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. Josh

    Hmm...A link between higher education and less religion...It almost makes you think that religion doesn't make much sense. I am agnostic, I probably would have been religious, but I find it really strange of how religions(Chritinanity, Islam, Judaism..ETC) claim they are right and condemn others. Is anyone right?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • momoya

      That's an interesting point, isn't it? Math and chemistry weren't the simples of ideas, but humans figured it out and still are. Muslim jihadists and christian young-earth-fundies use the same math and chemistry because they must. They disagree about the nature of a god that seems quite invisible–invisible enough to warrant disbelief.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  2. RightTurnCl;yde

    This is a scrambled up post by Tim King (talk about hypocrisy??) Like most of CNN he is MIXING U.S> politics with religious ideas .. they always try to bend faith into religion and religion into politics.. and then the real topic is Santorum and Gingrich and Romney being Mormon or Glen Beck being Mormon. It is not actually about Christianity at all (which is a faith encompassing many religions). Well many of us have left religions behind .. and duplicitous preachers and Calvinism and Papism and all of the things we all agree are (negative to say the least). But not going to church does not mean I do not believe in Jesus Christ and the Trinity. It merely means I am no longer hooked on religious BS. I have to agree (and I have said many times myself) that preachers (including priests) are the greatest enemies of the Christian faith. Now as to why a conservative does not vote for the Democrats .. well the Democratic party has been taken over and dominated by extreme left wing radicals (the Red hippies of the 70s'). They are as Red as the USSR ever was .. Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, BILL AYERS, Abbie Hoffman, Bernadette Dohrn, Black Panthers .. they are to the left of Fidel Castro!. Nobody in their right mind is going to vote for those communists. They will take the country right down the same road as Greece., Spain, Russia, eastern Europe - broke and unable to borrow a dime. That has nothing to do with your faith OR your religion and everything to do with common sense. But if he gets the votes then that is where the country is going. (He is not lying to you and THEY are not lying to you. That is what they intend to do with it.. communism. He never said anything else.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  3. linlijuan00

    Reblogged this on linlijuan00.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  4. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you fat.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • RightTurnCl;yde

      The Ukraine is talking about opening Chernobyl up to tourists. They say its gonna be just like Disneyland, except the 6ft. mouse is real! Man Proposes, God Disposes Don't take life too seriously, no one gets out of it alive anyway.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  5. Sigh

    can I blame colleges for people deciding to act like complete wh0r3s?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  6. naya

    ...And posts like these are what gave me a very bad opinion of atheists in the first place.

    Luckily, I have a very amazing boyfriend who happens to be atheist. And I'm Christian. Been together for a very long time.

    Things work both ways, people. Just because you say there is no God does not make you instantaneously smarter than someone who does believe in a God. At the same time, believing in God makes you no better than someone who doesn't.

    Christians can be very arrogant, I know. But judging from the posts here, atheists can be equally so.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • momoya

      Yep. Neither christians nor atheists have a monopoly on intelligence or bigotry.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  7. Steve the stud

    What a surprise. Another "religion" article on CNN bashing Christians. After this you can read Bill Maher bashing religion.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  8. Sigh

    I wonder if CNN will let me post now

    February 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  9. RD

    I am glad that I became a Christian before it was necessary to also accept the Republicans as God's party. When will religious voters wake up and recongize that right-wingers are only interested in using their faith for political gain ?

    February 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  10. Ateo1979

    Hey, knowledge is power and with that power comes the understanding that ALL religion is baseless bunk.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  11. James X. Byrd

    I, too, feel ashamed when closed-minded Christians act like a bunch of fools. For those who do not believe, I feel sorry for you because you do not know what you are missing: a relationship with God. Yes, God is real, but you have been so turned off by so many bumbling idiots like Pat Robertson that you have rejected not only the negative and hypocritical representatives here on earth, but you have rejected God as well. For a time in my life I did the same thing. But there was always a deep longing in my heart and soul that nothing else could fill. I have returned to church and rekindled my faith. I agree with Tim King that many Christians have no idea that their behavior is what is turning people off. Focus on God, not people, for your inspiration.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • momoya

      I believed and preached the "word" for almost 50 years. The bible and christianity led me to be an atheist. Lemme guess, I wasn't a "true christian." That's going to be your reply, isn't it?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • just sayin

      Since it is impossible for Christ to lose someone,we must conclude that you were never a Christian or that you still are. Probability is that had you continued to judgement day you would have found yourself to have been deceived and told by God "begone I never knew you."

      February 28, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • momoya

      Yeah, that used to be my standard line, too.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • just sayin

      Then you are left without excuse.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Duh

      "Then you are left without excuse."

      You don't need excuses since there is no god. DUH!

      February 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • just sayin

      Your handle says it all, intelligence is not your strong point is it, duh?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • sam

      just sayin, I applaud you on your unswerving devotion to be a consistently dumb, judgmental bastard.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Peter

      "Your handle says it all, intelligence is not your strong point is it, duh?"

