love n He dwells in de heart of dose who love their neighbor as themselves. More Mother Teresas, Martin Luther King Jnrs, Nelson Mandelas, Joyce Meyers must be produced by de Church today.

    March 4, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      The world will never understand God in de pages of de Bible, theology books, ritual n political activism. It'll certainly understand LOVE-loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your enemy, loving one another, forgiving each other, etc. Bear de fruit of de Spirit not ur Church/Denomination ID card

      March 4, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Bob

      Yeah, your goddy boy is loving alright, like when your 'loving god' demands in lurid gory detail that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes him happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Look into the eyes of a suffering victim of any of the multiple disfiguring, debilitating, painful diseases that your "loving" god has purportedly created. Then you might understand that Christian god as described in the bible is not loving, doesn't give a hoot about human suffering, and in fact does not exist.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Be free of religion in 2012.

      March 4, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      My why is it that I have to repeat this?!
      Good(God)= Evil(Satan)
      Good(Satan)= Evil(God)
      ignores Genesis 2 which says
      Good(Man)= Evil(Man)
      why continue to blame God then. Love your nieghbor as yourself is not a religious thing to do! If you can do this it makes u alive!

      March 5, 2012 at 12:55 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      The chains u shud be breaking is religious chains. Spirituality has no chains. If u take Bible verses out of context who believes u. So u r one of those who believe butchers smile at cows and they become steak for them. If u r Bhuddhist or Hindu influenced veg atheist it makes sense. Otherwise? Hmmm

      March 5, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      As to ur charge of wasting of food? I wonder your emphasis on burnt offerings. Sacrificing these animals to God was a way of forcing the Israelites to learn to think about others. A little less selfishness won't kill u. Scientists will tell u that selflessness is healthy. A selfless man=rich man.

      March 5, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Also Bob 4 most sacrifices de entrails or a few body parts r burnt. The rest is food for Priests n Levites, the offerer, the offerer's family and the desti.tute. Read more of de Bible instead of atheist propaganda sites. I study de Law too 'cos Christ says Xtian Law experts have double treasure.

      March 5, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • atheist knows best

      dude, you're not making religionists look any saner here.. You're like that Timecube guy – talking a whole bunch, and trying real hard to get some kinda point across. As far as I can tell, your point is "I'm right, you're wrong, cause I got this book that sez so, neener!"

      In a freak coincidence, that's what ALL the religionists sound like to me. Here's a hint for everyone out there confused by the juxtaposition of all the good things that "faith" seems to carry against the crazies like our Nii here, which religion inevitably breeds. The powerful outpouring of human compassion is, in fact, a product of human nature, gifted to us by generations of evolutionary psychology. Seriously. Chimps are compassionate and care about their poor, too, and if you think that's not true, you are probably more interested in ideology than in animal behaviour studies, just saying. It's not degrading to accept the social and charitable instincts of your pre-human heritage as a beneficial and beautiful thing. It's who we are.

      But that part where religionists claim that they INVENTED all the good in human nature? LIARS.

      March 5, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  19. Nii Croffie

    The Christian Church has for centuries been producing religious(ritual only), pious(ritual n dogma) Christians instead of spiritual(love, dogma n ritual) christians.We have to focus our teaching on love just as the Early Church did so that we become true disciples and a beacon for a lost world.

    March 4, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Bob

      Look into the eyes of a suffering victim of any of the multiple disfiguring, debilitating, painful diseases that your "loving" god has purportedly created. Then you might understand that Christian god as described in the bible is not loving, doesn't give a hoot about human suffering, and in fact does not exist.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Be free of religion in 2012.

      March 4, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      If u want to use the assumption that God created all n evil as well then note that what u r calling Evil is ur Justice manifesting(Gen3) with the Judgement that God must die. However this is part but not the whole story. God created a good n perfect world. Imperfection is not of God(Genesis 1).

      March 5, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • atheist knows best

      OK, if "god" created an imperfect world, then WHY IS HE SUCH A JERK? He could have created a PERFECT world, but I got THIS one instead?! Tell your nasty god that this is a terrible prank, and I'd like my money back. There are people out there dying because jesus didn't like stem cell research-based medicine, because jesus hates birth control and women so much that his horde of followers refused to give AIDS-preventing prophylactics to Africa, because jesus thinks abortions are a good way to keep control of women, rather than a medical procedure to be chosen by those who may need it, because jesus convinced parents that their kids were posessed by some fakeass demons.

      Dude, if jesus were real, he'd be in PRISON for all the horrible misery he has heaped on the world. All this horror has been perpetrated by YOUR fellow believers in the total absence of any actual deity. Imagine the havoc y'all would wreak if this monster were actually lurking out there somewhere!

      March 5, 2012 at 2:19 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Contrceptives, abortion, etc r concerns of religious n pious Christians. To spiritual christians these r all subject 2 de injunction 2 love our neighbors as ourselves. If we all followed our prophets verbatim we wudnt have crime. It is simple 2 assume de will of de Church is that of Je

      March 5, 2012 at 3:06 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      continued from above.
      It is simple to assume that the will of the Church is the same aas that of Jesus. Also not all christians follow clergy in whatever they say. In fact most won't be dictated to by a minister. There are all sorts of christians.

      March 5, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  20. Nicole

    While I don't think the author here lacks credibility, I think that not all valid criticisms made by all people are for straightforward reasons. I find some irony in the accusation of "looking for an outside enemy to blame" - because for many people, that "outside enemy" scapegoat is in fact the Big, Bad Ol' Church.

    March 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
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