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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. David

    Christianity is the Lord Jesus Christ–period. Leave it if He Himself has done something malicious against you (but cf. John 3:16; that hasn't happened). Otherwise, Christians of all ages: grow up, and stand up within your faith for what is right while denouncing what is wrong (or, at the least, join one of the thousands of Christian churches making huge differences in the world; e.g., http://www.experiencelifenow.com–when you do what THESE Christians do, then I'd be willing to listen to you more!)

    February 28, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  2. Insomniak79

    Like Gandhi said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

    February 28, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  3. Balls McGhee

    um, its only logical to understand that once you go to college and actually learn facts and reality, you will find that religion is a bunch of garbage. so yes, i blame college, but that is a good thing. remember when we all grew up and learned that Santa didnt exist either?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Bob

      Well put.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  4. Crad

    Last time i was in church was when our pastor told us to vote for g bush. I never went back. My relationship with Christ has never been stronger. Thats the greatest thing about being a christian. No need for a bulding or a man. Only me and god.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • The Ack

      Crad,
      There is no such thing as a Christian without community. We exist together for fellowship, encouragement, accountability, and worship. If it is only you and God, then you are missing out on God's plan of what the church really ought to be: the body of Christ.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  5. Reality

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

    Only for the newbies: i.e. skip if you have seen this before

    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.

    Added support references are available. Just ask.

    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 11:48 pm |
  6. Sam

    A little knowledge goes a long way to dispel myth, expose manipulation, and call out the illogical. Organized religion only has itself to blame though, because it's always man using myth to manipulate man with illogical arguments.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Crad

      Sam. The greek gods were explained with the most logical reasons, and they made the most sense. Stop trying to sound smart. You keep getting it wrong

      February 28, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  7. The Flamingo Kid

    These kids were never "true" Christians to begin with, as 99% of the Churches are not either. These kids have just found a new way of following Satan, without the churches help.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      just because you dont believe in God, doesnt mean you believe in Satan. the two go hand in hand. atheism doesnt believe in any deity or devil. we believe in man.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • The Aardvark Kid

      Is this a troll?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  8. toadears

    It's all in the Book. The great falling away from God, the Middle East wars, etc. America has to fall before it all starts to happen. That will take WWIII which is just around the corner. All it is going to take is one itchy finger and all the players have them poised over the triggers right now. This is to be expected. College is not the cause. Backsliding Christians have more to do with it than education. If the light was on, the darkness would decrease.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  9. Rallph Smith

    If Christians ever read the Bible and had a clue about our world of genetic disorders and microbial pathogens, they would never be so stupid as to be Christian!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • toadears

      You're going to LOVE Islam. LOL

      February 28, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      toadears, what do you know about Islam? have you read their book?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • Ralph

      Ya know, each night after work I get online and read various articles that always seem to find something written about the collapse of Christianity or the demise of religion. Always even more awakening to me is reading comments made by the countless others who have the freedom to voice their opinion and state their viewpoint on what is written throughout the world.

      Its really sad to me to think we have actually come to a point in time where so many are non believers and they whole heartedly rip the throat out of any concept and belief of their being a God or any sort of savior to the human race.

      We abuse our freedom of speech with the ever evolving world of technology and the internet....willfully destructing the sensitive beliefs of others just so we can feedback with a cruel comment to undermine their personal belief structure in life.

      I hope and pray we all learn to love each other again and that each and everyone of us eliminate the negative gestures we write to our fellow brothers and sisters in life.

      Before our last breath we will have all hoped that what we believed while here on earth was worthy to take us to our next world.
      If we quickly decide there is no point in establishing faith or a reason for our creation in essence we are already dead.

      Don't run from Christianity because of others, discover faith and trust in God for yourself and don't allow other to dismantle your beliefs through their sometimes unwise wording.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:22 am |
    • shamdog6

      Ralph, are you saying that I am abusing my freedom of speech because I voice ideas that disagree with your beliefs? This is an open conversation, and we've seen all sides represent their thoughts and beliefs. Nothing I say is likely to sway your beliefs if you are truly strong in your faith.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  10. Scott

    Excellent article. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  11. alanjay1

    Fantastic article. As a fellow Christian, I agree with you 100%

    February 28, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  12. Rudedog

    It is the Westboro Baptist Church who destroy Christianity, along with other Christian Jihadists. Unless the "Christians" turn their fight against real evil, poverty, illness etc instead of ruling lives, they are dooming their Church.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  13. mac101

    What a refreshing article – nice to hear someone who identifies themselves as a 20-something evangelical talk about loving his fellow man rather than hating everyone else who doesn't think exactly like him.

