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. JFritz

    Young people have been leaving the church in droves at least as long as I've been an adult–too many decades to dwell on. It's what young people do, question the meaning of it all. Then they get old, infirm, and panic; or they get kids and think they have to take them to church. Evangelicals have made "poor us, we're under siege" their banner for some time now. Blowing smoke.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:52 am |
    • Olde English D

      We are under siege. This country is under siege. God is under siege. The left seeks to deny this to demoralize the righteous. We must fight back against godless by whatever means reasonably necessary

      February 29, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • JFritz

      As I said below, Olde English, you want to bring back those god fearin', Bible-thumpin', prayer in schools (segregated, of course), church goin' days of yore? Slavery, child labor–all in those good old days. Oh, puhlease. The world creeps ever so slowly into the light, and you want to drag it back.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • Olde English D

      God was still in the classroom after we abolished slavery and reformed labor laws. We can reintroduce God into the classroom without having to re-segregate. Nice try. You fail.

      The path we are on is not sustainable. This country will fail without Jesus. We need Rick Santorum to bring us back to God.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:26 am |
  2. James

    There are too many bad things being done and said in the name of religion. I am a catholic but I lean towards the Buddhist philosophy. You will not hear Buddhists tell you that their's is the best religion, instead they will tell you that if you are a Catholic, be the best Catholic you can be, if you are a Muslim, be the best Muslin you can be, if you are a Jew, be the best Jew you can be etc. They are completely non-judgemental. Although I am a Catholic, I sometimes feel that the world will be better off without religions.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:51 am |
  3. GaryB

    The separation of Church and State is good for the Church and good for the State. The "silent majority" denied this and now its' a very vocal minority that is frankly quite off putting and distasteful. I you have to be republican to be religious, what happens when they lose?

    February 29, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • Olde English D

      The farther this country gets from god, the worse off we are. Only by doing away with the establishment clause of the first amendment can we ever truly make progress.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:00 am |
  4. Jesus

    As a 22 year old who recently graduated from a 4 year college and a current graduate student, I can give an easy answer as to why my generation is losing faith. In college, we hear arguments, different points of view, and debates about topics we usually don't hear growing up. Usually whatever your parents believe goes uncontested and you don't care about evidence or debates. In college, many people stop acting like sheep and truly pick their own brains to see where they stand as an individual. The number one cause for becoming Atheist or Agnostic is education. The more educated someone is, the more likely they are to be non-believers. When you are well educated, you know how to critically think and you begin to realize what a scam and a joke religion is. As a Psychology graduate student, you can easily imply that most if not all of my professors with Ph D.'s are non-believers. Same with my undergraduate experience.

    There is a strong correlation between higher IQ and being a non-believer. From my experiences, that has been confirmed. A well-educated and open-minded young person is religion's worst enemy.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Unfortunately this is just not true. I went to an Engineering School n on de whole time 2 participate in religious activities was a challenge for de religious leading to falling grades. IQ is a function of time n selection. If I read more of what comes up in IQ tests more of de time my IQ will climb

      February 29, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • Jesus

      If you can't even understand the English language correctly, I doubt you are educated enough.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:56 am |
    • Phil

      Well said. And the evidence supports your argument.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • I disagree

      I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry, both my undergraduate and graduate degrees were from schools in the mid-west. During both my undergraduate and graduate careers I had mentors that were men of faith and I can say that among my fellow graduate students there was a fairly typical distribution of faith beliefs. Now I will agree about the statement on hypocrisy turns off many young people. I will let Madame Curie quote serve"Let everybody keep his own faith so long as it is sincere. Only hypocrisy irritates me—and it is as widespread as true faith is rare… I hate hypocrisy." Here is an interesting article that contains actual data on faith and science: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/24/opinion/la-oe-masci24-2009nov24

      February 29, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      These religions produced Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, Copernicus, Avicenna, Herodotus, Kublai Khan, Emperor Meiji, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali,etc who followed their teachings. If they were bad doctors wud have advised against them. However dey r de most religious scientists

