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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. JRL

    When ideas can be presented, examined, tested, and criticized openly, religious ideas fail miserably. There are two, and only two methods by which religions survive:

    1) By presenting their religion to as many children as possible, as early as possible, as forcefully as possible, for as long as possible.
    2) By obtaining political and governmental power, so religion cannot be examined, tested, or criticized openly.

    Collegians are not children. College is not a closed system of ideas. College is not a problem for religion. Religion is the problem, period..

    February 29, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • Olde English D

      Our world is in a fast and downward spiral. The end is near if we don't get right with God ... and soon!

      February 29, 2012 at 2:15 am |
    • JRL

      DOWNWARD SPIRAL??? Only a religious person would think that.

      From the time of Moses to the Civil war, religion had free reign over the lives of man. And so did cholera, syphilis, bubonic plague, etc.

      It's only in the past 100 years or so that we started looking for answers outside of the church. And you know what? We found them! Today, our lives are longer, happier, healthier, safer, more peaceful, and less stressful than they were a century ago when religion ruled everyone's thoughts.

      Man prospers more and more the farther he moves away from religion. If anything is in a downward spiral, where it's end is coming soon, it is the end of religion. And good riddance.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:53 am |
  2. CollegeXtianDropout

    I was a committed Christian in college and a believer that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. I was wholeheartedly involved in a ministry to try and convince other college students to become Christians. Many of these students I tried to convert asked really difficult questions that I didn't know the answer to and caused me to do personal research and find the answers. The more I researched these troubling issues brought up by the students, the more I found the answers to the problems given by Christian Apologists were VERY unsatisfying intellectually. Before leaving college, I made the decision based on a perponderance of evidence that the Bible was a book written by men. Also, the god described in it was so intellectually and morally incompetent that it is still amazing to me that anyone (including myself) could ever believe in such an imperfect god. Here are a couple of examples of why I became very dissatisfied over the imperfect nature of the god described in the Bible:
    How could a god that gave the following fairly obvious moral principal make the mistake of contradicting himself so many times in his dealings with men?
    Here's a moral principal that the biblical god supposedly gave mankind:
    "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin." [Deuteronomy 24:16]

    That's a pretty clear and absolute statement of morality. Babies should never be punished for the sins of their fathers. That's concise and clear and is a very good moral precept to teach mankind. But is the biblical god capable of actually standing by his supposed own ideals? No! He commands his followers to kill even INFANTS in his name, and in doing so forever tainted the moral precept he supposedly gave mankind.

    This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' [1 Samuel 15:2-4]

    So the message the bible sends mankind is that it's sometimes acceptable to kill babies for the sins of their fathers even though it is never acceptable.

    Also, the biblical god should have been wise enough to realize the contradiction of punishing King David by killing his newborn son instead of abiding by his own supposed standards and demanding that David be killed for his sins of murder and adultery. If god really meant it when he said murderers and adulterers should be put to death; then it looks pretty foolish to let someone go who was guilty of these crimes. And then to make matters worse, it is even more foolish to kill the innocent baby and call it a punishment to the murderer and violate the “absolute” law that god was attempting to get humans to obey in the process. Mankind couldn’t ask for a worse role model than Yahweh!

    Even an atrocity like killing babies can be justified by bible believers by invoking god. If a human kills a baby without divine inspiration it is never ok. When a human kills a baby under divine inspiration it is always ok. Pretending that a god invented by the ancient Hebrews is the author of morality is a virus that blinds its followers so that they cannot even discern that killing of babies is wrong.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Q

      I perfectly agree. The apologists invariably respond with some variation of a "Nuremberg Defense", hoping to shield their moral culpability. It works in this context about as well as it did in 1945-46. They'll also conveniently ignore the implications upon "free will" in the killing of infants/children who haven't chosen evil and/or invoke some "but they're with God now" argument ignoring the brutality and unnecessary suffering. Somehow, I suspect even these apologists would humanely put their old and sick pets "to sleep" rather than butcher them alive to "end their suffering."

      February 29, 2012 at 2:25 am |
  3. Only1Voice

    Jesus said He came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37); I think Franklin Graham recognized people whose view of the Bible as truth guides their decisions, and not ones who seem to react to political expedience.
    Sorry you don't seem to like it; many young people don't like being told the Bible doesn't promote sleeping with your partner before marriage or following Luke 9:23. That was the result of another media survey; young people returned after they had children and wanted to provide a truth foundation for their children and families when they were more serious about God's truth than convenience.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • LORD TOM CRUISE

      wrong

      god doesn't exist

      the end

      thanks for playing

      February 29, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  4. LORD TOM CRUISE

    christianity is shit and so are all believers

    February 29, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  5. Dave

    Well said, Mr. King. Keep the faith, and stay focused on your mission. You're making a difference.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • LORD TOM CRUISE

      no he isn't

      February 29, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  6. waitasec

    the commodity of christianity is running out of resources...an idea can only be reinvented so many times until it's charm becomes a caricature of itself then it's just becomes a joke.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  7. Louise

