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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. Serenity

    I never write reviews but felt I had too this time around. Very well written, insightful article. Lets hope those who need to are really listening.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • stta

      Unfortunately the problem is the self righteous, narrow minded only listen to themselves talk. They have no desire to open their thought processes by listening to other views from people like Tim King.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • GBullfrog

      Christianity, like all Judeo-Christian religions, is just really silly. It's not about hypocrisy. It's about making any sense whatsover.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:53 am |
  2. jimmerz

    The truth is, People need to believe in themselves, and be happy with all the "blessings" that come their way. When things go wrong, get help, or at least be surrounded by real friends who do something to actually help, rather than "pray for you" or blame you for not being "godly" enough.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:39 am |
  3. Sam

    Yes...Blame Christianity for young people leaving Christianity. Sure we're getting smarter, but most of us are just sick and tired of the self-righteous, hypocritical, manipulative, arrogant, egotistical, and narcissistic individuals that we seem to find all to often in organized religion!

    February 29, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • GBullfrog

      If you want to believe the Bible's obvious drivel, more power to ya. Just remember, the people who wrote this tripe used their left hands instead of toilet paper.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  4. denny

    This is complete nonsense. God is not about love. God is about obeying his law and serving Him by showing sinners the the errors of their way. The more liberals that leave the House of the Lord the better the House of the Lord will be.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • jimmerz

      and that's why I left...so i don't have to be surrounded by ignorant and low self esteem people like you

      February 29, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • stta

      Denny- After reading your remarks the first thought was "wow". I was raised as a Catholic and went to a Catholic school through 5th grade and that doesn't sound like anything I was taught. What church do you belong to?

      February 29, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Sam

      Really? You're joking right? You prove the point exactly if not!

      February 29, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Henry

      Why would anyone want to serve a god who's a self-rightous jerk? Enjoy your pain.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • Fiddledee

      1 John 4:8
      "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

      I haven't been to church in a few years [save Christmas Eve and Easter services with extended family], and I still remember how much Jesus preached about love, not condemnation.

      I believe in God and Jesus. But I no longer wish to identify myself with Christianity. Christianity today is not what Christ wanted it to be at all.

      Similar to how this country is probably way off track of what the founding fathers wanted.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • GBullfrog

      Ah yes, the House of Morons. Have fun there. Christianity is the religion of slaves and pitiful sucks, nothing more.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • PaulL

      1 Corinthians 13:13: "And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."

      Denny, the very central dogma of the Christian faith is Love. Unconditional and overwhelming love. Jesus never wanted his followers to judge others, or ride a wave of moral superiority to the next life. He wanted his followers to welcome anybody and everybody into the Kingdom of Christ. Hostile comments such as the one above do not welcome people into the church, but rather make Christians look like arrogant hypocrites, which is exactly what the author of the article was discussing.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  5. mmi16

    Organized religion is organized hypocracy and a killer of faith.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  6. jaycee

    Tim, thanks for an insightful and well worded piece here. I've been discouraged by the culture war flaming headlines and sound bites lately, and your column gives me some hope that someone out there is trying to think rationally-and to act like Christ.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  7. Michele

    Personally I always wondered what are the odds that by a total accident of birth I was born into the one true religion? And what kind of God would condemn an innocent child if he or she was not? Heaven and he77 are here on earth. Live a good life every day and make it a little better for those around you,

    February 29, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • The Ack

      Michelle,
      Each person is given a degree of light and is accountable for following that light. When we are given more light, we are responsible to follow that light. Whatever light you have, and it sounds like you know quite a bit, you ought to embrace. When you reject the light, your life spirals into the dizziness of humanism. There is value in a faith that impacts the present, but there is a more precious faith that embraces the future.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • midwstrngrl

      the dizziness of humanism? you mean the dizziness and self-righteousness of religionism?

      February 29, 2012 at 1:02 am |
  8. liz48

    I am a convert to being a follower of Jesus from a Asian nation. The culture of the US is more anti-the Bible than what our culture was before I became a follower of Jesus. Those who claim to know Jesus in the US and the west are deluded. We saw the works of Jesus in manifestation – the sick healed, the dead raised etc. and most of all we saw HOLINESS and a desire to please God in those who preached to us. This does not mean every person who is from Asia or Africa who claims to follow God is living by the Bible. However one thing was clear if there were fakes they were quickly found out or routed out by those who knew how to connect to God and leave things in His Hands...

