Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – Pt 2 (Teens Are Listening To Us)

It is easy to get caught in the trap of moralism.  You might be asking, “What is moralism?”  Moralism seeks to achieve growth or “Christian maturity” through behavior modificationConsider the following descriptions:

  1. One of the most seductive false gospels is moralism, which can take many forms and can emerge from any number of political and cultural impulses. Nevertheless, the basic structure of moralism comes down to this — the belief that the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior.
  2. Moralism is a religious attitude that tends to look down on unbelievers from a self-righteous position by comparing our supposed moral superiority to theirs. It is as if we believe our entrance into Christianity is by grace but that our growth in Christ is due to maintaining a (NT) moral code.
  3. Those who believe this fall into the trap (perhaps subconsciously) of believing that grace alone (Sola gratia) is insufficient for sanctification. The New Testament authors invite us to bear in mind that God’s commands for us to be holy and love our neighbor etc. are not there to show our ability, but to reveal our inability (e.g., Rom 3:19-20) and to remind us of our continual dependence on the grace of God to do in us and through us what we cannot do (accomplish) on our own.

The pursuit of all things Christian must be anchored in the grace of God or it will be doomed to failure.  Grace is at the heart of the gospel, and without a clear understanding of the gospel and grace we can easily slip into moralism, which bears little resemblance to what the gospel offers us.

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, writes the following about a disturbing and discouraging trend in American Christianity, which adds to the false gospel of moralism

The “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”[1] that these researchers [sadly] identify as the most fundamental faith posture and belief system of American teenagers appears, in a larger sense, to reflect the culture as a whole. Clearly, this generalized conception of a belief system is what appears to characterize the beliefs of vast millions of Americans, both young and old.

This is an important missiological observation–a point of analysis that goes far beyond sociology. As Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton explained, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful.” In a very real sense, that appears to be true of the faith commitment, insofar as this can be described as a faith commitment, held by a large percentage of Americans. These individuals, whatever their age, believe that religion should be centered in being “nice”– a posture that many believe is directly violated by assertions of strong theological conviction.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.” As the researchers explained, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers [according to the study] is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. [Good insight!] It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”

In addition, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism presents a unique understanding of God. As Smith explains, this amorphous faith “is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”

Smith and his colleagues recognize that the deity behind Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is very much like the deistic God of the 18th-century philosophers. This is not the God who thunders from the mountain, nor a God who will serve as judge. This undemanding deity is more interested in solving our problems and in making people happy. “In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

Obviously, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not an organized faith. This belief system has no denominational headquarters and no mailing address. Nevertheless, it has millions and millions of devotees across the United States and other advanced cultures, where subtle cultural shifts have produced a context in which belief in such an undemanding deity makes sense. Furthermore, this deity does not challenge the most basic self-centered assumptions of our postmodern age. Particularly when it comes to so-called “lifestyle” issues, this God is exceedingly tolerant and this religion is radically undemanding.

As sociologists, Smith and his team suggest that this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may now constitute something like a dominant civil religion that constitutes the belief system for the culture at large. Thus, this basic conception may be analogous to what other researchers have identified as “lived religion” as experienced by the mainstream culture.

Moving to even deeper issues, these researches claim that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “colonizing” Christianity itself, as this new civil religion seduces converts who never have to leave their congregations and Christian identification as they embrace this new faith and all of its undemanding dimensions.

Consider this remarkable assessment: “Other more accomplished scholars in these areas will have to examine and evaluate these possibilities in greater depth. But we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually [only] 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.”

They argue that this distortion of Christianity has taken root not only in the minds of individuals, but also “within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions.”

How can you tell? “The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.”

This radical transformation of Christian theology and Christian belief replaces the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the self. In this therapeutic age, human problems are reduced to pathologies in need of a treatment plan. Sin is simply excluded from the picture, and doctrines as central as the wrath and justice of God are discarded as out of step with the times and unhelpful to the project of self-actualization.

All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life. 