      February 29, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  5. Cambob

    Faith allows for the construct of morals and the concepts of right and wrong. Blind faith is a sure sign of stupidity and laziness. Organized religion is one mans method of controlling another man.
    To simplify: Belief in God provides you with a moral compass. Belief in religious doctrines twists your moral compass according to other men's needs and desires.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      CAMBOB u r spot on. When we as Christians realise how much dogma and ritual leave us as sitting ducks, we will take up the standard of love and become raging bulls. It is time a Christianity that prays, teaches and lives LOVE becomes established around the world not just in America.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:48 am |
    • Jesus

      Morality has been proven to be innate over and over. Look to the animal world. Monkeys, elephants, etc. show love, compassion, sadness, mourning, jealousy, etc. Certain animals protect their young and if another animal comes too close they will protect them. Some animals even help save others being hunted and ward off predators. How can you explain this? Animals are not religious, so how can they have morality according to you?

      Bottom line: there is nothing a religious person can do that a non-believer can't. Religion does not have a monopoly on goodness and love.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:51 am |
  6. watash

    What do you expect when you see someone like Franklin Graham, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich using the Christianity theme to try and convince folks that our President is an evil man. Whatever you believe in is just a matter of opinion anyway. Some of these blowhard Republicans say they are good, but in the eyes of the voters they are something else.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • Olde English D

      Our president may not be an evil man, but the path to hell is paved with good intentions – and he and the left are leading us away from God and ever downward.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:43 am |
  7. Nii Croffie


    February 29, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  8. errr

    Proof that Atheists are closet Communists?

    Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
    Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

    February 29, 2012 at 2:29 am |
    • Patriarchae

      Cool, just because Marx may have been an atheist doesn't mean that all atheists (or even more than 1%) are communists. Your logic is like that of a 7 year old. Which, by your logic, would mean all religionists have the intellectual capacity of a 7-year-old. Use your brain before you post crap.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • errr

      Atheism is the natural and inseparable part of Communism.” (attributed to Vladimir I. Lenin)

      February 29, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  9. Justin Cohen

    One major factor in why young adults are leaving the church is because they have never been discipled, they have been entertained. We no longer teach young people why we believe what we believe and impart critical thinking skills.
    If we would focus on apologetics, we would produce young adults who would understand Biblical positions and be able to defend them in a clear, logical, and respectful way.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • Tim

      Being "discipled" is the exact reason YOUR kind are driving the younger generation away from religion. It has been stated by the Church NUMEROUS times that faith is a belief system and not a science and you continue to preach it as though it is one. THAT is why you continue to drive people away by preaching doomsdays and repetence. You seek to strike fear into submission rather than having voluntary faith. You seek to indoctrinate and be the sole hypocrisy by attempting to brainwash subjects into YOUR beliefs. You're not preaching about belief either in that matter. You are preaching what you belief is fact without any evidence. Your approach might have worked 400 years ago, but it will NEVER work again. How about you reform your approach in delivering Christian values like an actual Christian than attempt to herd another obedient lapdog?

      February 29, 2012 at 2:49 am |
  10. Nii Croffie

    Religious and pious Christians are destroying the faith. All u think about is dogma n ritual. Our faith was built on love n those others are additions. What he was saying was that we shud focus on developing Christianity with spirituality rather than religiosity n piety. U r an example of de problem

    February 29, 2012 at 2:28 am |
  11. derrick

    Wow! i have been reading this since ten...

    February 29, 2012 at 2:26 am |
  12. Phil

    Santorum received his law degree from Penn State and graduated with honors. He's part of that class of college educated upper class that some people call 'the elite'. Gee, if he's so smart, I wonder why his public statements have all been brought down to the 'stupid' level. Could it be that he knows his republican audience too well?

    The republican masses need to wake up to the fact that they're being manipulated like pawns. Republican politicians don't give a damn about you or the social issues they talk about. Any idea why they oppose education? It's because they know that an educated public won't vote republican. Get a clue. They're pandering. This should be obvious to you by now. It would be, if you only had a brain.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:25 am |
    • Justin Cohen

      Statistics indicate that the uneducated vote Democrat. Most minorities, immigrants, and poor vote for their political Santa Clause.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • Olde English D

      Education isn't the problem. Godless education is. We need to bring prayer and god back into the classroom to have any hope of redeeming our country.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Educated men of religion have been educated to be emotionally mature and rationally adept as well. Why do you think all America's Presidents have been Christians? A moral compass helps.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • *facepalm*

      " all America's Presidents have been Christians?"