    If more evangelical Christians thought like this and talked like this, the whole issue of religion and evangelical Christians in politics wouldn't be so corrosive.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Rudedog

      Amen!!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  14. Carol

    Staying on topic – this is a articulate and wonderful op ed piece. Thank you.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  15. tony

    Home school is the modern equivalent of the Jesuits getting at you before the age of seven.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  16. tony

    Another Christian who still confuses having morality and humanity (goodness) with having belief. You almost got it right when you were thinking of abandoning the church. Compare parting the Red Sea with the Tsunamis and you'll finally figure it out.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  17. 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 very 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 9:28 pm |
    • answer this one

      Atheists are so dumb. Keep believing you came from a monkey.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Clint

      Religious folks are so dumb. Keep believing in the non-existant being in the sky. (see, anyone spout off something...)

      Oh, and I don't know about the original poster, but I'm not an atheist, I'm just a human being.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • Richwood7

      ctually I am very pleased that it is the Republicans that are proving we came from monkeys. Without a single creative thought, absolutly in opposition to Freedom of Religion, the inalienable right to life, a total devotion to their God in and total indifference to life, and their dream of enslavement of the masses, they adore BIG BIG goverrnment ruling all aspect of our lives. However, for the most part they act like they still swing from trees and eat bananas. I wish to thank them for keeping my faith in science but Democrats have evolved far further along than the Neanterthal level that Republicans live in. Someday, maybe they to can evolve into human beings. The Republicans still live in the shallow end of the gene pool.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • The Aardvark Kid

      The theory of evolution says that humans and monkeys have a common ancestor

      February 29, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  18. GHH

    When reading the bulk of the comments here, I am reminded of the following quote from Malcolm Muggeridge:

    . . .illiterate schoolboys and half-baked university students turn aside with contemptuous disbelief before propositions which the greatest minds and the noblest dispositions of our civilisation—Pascal, say, and Tolstoy—accepted as self- evident.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Gee, and Muggeridge is of course the end-all and be-all and whatever he said MUST be true.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • momoya

      Pascal, Tolstoy, and the rest have long been rebutted. The rebuttals have it for the win.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 28, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • 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 anally 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 9:29 pm |
    • PsiCop

      Prayer has never been objectively or verifiably shown to change anything. Ever. Anywhere. At any time. It accomplishes nothing measurable or concrete. It might be emotionally satisfying, but that's the most it can ever do for anyone. Mature adults don't require the crutch of "praying" to make themselves feel better emotionally.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Jesus

      You've been proven wrong. 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 10:42 pm |
    • shalom2U

      Psocop and Jesu: Prayer doesn't work? Does that mean God doesn't exist or answer prayer. Go to an internet search engine and read about the Battle of Lepanto. and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, and the power of prayer.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  20. Sheila

    It’s really sad how uneducated people are in America. We all really need to start to educate ourselves and not believe everything we are taught in the American school system and media which is really outdated and/or incorrect information. The Bible is the only answer when you complete your research. If you really look for the truth that is what you will find, just like all the other experts in the various scientific specialties have come to find when they have really searched. The Bible could not have been written by a man much less 40 men over the time span we are talking about. It is divinely written and we are lucky to have it. I will pray that you all learn this before it is too late. I really hope you start soon. Especially in the times we are in. Gobs bless you all!

    One person who really cares!

    P.S. You should check out this website: khouse.org. This company was founded by a man with a very impressive resume who did not start out as a Christian. One thing this founder likes to say is something like; the most dangerous thing is something you think you know. Just try to be as open minded as you know you want and claim to be.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, so God wrote the Bible? With what?

      You're a poster child for education by a secular public school-you haven't a clue what you're talking about and probably never will.

      Please. There is nothing about religion that is 'scientific'. I'd like a toke of whatever it is you're smoking.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Love "Gobs bless you all"! Priceless.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Science and the Bible says humans r emotional creatures rather than intelligent ones. For this reason glorifying rationality above emotional(spiritual) maturity is illogical and unscientific. That is why most atheists on this blog behave like de Evangelicals. I love u as myself. Try it. U'll mature

      February 28, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      The science of Psychology will define the personaality under these functions-Ego,AlterEgo, Super Ego n Id. In Christianity. Ego is mind, AlterEgo is spirit, Id is flesh, SuperEgo is soul. Scientific? Don't even go there!

      February 28, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It is sad how education has devolved in this county. I grew up in a time when we were sending men to the moon. Now we get politicians saying that education is bad because it makes people leave the church.

      Perhaps people wouldn't leave the church if there was actually a single shred of evidence that the god of the bible, or any god for that matter, actually exists. There is nothing gained by basing national policy on mythology. Just look at the middle east if you want examples of nations where religion has overcome common sense.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • Drinker

      You are the type of person the author is talking about. Duh!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Clint

      "It’s really sad how uneducated people are in America. .......... The Bible is the only answer when you complete your research."

      When i read that I am reminded of Bill Engvall.......Here's your sign!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      Sheila, as the southernors say to the slow children, "bless your heart."

      February 28, 2012 at 11:59 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.