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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. Sam

    The solution is simple! Down with education! It's screwing up our society and children, we must end education if we are to be good christians!

    Besides, the bible gives us all the knowledge we need, sure it might help us to understand science but I'd rather live like they did 2000yrs ago than to have to give up my faith. We must outlaw school or at least control the curriculum so that they're not allowed to teach logic & reasoning.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • phenoy

      Ok, then we can just setup schools like full-time Bible camps and call them "Madrassas"

      February 29, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  2. DaveinSC

    Does Samtorum's remarks mean that Christians will stop going to college?

    February 29, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  3. Joke

    Ultimately, when the veil is lifted over religion by the light of Reason, there can be no doubt that childish notions of an omnipresent god cannot survive. This shows that American is rising out of the mire of puberty into adult nationhood.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Edwin

      I disagree. I think the author is quite correct here - it is Christianity which is killing Christianity, not Science killing Christianity.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • phenoy

      Christianity is killing Christianity because the message, the actions of so-called 'Christians' are not Christian.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  4. Tony

    Reasons

    1) Many aren't even believers to begin with. Just because they go to a church, does that make them a Christian? Don't believe the hype.

    2) Higher education used to embrace the Christian faith- in fact, Christians were the ones who built universities. Ignoring this is pure ignorance. Higher education is continually built on a secular worldview

    3) Churches don't prepare young people (or older people) to think deeply about theology. Therefore "higher education" is made to be academic, and church is seen as "anti intellectual". I have very rational reasons for my faith and can argue it using logic. How many youth groups are wasting time doing pizza parties instead?

    This is a horribly researched article

    February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Dave

      I appreciated your comments Tony, thanks!

      February 29, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  5. Bill Wright

    College is not responsible for turning me from Christianity. The Catholic Church is. No one has done more to turn me atheist than the Pope.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • Dave

      Look at Christ, not the church. You wouldn't normally walk into a doctor's office and look around at all the sick people and leave because there's nothing but sick people in the waiting room, right? look at Christ, not the other sick people because not a one of them isn't a sinner...just like me n' you but they serve a perfect Savior

      February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  6. Rational Atheist

    It may be that when rational people get an education they find more things to do with their time than praying to a goalie statue at the front of the room. And what about some of the nonsense that comes from the pulpit? All this bull that Jesus would kill gays? Serious? Or that Obama is a devil? Really? And we wonder why young, rational, educated people are leaving the church?

    February 29, 2012 at 1:09 am |
  7. James Ruston

    I was an active church member as a child and as a teenager, even serving as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church. Theology, however, was never much of a concern. Rather it was the community and the ritual that attracted me. My study of theology, which was not formal but a personal search, coincided with my study of science in college. Some tenets of the theology were clearly incompatible with science, and science won. To me, it simply came down to a difference between fairy tales and evidence. I don't know if I would have gone through this process had I not gone to college, but I think I would have. I know I would have rejected the fundamentalist approach to religion in any case.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:04 am |
  8. Face

    It has been determined that children who go to public elementary schools stop believing in Santa all together.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:03 am |
  9. Dave

    Tim King, let's have a little bit of faith here. We KNOW that the Bible tells us during the last days, there will be a falling away and I think a lot of what we are seeing is just that, a great falling away. As far as politics, if more Christians were more into the Word, there probably wouldn't be a Barack Obama presidency to start with. They would reject him soundly! Many of his stands on what are termed as social issues today are so contrary to what the Bible teaches us. How some churches and gloss over that, I cannot say but they will give account one day! Woe to their pastors that lead the flock this direction! Then again, Jesus talks about standing at the door and knocking..wanting in. I'm afraid a lot of churches today have shut the door on the founder of the church, Jesus!

    Many elected Obama based on the economy and said it excused all the other sinful stands of Barack Obama. Well, I think it's who you put your faith in, God or man. Once God reminded someone that he had 7,000 who hadn't bowed their knee to Baal. I can promise you this much, there's far more than that today! Young Mr. King, if you want your faith bolstered, down look around you but look up! It's the only place it comes from

    February 29, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • James Ruston

      Dave: Your approach to religion is what is turning off so many. it's my way or the highway for you, and your way is narrow an intolerant.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Chris R

      And here we have someone who didn't bother reading or thinking about what was written in the article. As a fellow Christian I should also point out that the Revelations was written as a message to contemporary Christians of John of Patmos. A message that they should endure because the real enemy of the Christians, the Roman Empire, would soon fall away and be replaced by a kingdom of God. It was not meant to be a literal description of the 'end of days'.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Rational Atheist

