Sometimes recognizing a problem requires finding the right words to name it. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have coined a phrase that describes perfectly the dominant American religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Those authors are researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and have written up their findings in a new book: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press).
After interviewing over 3,000 teenagers, the social scientists summed up their beliefs:
(1) "A god exists who created and ordered 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 to 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."
Even these secular researchers recognized that this creed is a far cry from Christianity, with no place for sin, judgment, salvation, or Christ. Instead, most teenagers believe in a combination of works righteousness, religion as psychological well-being, and a distant non-interfering god. Or, to use a technical term, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."
Ironically, many of these young deists are active in their churches. "Most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe," conclude Mr. Smith and Ms. Denton, "or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it."
Another possibility is that they have learned what their churches are teaching all too well. It is not just teenagers who are moralistic therapeutic deists. This describes the beliefs of many adults too, and even what is taught in many supposedly evangelical churches.
Mr. Smith and Ms. Denton recognize this. MTD has become the "dominant civil religion." And it is "colonizing" American Christianity. To the point, these secular scholars conclude, "a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but is rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."
Consider how many Christian publications, sermons, and teachings are nothing but moralism. Sometimes morality is reduced to the simplistic MTD commandment "be nice," though often real morals are inculcated. But the common assumption is that being good is easy, just a matter of knowing what one should do and trying harder. The biblical truth that bad behavior is a manifestation of sin, a depravity that inheres in our fallen nature, is skimmed over. And so is the solution to sin: a life-changing faith in Jesus Christ.
Consider how many Christian publications, sermons, and teachings are primarily therapeutic. It is true that Christ can solve many of our problems. But much that passes for Christian teaching says nothing about Christ. Instead, it consists of pop psychology, self-help platitudes, and the power of positive thinking.
Consider how many Christian publications, sermons, and teachings talk about God in a generic way, but say nothing about the Father, who created and still sustains the world; the Son, who became Incarnate in this world to win our salvation; and the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of God to bring us to faith.
Christianity is about grace, not moralism; changing lives, not making people feel better about themselves; the God made flesh, not an uninvolved deity. And that is better news than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.