      At a bare minimum, Jefferson and Adams were most definitely not christians.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • still-life

      The statisitcs say that the uneducated vote democrat? Evidently we are reading VERY different statistics.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:48 am |
    • Phil

      Mixing education and religion is an oxymoron. Anyway, which of the many gods should we teach about? How's this for a class schedule?

      School Schedule
      9:00 AM: Islam
      10:00 AM: Judaism
      11:00 AM: Buddhism
      12:00: Lunch
      1:00: Hinduism
      2:00: Confucianism

      Anyway, all religious people are atheists about all religions except for theirs. I just prefer to go one more.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:56 am |
    • JFritz

      Oh, Olde English, those wonderful old days–slavery, segregation, child labor. Yup, those were the good old, church goin', god-fearin' days.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:06 am |
  13. Nii Croffie

    Ok now this is the deal if u can live by the Ten Commandments and the Law even if u do not know them u r righteous. Christianity and Science r based on childlike faith aka inquisitiveness. Law n theology r based on Skepticism. Great Scientists have been religious. The Big Bang is by a RCC Priest.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  14. errr

    Estimated number of victimsIn the introduction, editor Stéphane Courtois asserts that "...Communist regimes... turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government"[3]. He cites a death toll which totals 94 million[4], not counting the "excess deaths" (decrease of the population due to lower than-expected birth rates). The breakdown of the number of deaths given by Courtois is as follows:

    65 million in the People's Republic of China
    20 million in the Soviet Union[5][page needed]
    2 million in Cambodia
    2 million in North Korea
    1.7 million in Africa
    1.5 million in Afghanistan
    1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe
    1 million in Vietnam[6][page needed]
    150,000 in Latin America
    10,000 deaths "resulting from actions of the international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power."[4]
    Courtois claims that Communist regimes are responsible for a greater number of deaths than any other political ideal or movement, including Nazism. The statistics of victims includes executions, intentional destruction of population by starvation, and deaths resulting from deportations, physical confinement, or through forced labor.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  15. Bad article

    Clearly, you are anti-Christian, anti-faith, and have learned to speak all this rhetorical Christian bashing well . Oh but you are for freedom of religion, right? The slant was so leaning liberal, leftist, I almost fell off my chair reading it. Please, spare me.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • claas

      Bad article or bad reading skills I have to ask here.

      But it must be fashionable to declare faith as religion with politics and add some bigotry to it.

      But what can one expect when even political candidates embarrass the USA world wide for verbal stupidity and voters not throwing them out because they even buy those propaganda tones.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • Katie

      what are you talking about? in fact, your answer to this post is further proving his point. This isn't even a left or right winged article. The article wasn't even about freedom of religion. Your post is pugnacious and quite mean, which seems opposite of what Christianity is based off of. Why are you even reading CNN if you hate everything with more of a liberal viewpoint? The whole entire article is summed up in this sentence: people are leaving the church because of the hypocrisy they have witnessed more than peer pressure (or "professor pressure" in this sense). The end. It makes you think about what you say and how you act as a Christian. Is what you're saying out of love? are we treating people like Jesus would? This is one of the best articles I've read in long time.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:50 am |
  16. Nebo

    Religion is based on faith: heart. College is based on brain: mind. You cannot mix science and religion, there is no data in religion. When people try that they go crazy or they stop going to church. If the furthest galaxy is 16 billion light years, how long will take the dead to get to heaven? or hell?
    I think people saying we should mix religion and state are using their heart, what religion? do you satrt favoring baptist teaching over mormons? can we vote for Mitt? do you judge people based on what they do? or based on what they believe in? if a person is living by the ten comendments and is not christian, is that ok?