    February 29, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • The Ack

      I appreciate your post. Jesus will speak for Himself. Those who embrace Him find themselves embraced by Him. Pure faith stands above culture. Westernized Christians and semi-Christians can be too diluted by culture until they blur biblical faith with what culture has done to it. The struggle is that we try so desperately to influenced culture but we do it out of the wrong resources. None of us do well. We need simple faith that does not give up under pressure. I am glad you have done this.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • GBullfrog

      Wow. Really? What kind of hallucinogenics are handed out in your congregations? Can anyone partake of that Godfood?

      February 29, 2012 at 1:16 am |
  9. The Ack

    The Gospel always has a price to it. We all must be willing to take up the cross. This will mean different things to different people, but it is always about love and holiness. It is more than a social gospel, as this author hints at. There is a big price to pay. It demands a certain lifestyle, anchored in love, but also righteous and holy. The Sermon on the Mount is pretty clear with that. We cannot be selective in what parts of the Gospel we follow. It is true that the church has become self-focused in some ways, but young people also need to count the cost and embrace the way of Christ. Life must be balanced. It is more than emotions. Getting back to Jesus and the faith about Him in the Bible is what we must do. Every generation must make its own choice and will be held accountable for that choice. We need to separate method from message. The message does not change, but each generation may live it out differently. I am afraid the author is giving only part of the picture. I pray that more young people will embrace the way of grace and experience a life of freedom and peace.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • Calm Down

      Excellent post. The article doesn't consider the fact that there was an exodus away from mainline Protestant churches for decades primarily because they had become rather fuzzy and a la carte in how they approached the Gospel.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  10. thalcyon

    Amen! What I have felt for a long time. I graduated from college in 1975 and personally identify with e'thing that you just said.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  11. David Stone

    >>he years young adults spend in college aren’t causing them to leave their faith; <<

    If so, the colleges are, IMO, failing. They SHOULD be helping young people dislodge and throw off the hook of religious belief that was set deeply in their vulnerable psyches at an early age. More power to education to accomplish this. I am heartened by the news that young people are leaving Christianity. I hope this trend continues and extends to other religions.

    There is nothing at all to keep a person from performing good works all of her/his life without so much as an iota of religious faith.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • errr

      Said Moa, Stalin, and Marx before they murdered millions after millions.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • medstudent

      @errr fact: christianity has more blood on its hands than any religion in the history of humanity.

      Crusades
      Witch Burnings
      Inquisitions
      Slave Trade in name of divine mandate
      Native American Genocide in name of divine mandate
      The IRA
      Abortion clinic bombings and murdering of physicians
      Murder of gay kids

      All atrocities committed by christians due to their religious beliefs.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • medstudent

      @errr fact: the american population is comprised of about 70-75% christians and about 16% atheist/agnostics.

      The american prison system is 99% christian and less than .5% atheist/agnostic.

      Christians are over-represented in the prison system. This means being christian is correlated with increased likelihood of committing an incarcerable crime.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • Fox me? Fox you!

      Oh, errr, you poor cognitively challenged little boy! Marx never killed anyone in his life. He was a philosopher, not a political leader. Who on earth is Moa? Yes, Stalin killed millions. So did Hitler, and in your god's name too as he wrote in Mein Kampf. "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord." So go back and keep sipping from the cup of ignorance filled by your particular religious leader. After all, for you, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

      February 29, 2012 at 12:51 am |
    • VelveteenLady

      "They SHOULD be helping young people dislodge and throw off the hook of religious belief that was set deeply in their vulnerable psyches at an early age."

      Your statement is a blatant misrepresentation of the purpose of higher education. A successful higher education experience should result, not only in preparation for entry into one's chosen career, but also to teach students how to think globally, rather than from the narrow view that they possess. They can hear the opinions of others, outside of their "world," and can begin to digest the worldviews of others. Colleges and universities do not have the obligation nor the right to help young adults to "throw off" anything. An open mind is a beautiful thing. You should try to find one.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      errr
      Who did Marx murder? We don't even know what Stalin and Mao believed about gods being real. They didn't like organized religion but, then again, a lot of Christians are saying that these days. Organized religion pulled people's loyalties away from them and, being dictators, this was a problem. Funny how people just automatically think of these guys as atheists just because they were opposed to clerics holding rival power over people.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  12. Quick E Mart Clerk

    The presumption is that they had a faith commitment to begin with. These young men and women were sentimentally attached to Christianity when they were younger but nothing more. It's not like they're switching to a thoughtful atheism or agnosticism. They're simply committed to nothing as twenty somethings – much like they were committed to nothing as teenagers.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  13. errr

    Even Satan beleives there is a God. And Hell willl be full of " Christians " who beleive there is a God. Beleiving and acting like there is a God are two different things. People will continue to leave the church as long as the church puts money before God. And Pastors continue to serve themselves and not God.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • medstudent

      there is no hell it's a fairy tale.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:48 am |
    • shamdog6

