Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

imageMy last two sermons (on Jeremiah 2:26-32 and 7:1-7) have both mentioned something called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” A couple people have asked me to tell them more about it, so this post explains a bit more about MTD and how it relates to these two passages in Jeremiah, as well as our culture today.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is a term created by a team of scholars studying the religious beliefs and practices of American teenagers in a study conducted in 2002-2003, known as the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). A team of scholars, led by Christian Smith, conducted phone surveys with thousands of teens regarding their thoughts, beliefs, and practices on religion. They then followed up the phone surveys with in depth face-to-face interviews with 267 of those teens. What emerged was a profile of the religious faith and practice of the typical American teenager. It was not pretty. Smith and his team found that most American teenagers were very inarticulate about religion, but most disturbing was the fact that what most of them described as their religious belief did not resemble historic Christianity (or any other major organized religion). Instead, Smith et al. were forced to coin a new term for the de facto religion among American teenagers:

“[W]e suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’ The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

(Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 162-63)

Points 1 and 2 are in line with historic Christianity, but points 3-5 show a gross misunderstanding of Christianity. Taken together, MTD could be described as: “God wants me to be nice and happy, and he generally stays out of my way unless I need him for something.” We might call this view of God as a “divine Santa Claus.” As long as your name is on the “nice list,” God will shower you with blessings and be there for you when you need him. He demands nothing from you other than general niceness, and you can generally live your life as you wish, without including him to any significant degree.

What was surprising about the study was that the interviewers did not find evidence of large-scale teenage “rebellion” against the religion of their parents. In general, they found that teens believe and practice what their parents do. But rather than being a source of comfort, this was probably the most troubling finding of the whole study. It means that MTD is not new. It is at least two (probably more like three or four) generations old. It is the “faith” American “Christians” have passed down to their children. As Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, puts it:

“What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today? If this is the case–if theological malpractice explains teenagers’ half-hearted religious identities–then perhaps most young people practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism not because they reject Christianity, but because this is the only ‘Christianity’ they know.” (Dean, Almost Christian, 12).

In other words, this isn’t really a problem with teenagers or young adults (all of the teens surveyed in the NSYR are now adults). This is a problem with the American Church in general. Teens and young adults are just living in accordance with the logical conclusion of MTD. Their parents and grandparents may have continued to pay lip service to Christianity and continued attending church for social reasons, but young Americans see no need to do either. Why should they?

How does MTD relate to Jeremiah? In Jeremiah 2:26-32, we see Jeremiah criticize Judah for worshipping idols of wood and stone, but then in times of crisis they turn to God to rescue them. Is this not a perfect parallel to the MTD described above? One may neglect God, pursuing after other (more entertaining?) things, until God is needed to “resolve a problem.” Judah practiced a faith that required little of them. They were free to live as they pleased, “forgetting [God] days without end” (Jer 2:32), but when they had a need that their other “gods” could not meet, they expected God to keep his end of a covenant they had broken. Again, in Jeremiah 7:1-7, we see Judah expecting blessing and protection from a God they had largely abandoned. At first glance there would seem to be some significant difference between what Jeremiah 7 describes and MTD. Here Judah is accused of mistreatment of the poor, shedding innocent blood, and worshipping other gods. Certainly worship of other gods fits with MTD, but mistreating the poor and shedding innocent blood certainly aren’t “nice.” The trouble with “nice” is that it can be pretty vague and subjective. Anyone who has spent much time on social media can testify that the “cult of nice” MTD promotes is only surface-deep. Does “nice” mean a basically civil veneer, but one that allows us to destroy anyone identified as “the enemy”? In the past few years, politics and social issues have become so polarized that philosophical and policy disagreements have become a death-match in American society. We may say we believe in being “nice,” but the narcissism of MTD is so strong it overwhelms the niceness principle. Apparently it only applies to those with whom we agree. In any case, the Therapeutic and Deistic elements of MTD are readily apparent in Jeremiah 7. The people believe it is God’s job to protect them, that it is guaranteed because of the covenant and the temple, but they do not see any need to make God an important part of their lives. We might call this (M*)TD. The Moralistic foundation has crumbled, because really, Therapeutic Deism isn’t capable of sustaining it. When the happiness of the self is the chief good, anything becomes justifiable. Is that the phase we are now entering? I suspect so.

What can we do about this? The answer is both simple and complex. If the problem is, as Dean puts it, “excellent communication of a watered-down gospel,” then the solution is communication of the real gospel. Simple enough. Where it becomes complex is the scale of the problem. MTD is not a problem outside the church. It is not “the world” against which the church stands. For decades we have treated the spiritual problems in America as a culture war. But the source of the problem is in the church. Nor is it restricted to one or even several branches of Christianity. MTD is fully trans-denominational. It is at home in Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, and charismatic churches. It is neither liberal nor conservative. It is simply a half-gospel. It is a distortion of the good news, the result of well-meaning pastors, teachers, and parents emphasizing God’s love and the free gift of salvation, so much so that they left out the cost of discipleship. Correcting several decades–perhaps sixty years?–of a watered-down gospel will not be easy, especially as churches find that our resources are diminished and our ability even to get people to show up and listen is reduced. But the cure is the full gospel–that much is clear.

——-Further Reading——-

Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


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