      Yep, Dave. You're a real class act aren't you? Did you stop to think that Jesus spent most of his time preaching about love and NEVER talked up revelations? Didn't He spend more time talking about forgiving sins than persecuting people for committing them – that whole "first stone" thing, right? You may be righteous as hell, but buddy – it don't mean that you're right.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • Dave

      I read the article very carefully, I found it very disturbing. I found it ironic that he took time to note that Franklin Grahm said it wasn't his place to judge consider Obama's faith (personally, I strongly suspect Obama is an atheist and I have no qualms with saying that because I do believe the Bible gives me the right as I believe that Obama has a special amount or degree of accountability, and yeah, that's just my opinion here) but yet...judges and says that it seems that "Christian leaders always seem to be; pro-rich, pro-white, pro-America and anti-gay"

      February 29, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • phenoy

      I think that the biggest mistake the so called 'righteous Christians' do is being what they are, righteous. Just because you had an emotional moment when you felt that you were 'saved' doesn't mean that you can act like God and judge other people like God.You are not God. Even thinking that you are 'saved' is the most arrogant, pompous thing a Christian can do. There is no proof theres a God and even if you suspect there is one, NOBODY knows if He will 'save' you or not. So dont be conceited. Even Jesus purportedly said "he who has not sinned cast the first stone?". What about 'the meek shall inherit the earth'? Funny thing is Jesus had a description for all the high and mighty righteous Christians these days and he calls them Pharisees...

      February 29, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • Dave

      phenoy, do you even know who 'The Meek' here are? it is those who were willing to submit themselves before a Holy God for salvation..not the proud that resist God. I don't believe I'm saved because I feel it, I believe it because Christ said it

      February 29, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • Christians are polytheists

      "I believe it because Christ said it"

      Well, technically someone that wasn't there and may have never even met the guy said that he said it. But if you're willing to trust a decades-long game of telephone, more power to you.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • phenoy

      When you say 'submit', does that mean also giving everything up just to follow him?
      Let me tell you who the 'meek' is. They are the humble people of this earth who do things not for themselves but for the good of others; you can also add here 'in HIS name'. YOu can 'submit yourself for salvation but if you act like a Pharisee and don't humble yourself not only to 'Him' but to your fellow men as well, well then I guess good luck on that salvation thing because if there is a God, then he is not stupid. Man's primary function is to be good to his fellow men, not to act like God.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • netofunk

      Dave,
      Loony. I grew in a Pentecostal home so I'm a recovering christian who's somewhat familiar with your tone. Isn't it funny that the bible is filled with the phrase,"you are living in the last days". It's found so very often. SO, which is it? Were the people of the bible living in the last days or are we? Also, do I recognize the "anti-christ" subtext to your Obama take? Oh- and bar codes are the sign of the beast, the rapture will happen soon, ushering the 7 years of tribulation followed by 1000 years of peace on earth. Dispensationalism was a 19th century creation.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  10. tex

    GREAT! its high time they received a complete education of enlightenment where they shed the bonds of parenting and open their minds to philosophy other than the one they were raised in. Good work colleges, keep it up!

    February 29, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  11. Sonic10158

    Im in college and I still follow christianity. I believe what I believe. That doesnt mean I cant accept science because those are two totally different things. Atheists may attack me, but this is a free country and I can follow a religion if I want to. Religion doesn't make anyone evil or arrogant or bad, what makes some (keyword: some) religious people those things is because they arent true to their religion. The individual makes the individual bad, not religion or the lack of. And no, Im not a right-wing extremist or a GOPer. Im a social liberal and a fiscal conservative (so was Bill Clinton). In fact, I am an independent /rant

    I agree this this article. I think he hit the nail on the head.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • medstudent

      Pro Tip: Stay in college longer and take some english courses, your communication skills are quite poor. Grammatical errors aside, your statement is barely syntactically cohesive to the point where extrapolating what idea you are attempting to convey is unnecessarily difficult.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Andrew

      I totally agree with you. It is very important that the radicals don't give Christianity a bad name. Who are they to define what Christianity is. I think If Jesus came back today and walked into their church they would throw him out for not being a good christian. People should follow the bible with their own interpretations like it was ment to be. Same with any religion. People are just people they are not divine despite the fact that they think they are. When they convince people they are you get large numbers of suicide bombers or people who think gays should be executed or think women are lessor then men. Religion is for a human beings personal relationship with god only not for some wacko to judge and control large amounts of people to gain power. Unfortunately those people prey on the unintelligent and abuse the religion. So sad

      February 29, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Andrew

      And med student you are the typical stereotypical college know it all. you are an arrogant boso. who are you to judge others

      February 29, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • phenoy

      Andrew: I think it is all right to individually interpret the Bible, but this method is also open to ' messages lost in translation' . Jim Jones, David Koresh, they all individually interpreted the Bible. Joseph Smith did his version and came up with Mormonism. Make sure you are of sound mind and 'spirit'; the psychotic brain can churn out rather creative versions.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  12. Abba-Dabba-Du

    Write an article like this about Muslims, and there's a price on your head. See the difference enlightened ones?

