Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist?
Dear Friend of Theology Matters,
There is talk in some church circles about "moralistic therapeutic deism." We may abbreviate this ungainly phrase as "MTD," in allusion to the popular cable channel showing music videos. Many teenagers and young adults are familiar with MTV; however, few would recognize "moralistic therapeutic deism" as playing any role in their lives.
Yet the contention we hear is that MTD, rather than classic Christianity, is the predominant religion among today's teenagers and young adults. They may not recognize the phrase, but it describes the belief system that they actually profess and practice. And what's more: We, the parents and other adults around them, are the ones who taught them MTD. This is a serious charge and deserves serious consideration.
An Inarticulate Faith
The phrase "moralistic therapeutic deism," you will not be surprised to learn, was coined by an academic: Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. It has been disseminated more widely by Smith's associates, including Princeton Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean. Based on her research with Smith, Dean published a book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Dean has become a popular speaker at church events. She delivered a challenging presentation at my local church on a snowy February Saturday, and I was among the large crowd that came out to hear her.
Smith, Dean, and their colleagues did surveys and in-depth interviews in which they queried thousands of young people about their religious beliefs and practices. Very few, they found, were atheists or hostile toward religion. On the other hand, relatively few were able to articulate and consistently practice a faith that resembled classic Christianity.
The vast majority of the respondents found it difficult to articulate any kind of belief system. They mentioned God, but it was a vague and distant God. They didn't have much to say about Jesus.
What the respondents did seem to believe, as Smith summarized it, was: God functions as an authority who gives us rules to guide our behavior (this is the "moralistic" part). The main point of these rules is to be a nice person who gets along with other people. If we obey the rules, God makes us feel good about ourselves (this is the "therapeutic" part). But God isn't involved in a personal or direct way in our daily lives (this is the "deism" part). He may show up in a crisis, to make us feel better about ourselves.
This set of half-conscious assumptions is what Smith, Dean, and associates call "moralistic therapeutic deism." It's not necessarily false. We should seek good relations with the people around us. If we obey God's commands, we will usually end up happier. God is a refuge in times of trouble.
Yet the Good News of Jesus Christ is so much greater than any of this. Dean, in her talk, showed a side-by-side comparison of MTD and the Apostles' Creed. The differences were stark. MTD is all about myself and my happiness. The Apostles' Creed is about the Truine God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--and God's amazing works from the Creation to the Incarnation to the hope of life eternal.
So how did these teenagers and young adults come to settle for so much less than the Gospel? It wasn't by rebelling against their parents' religion. On the contrary, survey respondents by and large felt positively toward their parents and shared common values. Many of them reported that their parents had taken them regularly to church and youth group, and they had few complaints about the experience. It's just that they didn't emerge with a distinct Christian faith that they could articulate and practice.
Is This What We Teach Our Children?
Dean suggests a disturbing explanation: Perhaps these teenagers and young adults adopted MTD because that's what they were taught. That's basically the philosophy of life they have received from and observed in their parents. It's what they learned in Sunday school and youth group: Be nice to other people and you'll have a happy life, and God will be there when you need him. All that stuff about Jesus dying for our sins never really made an impression.
Dean's presentation provoked some self-examination in me and others at my church: Is MTD what we are teaching our kids? When my wife and I lead Children's Church, is the message the children are hearing the Gospel of God's great mercy in Jesus Christ? Or is it something less? Are we preparing them to be nice people or disciples of Jesus Christ?
I must admit that some of the Sunday school curriculum we have used has been very moralistic and therapeutic. We read Bible stories, but the takeaway at the end of the lesson often seems to be that everyone is special to God and kids should be kind to their classmates. There isn't much said about our being sinners to whom God sent a Savior. I have seen this failing not only in oldline Protestant curricula, but also in curricula from publishers that have an evangelical reputation.
How would your congregation fare under this kind of self-examination? Maybe you intend to communicate the Gospel--as my wife and I do--but are you sure that's what the children are hearing? It's a question worth asking. The consequences go far into the future--indeed, into eternity.
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Yours in Christ,
Alan F.H. Wisdom
Interim Editor, Theology Matters
P.O. Box 3940,
Fredericksburg, VA 22402