      Well that was the stupidest statement yet on this thread since your handle isn't any better!

      February 28, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • sam

      @ Peter – 'just sayin' is one of our best short-bus posters. Always enlightening.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  12. Larry Linn

    Social commentator and former alter-boy George Carlin sums it up, “Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bull*** story. Holy S***!”

    February 28, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  13. Russ

    @ momoya: i hear you. i agree that the suffering in this world is a horrible reality.

    but again: we did this to ourselves. God granted us this freedom, and we used it to do this to ourselves. It is *our* fault. It is terrible. but it is humanity's fault, not God's.

    God is not apathetic. Entering time & suffering in our place demonstrates a heart that is anything but apathetic. it is a benevolent mercy that would, in the words of JRR Tolkien make "all the sad things come untrue." and it's exactly why faithful Christians should be seeking to emulate God's heart & see life flourish: whether the poor or a green earth or ending societal structures that are oppressive, etc.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • momoya


      No, we didn't "do this to ourselves," and even if we did, god put the loaded guns in the nursery. It's not our fault because we aren't given a choice to be born into or live in a world without suffering. It's not a choice if there's not an alternative.

      God APPEARS apathetic when he doesn't make his will obvious like he made math and chemistry obvious. God APPEARS apathetic when he lets humans help or hurt however they want to with no interference. God APPEARS invisible because he's not visible or testable. All you have is your opinion of how you think things are–that's what faith is. You can't prove your assertions; you can only state them. Why are you acting like they're proven fact?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • HB


      Why is your absolute truth any better than Russ'? You can't prove your assertions either. Why are you stating it as fact?

      See, it goes both ways.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  14. Pat

    "...those college years are exposing the problems with the faith they grew up with."

    I agree. As one who left the faith in college, although I couldn't have articulated this, I can now in hindsight say that contributed to my departure along with never having had my faith tested. However, about 5 years after graduating, I came back to faith and since then, my faith life has continued to evolve, which can happen as we live and experience life and try integrating it with our faith. We often find that our positions change as we grapple with scripture and real life problems and that often things aren't so black and white, but some churches only present things in that way. Thus, you end up having to find your way on your own. It just may be that those leaving the faith may be the very ones that call the Church to account if it continues to do things on its own without reflecting on possible changes needed. That would be a good thing.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  15. JohnR

    See, this young guy's problem is that he actually thinks. That's a BIG no no among the righteous right.

    However, truth be told, people are leaving the church because it is stupid to stay, More and more a recognizing that basic fact. It;s great to do work among the homeless and to help immigrants. But you can do that without believing ludicrous stories about creation, original sin and redemption.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  16. Kosta

    Q. What year is it? A. 2012 AD
    Q. What does the AD stand for? A. After Death
    Q. Who's death? A. Mmmm. I wonder.....

    February 28, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • momoya

      Yep. "After death." Not A.R. (after resurrection) Using your logic, Jesus was never resurrected because it's not indicated by the A.D. categorization. Want to change your "argument" now, don't you?

      February 28, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • just sayin

      A. D. = Anno domini = in the year of our Lord.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Al

      And what does that have to do with anything? We have days of the week named after Norse gods. That has as much significance as what number year it is.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Know What

      The A.D./B.C. calendar was invented by a monk, Dionysius Exiguus, in 525 A.D. The Church was very, very powerful socially and politically in those days and his calendar was propagated slowly over the succeeding centuries. It was not widely used until the 1500s, and even today some cultures keep their old systems. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysius_Exiguus#Anno_Domini

      February 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Latin

      Anno Domini(latin) means year of our Lord you ignoramus.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And Bible thumpers wonder why people laugh at their idiocy.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    February 28, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Nope

      –The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • nope


      February 28, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • LOL!

      More desperation from the xtians with no facts to back themselves up. Too funny! LOL! LOL!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Sergio

      CHRISTIANITY is not healthy for children and other living things.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • nope


      February 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Al

      I can just imagine you stamping your feet and crying "But it does!"

      February 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • Prayer changes things

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      February 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Jesus

      "Prayer changes things"

      the experts have proven you wrong and you have absolutely no proof of it otherwise you would have posted it by now.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Proven .

      February 28, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  18. Laura

    I went to a private catholic college – I entered as a catholic, left confused and severely doubting religion. All I saw was hypocrisy.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  19. Reality

    Only for the newbies:

    Putting the final kibosh on religion in less than a 1000 words:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    February 28, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • .....

      Hit report abuse on every reality post.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • HB

      Hit report abuse?? Then Reality would have nothing to do in his mom's basement. His whole life is cut and paste. No one reads his drivel anyway. Let him be.....it's almost time for him to rub his mom's feet.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Reality

      As we "thu-mp" along with rational thinking, conclusions and reiteration to counter the millennia of false and flawed religious history and theology!!!------––

      February 28, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  20. lilome

    Need an arc with 2 of every animal? I noah guy

    February 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
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About this blog

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.