SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH MORALISTIC THERAPEUTIC DEISM?
No doubt: the church has been guilty of worse crimes than instilling MTD in teenagers. In fact, MTD probably evolved partly from well-meaning Christians who don’t want to repeat the atrocities done in the name of religion throughout history. I know this is true for me. When I slip into MTD myself (and I do, in spite of myself), most of the time I’m just trying to avoid being a “mean” Christian (a phrase that should be an unthinkable oxymoron).
So it’s no wonder that many people think there’s nothing wrong with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Given the pendulum swings in religious history, I can understand why people often automatically assume that MTD is the only alternative to some form of air-tight religious indoctrination. (Despite what some people seem to think after the CNN article, I hope it is crystal clear in my writing that that such indoctrination is not what I’m proposing.)
But I do think MTD is a problem that churches need to take seriously, and here are some of the reasons why. (I wish I would have said this more concisely in the book–but oh well).
Remind Me Again: What is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the name that sociologist Christian Smith gave to the default religious belief system of American teenagers, surfaced by the National Study of Youth and Religion (see Christian Smith with Melinda Denton, *Soul-Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers* (OUP, 2005). Here are its basic tenets:
(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.
So What’s the Problem?
MTD is a way of thinking that fits well into a therapeutic, individualistic consumer culture, but shoving Christianity into that mold is like forcing your foot into a glass slipper six sizes too small. Here are some of the places that pinch:
1) MTD reduces Christian ethics to being nice. Actually, Jesus never talks about being nice (though I’d like to think that he was a nice guy—and the kids in the National Study of Youth and Religion overwhelmingly thought of him this way). What the gospel talks about is kindness, compassion, justice, forgiveness, loving your enemies–which are a lot harder than being nice.
Most people equate being “nice” with friendliness and not stepping on toes, which tends to gloss over the uniqueness of the other person, and prevents us from loving them as they truly are. Yet being Christlike means meeting people where they are, and extending God’s love to them without condition.
2) MTD is all about me and my comfort and happiness. I think God wants us to be happy—but personal self-fulfillment is not the source of genuine happiness. True joy comes from sharing our humanity with others—our delights and our suffering. Sharing our lives means that when our neighbor suffers, we are called to step in and help carry one another’s burdens. None of this is on the radar of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
MTD-ists think that God exists to meet my needs and help me be a nice person who feels good about myself. The danger with that, of course, is sliding into a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement. Some of the church’s worst abuses came from Christians who thought God gave them permission to protect their comfort and happiness at others’ expense (think American slavery, Naziism, and South African apartheid–to name a few).
3) MTD cannot withstand “shipwreck.” “Shipwreck” is H. Richard Niebuhr’s term for the shattering of self that often happens when life hits the rocks. If religion exists for the purpose of feeling good and doing nice things, experiences of shipwreck render religion irrelevant. Religion does not help an abuse victim “feel good” about it, nor does it help her “be nice” to her abuser. (Nor should it.) In times of shipwreck, “feeling good about ourselves” and being “nice” are unthinkable—and if this is all religion is for, then shipwreck naturally convinces us that God is either make-believe or impotent.
Christians are not called to avoid suffering; we’re called to move towards it. When Christian communities embody the dying-and-rising pattern of God’s love for us, the church participates in God’s process of transformation, that leads to “new birth.” Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ does not merely glue our shattered selves back together; he makes us brand new.
4) MTD offers few resources for hope. Millenial young people have a high external locus of control (i.e., they believe that their decisions are mostly made for them, and they have little agency or influence in the world; for example, see Journal of College and Character). That works fine as long as life is hunky dory; why should we care about having agency if those around us are making decisions that make us happy? But when life goes sour, it’s a different matter. Suddenly having a high external locus of control becomes a source of despair; decisions are being made that victimize us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. In the theological world of MTD, hope goes down the drain at this point: where is this God who is supposed to make me so happy?
The gospels argue that our lives and our futures belong to God, but at the same time God calls us to participate in God’s movement through history. In other words, God could work alone, but chooses not to—and in fact, God calls each of us to participate in moving the world toward God’s future. So human agency—an internal locus of control, to use the sociological language–is God’s gift to us, offered so that we can participate in God’s redemptive purposes. An internal locus of control correlates positively with hope: a trust that, despite present problems, the world is going in a good direction—and that I have a part to play in getting it there.
So What’s the Solution?
We’re going to have to figure this one out together. Theologically, it seems obvious that, since the gospels (and the Jesus stories in particular) pose a direct challenge to MTD, churches are going to need to reckon seriously with sacred texts. At the same time, a robust Christology also requires a deep appreciation for the Triune identity of God, and rules out shrinking the Jesus narratives into moral storytelling, an exercise in facile “God-talk,” or a “What Would Jesus Do” template for Christian ethics.
In Almost Christian, I’ve suggested that a way beyond self-serving spiritualities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is to reclaim a “missional imagination”—to remind ourselves as a Christian community that we are not here for ourselves. That made me go back to look at some common missionary practices of the early church—translation, testimony, practices of detachment or decentering—to see what clues they might have for a “missional” youth ministry.
Practically, churches that consistently help young people develop mature and vital faith seem to share a number of “faith assets” – faith-supporting practices and conditions that create a culture of support for young people’s faith journeys (see The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry).
But MTD is complex, and no single book or research project can solve it. Have you explored concrete ways to address Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Please share!