      Did Satan tell you personally of his beliefs? Not a conversation I'd want to have. Unless it's Miroslav Satan, the NHL player–that would be pretty cool.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      No. A book tells you that there is a Satan and that he plays the antagonist to the main character of the story, God. Every story has a protagonist and something that he struggles against. It would have been a very dull story indeed if there wasn't a character like Satan in the Bible.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  14. HRPuckinfutz

    Kids are leaving for the same reason I left decades ago: sick and tired of the church trying to tell us what to do, when to do, to give money, total control freaks. They are tired of priests molesting children and having it covered up by the church. They are type of the hypocrisy of church leaders. They are tired of being preached to by those who do not follow their own words. I have nothing against religion, but I have a lot against churches.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      None of that really bothered me. I just learned that the evidence supporting the believe in God was actually nonexistent, something that was kept from me until I took responsibility for my own education.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  15. kieran walsh

    Did you ever think that if children had to wait until they were eighteen to choose a religion to follow that they would more than likely not be religious. They only believe now because they were taught religion by their parents/guardians.

    At college they find that they can choose to follow blindly but choose not to.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  16. Mike Hall

    i'm catholic and love being catholic, including the traditions and latin incantations (at least at my church), but i'm a proud, unapologetic liberal when it comes to politics. i do not believe the two are incompatible, either.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  17. polycarp pio

    If you are leaving the church because of hypocrisy you have you eyes on the wrong man. Man will dissapoint and let you down everytime, dont put any man on a pedestel. The only man JESUS CHRIST who won let you down, he is the one to put on that pedistel. As far as these studentss leaving the church, if its not in you heart you were a phony to begin with. We have many mouth confessors and few heart possessors, and yes being a former college student I know for a fact that all this liberal arts crap causes many to question their faith, its a matter of what book are you going to believe, the bible or your anthropology,philosophy, or other social science book. Christian faith is a daily challenge, through much tribulation we enter into the kingdom of God, if you are looking for an easy path, truth christianity isnt for you. PP

    February 29, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      But was Jesus Christ really just a man, or was he a creation of man, a piece of art? Made perfect, and for wide appeal? Art is what is put on pedestals, after all.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  18. question

    so what does helping homeless people have to do with being a Christian? I don't believe in a religion and I've been on multiple missions and help people every day...

    February 29, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  19. William

    This is a very thoughtful essay from a man of God.

    I grew up in a poor African country believing that God was good, just and a friend of the poor and down-trodden. I was going to become an Episcopal priest to minister to others. Then I came to America and heard preachers on television. I went to medical school instead, knowing that I could help anybody regardless of their race, religion, faith and country of origin. I am sure I am doing God's work that way.

    I have always felt comfortable with the Episcopal church, but some of these on television cause me pain.

    You're right. what drove me from church was not what I learned in college, it was what I heard and I saw preached as gospel.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  20. ohsnap

    Personally, I'd rather believe in God and be wrong, than not to believe and be wrong.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • John Mark

      @ ohsnap: Well, I hope you believe in all the G/god(s) that have ever been thought up by man, since you're apparently boiling religious faith down to a shot in the dark. You wouldn't want to ignore any deities on the off chance that one of them is the Real Deal (TM).

      "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." That is one of the best explanations I've heard of the "faith loss" phenomenon.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • What IF

      ohsnap,

      Your post is another tired repeti.tion of Pascal's Wager.

      - What if the real "God" is Allah, or Vishnu, or Zeus, or Quetzalcoatl, or any of the other of thousands which have been dreamed up over the centuries? Some of them are very jealous and vengeful and will relegate you to nasty places for not worshiping them. You'd better cover your butt by believing in ALL of them and fulfill their wishes and demands.

      - What if the real "God" prefers those who use logic and reason and punishes you as a silly sycophant?

      - What if the real "God" detests those who believe something just to cover their butts in eternity?

      February 29, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • errr

      Or lets keep it going and say what if the bible is true? Then what are you going to do? You can try to hide behind your arrogant logic but there are two roads to every conclusion.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      errr
      Why is logic 'arrogant'? Is the answer 4 to the question "What is 2 plus 2?" an arrogant one, or are you saying that it's arrogant not to humor people who come up different answers?

      February 29, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      ohsnap
      If you are wrong then there's a whole lot of unnecessary harm being done in the name of God towards gays, for example. Would that bother you? Have you ever wondered if future generations will judge you like we presently judge the people who owned slaves, or burned witches? How would you feel dying if that could be how you end up being remembered?

      February 29, 2012 at 1:05 am |
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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.