    I don't think there's necessarily a causal relationship, it could just be that college tends to happen at the same time as you're gaining your financial independence from your parents and starting to feel more comfortable expressing your real views. It's like coming out of the closet, it's a good idea to secure your finances and living arrangements first.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:40 am |
  8. James Joy

    I grew up in a fundamentalist home and later went to a Christian School and later to a Fundamentalist Christian College. All my life I have been a person who constantly questioned everything I heard and loved science. It wasn't the science that drove me at first away though from church. It was hearing during the church about how we were to love others, and then listening to the deacons laugh and talk about how they should take out machine guns and kill all of the blacks who were protesting and asking for their rights. At college I saw that Christianity was about keeping a bunch of rules such as how low ones side burns were, or how high a womans skirts were, and other such nonsense. I began to ask myself if there was a God. But gradually realized that whether I believed in a God or not it was an act of faith either way. But I chose to believe in God and realized that for me then that if there was a God there was nothing in the Bible that could not be true. But I wasn't going to worry about what was discovered by science one way or another. Because I realized that the Bible was main purpose was to show us how to treat others. And that could all be summed up as Jesus said that if one loved God he would love others, all others. And if he did not love others he did not love God. He also made it very clear that we had to choose between loving wealth and loving God and others. I have since learned that I have only to listen to a person for a few minutes to discover which he loves. He will immediately as Jesus said show that he hates and despises others and loves wealth. Or that he loves others and hates and despises wealth. It always comes down to an issue of which I love.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  9. Dale Zalewski

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca (a contemporary of Jesus Christ) summed it up most eloquently....."religion is regarded by the educated as false, by the common people as true and, by the rulers as useful."

    February 29, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • LawnSausage

      The problem for religion is that educated and common people are now becoming one and the same, and hence the exodus. Snart people realize religion is a tool used by rulers, just like said, and only those who can't help themselves fall victim to religion. Those that think everything they can't explain comes from some god.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  10. Ari

    It's obvious isn't it, progressive thought comes from an educated and open mind, exposed to different ideas, tolerance, freedom of expression and thought – everything that religion isn't. Every statistic proves that the more educated people are, the less religious and socially conservative they are. Look at the red states as proof, the dumbest states are the poorest and usually the most religious and most conservative. Great news to hear that young people are leaving the dogma, hatred and repressive churches – its a sign we may finally be heading toward a truly progressive society

    February 29, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • BFischparov

      In your search for the obvious you missed (or avoided) a main obvious point of his article. His point was the true follower of Jesus Christ will be educated and open minded, exposed to different ideas, tolerant and open to freedom of expression and thought. It appears your stereotyping is exactly what the author is calling out as false. You are also wrong in what you claim every statistic shows. An actual search of the "statistics" will show at least one Christian religion where the more educated the member, the more "religious" the member. Although I do agree that many denominations follow the trend you describe.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:01 am |
  11. TR

    So republicans are to blame for young people leaving the church?

    This is as ridiculous as saying the Democrats are to blame.

    These idiotic political wars are damaging everyone and destroying trust. This author is a left-winger and believes the conservatives are to blame. It's the same old song but from the opposite point of view.

    I am so fed up with politics and the divisiveness.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • Elaine Cantalupo

      So this young man expresses his growth and how he serves God by inviting homeless people to dinner and you label him a leftist. Are you nuts? Are you so twisted that this is the best you've got in your brain? Grow up.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  12. Tumad

    Good article. Some well supported opinions. And wow lot of haters on Christianity out there. May your god whomever or noever he/she/it may be save you on that day. So, many of you have put your full faith behind it being nothing, I guess we will see in the end. In the mean time, you might want to tone down your rhetoric, as manh of you are contradicting yourselves. Believe in whatever you want is your message, but don't believe in any organized religion right?

    February 29, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Christians are polytheists

      You're free to believe in whatever you want. And I'm free to point out logical inconsistencies in that belief. If you don't like to be question, no one is forcing you to read or reply to these posts.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • LORD TOM CRUISE

      the bible contradicts itself

      the end

      February 29, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • Olde English D

      @LTC,

      Another lie perpetuated by those who refuse to understand. God, and his word, are never contradictory. This is an impossibility. Any appearances of contradictions are due either to a poor translation or gross misunderstanding.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • All Thumbs

      Olde English,

      Evangelical Rule of Thumb:

      If a bible verse furthers the cause, it is to be taken literally. If a bible verse is detrimental to the cause, it is either: taken out of context; is allegorical; refers to another verse somewhere else; is an ancient cultural anomaly; is a translation or copyist's error; means something other than what it actually says; Is a mystery of god or not discernible by humans; or is just plain magic.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:30 am |
  13. David