    February 29, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • Justin Cohen

      You should take the time to read and investigate the proofs for theism and more specifically Christianity. There are scientific and historical facts that can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the credibility for Christianity. Not faith – facts – using the mind – critical thinking and examination of the evidence.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • localdelii

      Faith in Christ is not about laws or commandments, but about the willingness to give oneself completely to God. It's knowing that when we fail—as we all do—that through God's grace we have forgiveness. There is no one who is righteous by God's standards. There is freedom in Christ and it's not particularly the yankee-doodle-dandy kind either considering Christianity is over 2,000 years old. There is also the gift of eternal life in a place where there are no more tears. Frankly, the choice seems pretty clear for as all the atheists point out herein; it's not rocket science.

      February 29, 2012 at 3:08 am |
  17. EJF

    This is a good article and many of the follow-up posts ask legitimate questions about the nature and character of God. To read a free excerpt on this matter go to HTDYSL.com and look for the entry "Put God in a Theological Box".

    February 29, 2012 at 2:13 am |
  18. logicnothuff

    you are a lib. they wouldn't let you play at cnn unless you were a liberal. franklin graham is right. family research council is right.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • still-life

      "franklin graham is right. family research council is right."
      You mean Franklin Graham is right-wing. Family Research Council is right-wing.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:54 am |
  19. Phil

    Religion is clearly a creation of man and is a legacy of man's ignorant past. Intelligent, educated people recognize this. Modern discoveries have replaced the ancient dogma and cute stories told in dusty books with miraculous incites into the splendor and true wonders of nature on our small planet and in our vast universe. We clearly live in a universe much too large for any of the ego-centric gods invented by small-minded humans.

    It's no surprise that there is an inverse relationship between religious belief and education level. All in all, this is a good thing. The sooner Americans, and all humans, become more educated and turn away from religion, the faster our species can intelligently deal with reality and find ways to make it into the next century without destroying ourselves and the natural world that supports our very existence.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:03 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      Unfortunately for u since the advent of Man our minds haven't changed much. Scientists regard us as emotional animals rather than intelligent ones. The religious texts work on this theme. The Bible is very accurate in Human Psychology 4 an old book. Emotional maturity is needed for rationality.

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

      Phil, I often hear "relgious" people make statements just like yours. Anytime I hear a person begin their opinions with "clearly" or "obviously", I doubt that persons ability to truly be tolerant and respectful. I believe some of the best people who have lived on contributed to our society's advancements have been people who held deep religious beliefs and commitments. I don't think their is very much that is clear about the many religions or morals in this world, but I do think it is clear that many people and peoples find joy and purpose in life through their faith and so those of us who do not understand it must accept it and not demonize it.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • KnowinSamoan

      Sorry for the typos, it is late. HA!

      February 29, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • Olde English D

      Ah Phil, you have fallen right into the devil's trap. God said this would happen. You call others fools, but God is the one calling you a fool. I pray that your eyes become open to the truth and you stop living your sinful life.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  20. VAL

    To Ari: I agree with you 100%. The RED STATES are the most narrow minded people you can imagine. They are narcissistic, no compassion with their fellow citizen and they are out of touch. They identify themselves as conservatives and religious people when they are the one committing sins. As a practicing Catholic and a college degree holder I am embarrassed of what some of the priest did of those innocent kids –molesting them. Regardless of your beliefs/religion it's up to us as individuals to respect one another no matter what your ethnic background is.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • KnowinSamoan

      Val can you really preach respect in the same paragraph that you call the red states "narrow minded" and "narcissistic"? I'm no lover of religion, but respectful dialogue has to mean more than just calling the other side stupid.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Knowin. Sometimes standing in the middle reminds me often of the first arena scene in Gladiator with moderate Faithful and Atheist locked shields with all of the radicals from both sides riding around firing arrows at us.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • Joel

      "They identify themselves as conservatives and religious people when they are the one committing sins. As a practicing Catholic and a college degree holder..."

      Val, ALL are sinners, not just conservatives. Every person on this planet is a sinner. Regardless of color, creed, or political persuasion. This includes me, and it includes you.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:41 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.