This research project demands the attention of every thinking Christian. Those who are prone to dismiss sociological analysis as irrelevant will miss the point. We must now look at the United States of America as missiologists once viewed nations that had never heard the gospel. Indeed, our missiological challenge may be even greater than the confrontation with paganism, for we face a succession of generations who have transformed Christianity into something that bears no resemblance to the faith revealed in the Bible. The faith “once delivered to the saints” is no longer even known, not only by American teenagers, but by most of their parents. Millions of Americans believe they are Christians, simply because they have some historic tie to a Christian denomination or identity.

We now face the challenge of evangelizing a nation that largely considers itself Christian, overwhelmingly believes in some deity, considers itself fervently religious, but has virtually no connection to historic Christianity. Christian Smith and his colleagues have performed an enormous service for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in identifying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the dominant religion of this American age. Our responsibility is to prepare the church to respond to this new religion, understanding that it represents the greatest competitor to biblical Christianity.


[1] This quote is from the book: Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell, Oxford University Press, Sept 2009.

Random Reflections on the Prop 8 Ruling…

I have mixed emotions about yesterdays Prop 8 ruling. As an intentional follower of Christ, I hold a historic, orthodox, New Testament view of marriage. I am also cognizant of how we (Protestants at least) have allowed any moral authority on this issue to dissipate by collectively allowing our divorce rate to match (and some would say, exceed) that of the larger culture. If we can’t do marriage well, how can we weigh in on others? I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians that we are not to “judge” those outside the church, but that we are to judge ourselves – those of us inside the church (1 Cor 5:12). As active, intentional followers of Christ we would probably be wise to focus on removing the log from our own collective eye (Mat 7:3).

In my view, legislating morality is always Plan B. Plan A, according to my understanding of the Bible, is cultivating and growing in our relationship with Jesus Christ (personally and collectively), growing in sound doctrine, modeling authentic community, and learning how to love. (The first three, BTW, are intended to feed the fourth.)

I appreciate author and pastor Tim Keller’s approach here…In Prodigal God he quotes from The Lord of the Rings – the hobbits asking the ancient Treebeard whose side he is on: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…[But] there are some things, of course, whose side I’m altogether not on.” Keller notes that Jesus’ own answer, through a parable, is similar. Jesus doesn’t pick a side yet singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition (pg 13). I find religious moralism on both sides of the Prop 8 issue. I would prefer honest respectful dialogue.

In commenting on the Parable of the Prodigal (Keller would say it should be plural), Keller correctly identifies two basic ways people seek happiness: 1) moral conformity and 2) self-discovery. Each is a way of finding personal significance and worth, of addressing the ills of society, and for determining right from wrong. The elder brother in the parable illustrates the way of moral conformity, while the younger illustrates the way of self-discovery. Underneath both brothers’ sharply different patterns of behavior is actually the same motivation and aim – using their father to get the things on which their hearts are really fixed. For both, it was the wealth of the father, not the love of the father, that they believed would make them happy and fulfilled (pgs 29-39).  (If you’ve found yourself asking, “Why does he title the book Prodigal God?  That’s a great question…get the book.)

As I contemplate my life, I have spent various stints as both the younger and elder brother. In both, during my darker moments, I have sought the hand of God and not the heart of God.

Just last night Linda and I were reading a biography of the early church father, Athanasius (don’t ask). He defined sin as an abuse of freedom. We humans, he said, were originally given the ability to know God by looking at the creation (and seeing its otherwise inexplicable order and harmony) and noticing the image of God within ourselves. But we have turned away from the signs of God in creation and ourselves, and turned instead to the things of this world to satisfy ourselves – whether, I would add, it be moral conformity or self-discovery.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Ghandi’s encounter with a respected Christian missionary… Gandhi admired Jesus and often quoted from the Sermon on the Mount. Once when E. Stanley Jones met with Ghandi he asked him, “Though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?” Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Somethings just don’t seem to change. Ann Rice is another, more recent example of someone, who “in the name of Christ,” quit the church.

This is yet another wake-up call for the us (inside the church). Not to react with religious moralism, but to respond with appropriate self-reflection, honesty, repentance, love – and a willingness to dialogue. In the great political cartoon strip of its day, Pogo declared, “We have met the enemy and it is us!”