    Simple formula – faith = thumbs up. Religion = thumbs down.
    Faith and religion have nothing to do with each other. There are a lot of young people who
    have faith. Just because they don't go to Sunday mass, doesn't mean they have lost their faith.
    They just don't want to sit in the pews with the hypocrites.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • LORD TOM CRUISE

      wrong

      faith does not exist without religion and religion doesn't exist without faith

      stop pretending that faith isn't in the same sinking ship as religion because it is

      jesus christ why are people so stupid

      February 29, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  14. Kimberley

    MedStudent, you are 100% correct. God and religion are fantasies that a lot of people apparently need to tell themselves in order to make it through the difficulties of life. If it works for them, fine, I just don't want to be bothered with the nonsense. I personally think that adults need to face facts: there is NO big, friendly man living in the sky who works magic tricks and is always on your side! Wow, people need to grow up.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  15. Mark

    Okay so this does not add up. Rick says education is elitist? Correct? That is leads to the deterioration of faith, correct? But Ricky HAS an undergraduate from Penn, an MBA from University of Pittsburgh AND a LAW degree from Dickinson Law

    So he can but we can't, is that what we are left to conclude.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Olde English D

      Santorum's faith is stronger than most. He was able to avoid temptation and stay true to his faith where other weaker men would fail. He is a great man that will lead our country to glory.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  16. Olde English D

    Santorum is a genius. His moral compass will guide this nation to greatness once again. He will get us right with God and save this nation from Satan's grip.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Elaine Cantalupo

      You must have started drinking early today to believe the immoral Sanctimonious Rick is a great man. Ask him how he cheated Pennsylvania out or nearly $100,000 to pay for his kids "education". Ask him why he lived in a big house in Virginia while supposedly representing Pennsylvania and claimed living expenses for. He is not a great man, just a two-faced liar who commits a Mortal Sin everything he lies about our nation's President. He is a liar, a big liar.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • Olde English D

      The godless left distorts the truth to discredit this wonderful American. Once he's elected the leader of our nation we shall see what a truly righteous and wonderful man he is.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:02 am |
    • Elaine Cantalupo

      Sanctimonious Rick is a deeply twisted man with an evil mind. Only evil people would want this man in power. God saves us from those as evil as Ricky.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Olde English D

      @Elaine,

      The Great Deceiver, Satan, has obviously pulled the wool over your eyes. I will pray for you.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • JRL

      @Olde English D

      LOL Okay. I will think for you! 🙂

      February 29, 2012 at 2:59 am |
  17. Shorn

    "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."

    I love the Jesus I read about in scripture. I have yet to find a church that teaches how to follow His example. They all twist His message, all of them. These people who support war, support the death penalty, spit on the poor and idolize the rich are not in any sense Christian.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:21 am |
    • Christians are polytheists

      Isn't it odd how jesus' message is so radically different than the eye-for-an-eye, you can beat your slaves to death so long as they don't die the same day god of the O.T. Either the christian god is a schizophrenic, or christians are polytheists.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  18. Olaf Big

    So, my question is, why does a thinking compassionate guy like you need religion? From all you said, it sounds like you are ready, and should leave it behind. The reason why the church does not live up to that ideal image of Christianity you have in you head is that that image is and has always been nothing more than a facadet for greed, hypocrisy, abuse and exploitation.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:20 am |
  19. thes33k3r

    Good. Leave the church. Tax the church. Morality is not dependent on believing in unsupported supernatural claims.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  20. medstudent

    The increasingly educated youth is turning away from religion because it is difficult for a truly educated mind to accept jealous, needy deities, talking snakes, magical prophets, demons, devils and threats of eternal torment in a land of fire as truth.

    Archaeological evidence supports what most educated theological scholars already hypothesized – that modern religion is the evolution of ancient paegan traditions,altered via oral and written tradition by an elite ruling class as a means of keeping the fickle mobs of peasants making up the majority of the population in check.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • thes33k3r

      Good post. I think you nailed it.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • TR

      In fact, the height of militant atheism was in the late 19th century and the prophecies of the end of religion proved to be entirely false.

      I am so tired of these groups hating each other. Now we have bitter, enraged atheists who demand that everyone believe and think the same way and mock and ridicule the spiritual and devotional life. That is not 'educated'. It is absurd.

      They are just fundamentalists of a different type – materialist fundamentalists

      February 29, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • Jason Mitchell

      We need more teachers and leaders like this poster to help hasten the long-overdue decline and fall of religion. The US is paying a heavy price in science and education for having a populace and political body positively sick with religious insanity. It seems that most young people have a better BS detector than previous generations. Let's hope they wrestle their minds free.

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

      All this came from Archealogical evidence? That's quite doubtful. The majority of that statement is inference on someone's part. If, however, you are talking about Chrisianity's turn for the worse because of Rome then I assure you it was much better prior to the catholic tradition.

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

      Truly excellent post. I have no issue with someone who believes these things (or Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Leap Day William), but when it starts to affect us non-believers, it's a problem. For example, banning birth control because of an archaic view that "human life begins at conception". I have news for you: 80% of zygotes (a fertilized ovum - it's not an embryo until after implantation) spontaneously abort due to genetic transcription errors or a failure to implant in the womb. If each of these is an "ensouled" human life, that would be too horrible to contemplate and purgatory is sure going to be crowded.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • Elaine Cantalupo

      You left out Romney's magic underpants. What is that about anyway?

      February 29, 2012 at 1:49 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.