    February 29, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • Chris R

      I don't see your point – well not in context of this article. Are you saying that because some Muslim's abuse the faith for political purposes we shouldn't look at the current failings in Christian churches?

      February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Dean

      Absolute rubbish. You've simply fallen victim to classic fallacious reasoning... which is not surprising, actually

      February 29, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Oh definitely – the followers of their fairy tale are more radical than the followers of your fairy tale. Congrats on that.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  13. Patrick Crosby

    "Bad Faith." Love it! This kid is a GENIUS! Obviously he's read Sartre! Who knows? Maybe even Ricoeur? Maybe religion does have a future after all. Before reading this, I was convinced it didn't.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:58 am |
  14. Qularkono

    it is a shame to see how an intelligent man can twist what is going on to support the conclusion he had prior to doing any "analysis". Sure, there are hypocrits in the church. Christ warned us about them (the wolves in sheeps clothing) ... yes the visible church has wolves and sheep, tares and wheat, hypocrits and true believers ... but God protects the remnant in every generation. Those that leave the church (truly leave it) were never of the body of believers in the first place. But God will accept every one of His children into his home (heaven) and will not leave a single one behind ... it is His home and entrants must meet His standards. All those that don't meet those standards (acceptance of Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior) will spend enternity alone with the full wrath of God for their rebellion against Him.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:56 am |
    • stan miller

      WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE WHO LIVED BEFORE THE NEWCOMER JESUS?

      February 29, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Chris R

      See, this is the thing that bugs me as a Catholic. You don't seem to worship a loving god but a wrathful one that has no place in It's heart for redemption or love that doesn't fit your standards. Let me say this and I hope you hear it. A person who turns away from God because of the poor example of 'Christians' is a tragedy in God's eyes. My feeling is that they would be far more welcome in the Kingdom than any number of people who can quote the Bible chapter and verse without understanding it. Try this, say the Lord's Prayer and really think about what it means. Then decide if you are really living your life in emulation of Christ.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • mystrk77

      So...this righteous and just God created us and created a devil that would eventually go against him and cause all of us to fall into sin and therefore millions of us would have to suffer for all eternity in a lake of fire that God also created?

      If I were to raise one of my children and train them to go into the world and be a serial killer I would be held responsible just as my child would. So who is holding this God responsible for creating a devil that is going to damn billions of people that don't follow him.

      And will all you christians please stop trying to act like you are trying to save humanity with your religion. Most so called christians would give up their beliefs in a heartbeat if there wasn't a prize at the end. Just like most of the people christians condemn for selfish acts, the simple act of being a christian so that you can go to heaven is a selfish act. If you took heaven out of the equation, would many still stay with christianity...I think not!

      February 29, 2012 at 1:32 am |
  15. Sandy

    Hypocrisy. That word is overused in conjunction with Christians, especially because all people have a tendency to say one thing and do another, or to act one way so as to make themselves seem above reproach to others, or to treat one person differently from another. So, I disagree with the author (and every other person who has used this excuse) that the reason people are leaving the church is because of hypocrisy. Personally, I think it is because the church has not done a good job of welcoming doubt, controversy, a seeking faith, and true Christ-love, the kind that builds up a community of conversing and compassionate believers. By the way, I believe God likes diversity, and I see no need for the kumbaya approach to gather all denominations and faiths around a campfire to hold hands and sing unity songs. God is big enough to handle tough questions, and Christians (of all people) should be the ones willing to have discussions around tough topics (not condemnation speeches, but real, intellectual discussions). Fundamentalists of all faiths somehow have faith skewed with the preconceived notion that they have to defend God. God doesn't need defending! But he sure does look for those who seek him with all their heart. Seeking means that we don't have the answers yet, but we are looking, looking, looking. And faith means that we haven't stopped looking.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  16. GaryB

    I used to work with a "christian" woman who said that she couldn't wait for the rapture, so that she could laugh at all the non-christians when she was bing raptured away while they were suffering on earth. I've since noticed that sort of mean streak in a lot of people who claim to be Christians. Like, say, Rick Santorum, they're basically faith snobs, believing that their own limited interpretation of the bible and faith in general is the onr, only, right way. That wouldn't be such a big deal, except the conservative faith snobs keep trying to indoctrinate all of us and try to use politics to push their fragile human beliefs on the rest of us. The other problem is how easily those types of folks are tricked by the corporate/governmental powers that be into using the ballot box to do some very un-Christian like things, but that's a discussion for another day.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:50 am |
  17. Kris

    Just proves a simple point. Smart people don't believe in garbage.

    Religion has killed more people in the world than any other cause, and was designed to enslave people. Tax the church, and you'd have millions less faux-believers.

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

      What about Godless Communism\Socialism? Only around for a hundred years and how many dead??

      February 29, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Ian

      Not even close. Mao-70 million, Hitler-6 million, Stalin-13 million. But you're right, because the crusades did kill tens of thousands 6 centuries ago.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:06 am |
    • *facepalm*

      @Ian, Hitler was a christian, and Mao and Stalin didn't kill because of their unbelief. It was not the driving factor, unlike the crusades (which killed between an estimated one million to five million in total).

      February 29, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  18. shamdog6

    Very well-written article. Santorum's argument that higher education is driving young people away from the church is a chilling reflection of what I've seen in Afghanistan. The poor, illiterate, uneducated mob has nothing to turn to but religion. That same poor, illiterate, uneducated mob blindly follows the commands of their religious leaders. Jihad against the infidels! Kill Americans in Kabul because a Quran was burned in Bagram! Kill United Nations staffers in Mazar-e-sharif because a Quran was put on trial and burned in Florida! Religious extremism thrives on an uneducated population. Education does not turn people away from religion because their teachers urge them to abandon their faith. Education makes people question organized religion because they learn to think for themselves, to question all that they have been taught and form their own ideas.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  19. One Who Chose Education

    I chose to pursue education. Alas, I eventually found that religious views were incompatible with knowledge.

    I recently read an introduction from a book given to me by one who did not fall away like I did. The author explained proudly that she knew the Bible was the only truth. It was, she explained, the only book that is so true it has never changed. Science ideas and secular history sources, she criticized, keep changing and this was proof to her that there was no truth in them and you cannot rely on the information they contain.

    Then she explained that due to the fact that the Bible clearly, to her at least, states that there was no death before Adam that the fossil record cannot be accurate. She would therefore state all past dates in her book using the "accurate" dates that correspond with the Bible.

    I never made it into the book.

    WARNING: If you "believe" and feel it is necessary for you to continue believing for personal reasons or to fit into your social and familial groups, DO NOT GO TO COLLEGE or at the least go to a protected school that will filter out the truth. Religion cannot exist in the light of knowledge. 62% of students with faith entering college find out their faith is junk and abandon it. If you value your faith don't go there!

    PS. Don't blame the universities, they are just the messengers, this has been going on for 100's of years. Century after century religions have had to concede their beliefs to science.

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

      Thank you. I was going to jump in here and write something similar, but I think you pretty much summed it up.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Kevin Donohue

      I guess it depends on how you define 'believe.' The creation story in Genesis can be read as historic fact (in which case it fails the reality test) or as a poetic evocation of the grandeur of creation. It can also be compared to contemporaneous creation myths, full of egotistical gods doing all sorts of childish things, whereby is looks like a fairly rational, organized approach to the emergence of the universe – inaccurate to be sure, but somehow very different qualitatively than most other such myths. You can say the universe is less than 6,000 years old and that all species were created as they are now by the divine hand (reality test...) or you can see the divine hand at work in the fact that atoms can form molecules, and molecures can form DNA, and that the entire system has such flexibility built in that evolution, necessary for adaptation and survival in a dynamic world, becomes a thing of awesome wonder. There is belief and then there is belief...

      February 29, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  20. Dizzyd

    The way Christians act toward each other is also a reason ppl leave the church. I know – that's why my husband and I left. The ppl don't stand with you as you struggle. I've seen it in church after church. It's sad, really. It's a wonder we have any faith. Must be the hope for heaven! I wonder if you went through something similar, momoya. Sorry for what you are going through! This was a thought-provoking discussion. We really should examine our faith, and show the real type, instead of the 'fundie' type. I'm still looking for it myself!
    P.S. Is it me, or is 'Atheism is not healthy' repeating themselves? Lol!

    February 29, 2012 at 12:44 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.