I see it ALL the time. I have example after example of students I have known from the camp and previous youth ministries who show these traits. It is the Christian drug, way more than coffee or I guess Coca Cola if you are a Mormon. It is MTD.
Here are a few examples. 1.) A selfie, with a shot of a young girl flashing the peace sign into a bathroom mirror. In the caption, there is something like, “I just gotta be me because God wants a bunch of me and I feel like being me and Jesus thinks me is beautiful” followed by a bunch of hearts, a series of punctuations marks in a face that expresses some sort of vague emotion, and other nonsense I still do not know how to interpret. 2.) You read a young person’s “About Me” or other description on a social site, and notice that they say Christianity makes them “better” and “nice” and “feel good.” You then observe that they write with real passion about some other person or pursuit that has changed their life and actually motivates them. Those things are not better, nice, or good; they are the air they breathe.
Those are just two examples that stand out to me of MTD. Gone are the days when “good” Christian boys and girls hid the behavior that their parents thought was bad. You see the signs of MTD everywhere: online, in schools, in the home, in church. And what, pray tell is this MTD?
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
The term and concept was first introduced in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. They coined the term as a result of the 2005 “National Study of Youth and Religion.” Basically, they determined that youth were believing 5 sets of “truths” that did not really belong to any religion, but was a mish-mash of a little bit of everything. Here is how they articulated it:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
A few troubling things come to the surface. No Jesus. That’s big. No hell because that’s mean, not because of any real thought. No theology or even concept of suffering and evil. No sin, unless it is the antonym “bad” or “non-fluffy.”
Okay, there are a lot of problems with this. But rather than tearing it apart and entertaining myself with a few witty remarks, let’s turn to what it means for us as parents and ministers.
We have to be on the same page first. I say this, because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is so prevalent in youth today because it is a struggle for their parents as well. In Perspectives on Family Ministry, Jay Strohter writes,
“A difficult but obvious truth finally dawned on us: These were the same issues their parents were dealing with, struggles with deeper faith, authentic spirituality, and Christ-centered identity. In fact, one father had recently criticized a team member for encouraging his daughter to “read her Bible too much” and to become “too spiritual for hew own good.” There was a gap between the church’s ideals and the parents’ actual practices and expectations.” – pg. 142
These are the issues we all struggle with, and I want to share a few thoughts on each term in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Moralistic – adj. “having or showing strong opinions about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior”
Morals and the study of morality in Ethics is awesome. Moral-ism and moralistic behavior, not so much. Having strong opinions on what is right and wrong is a part of life and everybody has them. Period. Just look in the comment section on a youtube video of any controversy, and you will see this to be true. But very few know why they believe those things, and it often times boils down to how you were raised or what you learned in school. And can I just say that one of the dominant cultural values right now is: “Be nice.” I despise those words. They mean nothing in any real, practical sense. But this “moral” guides so much of what we do today, and yet we fail to live up to it all the time. Again, youtube video comment section.
In a world where we still have morals and fail to live up to them, what do you get? A mess. There has to be a better way. Morals and moralizing are not enough.
So, how do we deal with this? Study and live out Jesus. Point your kids to him and strive to live like him. Tell his stories and how he lived, died, and rose again. It is NOT simple and it nips moralizing right in the bud. You may think I am being simplistic here. Ah well, your loss, go back to moralizing and have fun!
Therapeutic – adj. “Having or exhibiting healing powers.”
The term “therapeutic” come into play in MTD is best expressed in this simple phrase: God wants me to be happy. To which I say: No he doesn’t.
Let me explain. Happiness as culturally defined seems to express two things. 1.) As long as what I am doing, thinking, feeling, or being brings no harm to other people, it should not be judged, condemned, or hated. 2.) Therefore, anything that goes against what I want to do that I perceive as not harming others is hatred, condemnation, and judgement and should be destroyed. Because of these two beliefs, God CANNOT in a worldview dominated by MTD be perceived as someone who stands in the way of your happiness. But God does. Clearly. He stands in the way of the cultures views on money, consumerism, sex, life, oppression, politics, the list goes on and on. That is not because God wants us to be miserable. It is because God loves us. It is infinitely more powerful than a desire for us to be happy or feel good.
So no, God does not want you to be happy. He wants you to be loved.
Deism – n. “The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.”
This last term is a little misleading. Those who have looked at MTD have noticed that the “Deism” mentioned is not Deism in the classical sense. Without being to trite, Deism was a product of the Enlightenment, and was based in a rational view of the world. We no longer live in a world that values rationalism to the degree it once did, which has both good and bad elements to it. Instead, the Deism of today is one that views God through the lens of the first two terms. God is moralistic, meaning he wants people to do nice and good things. God also wants us to be happy and feel good, the therapeutic element. Since what we want to do sometimes conflicts with scripture, we are left with a bit of confusion. So, out goes scripture as having any sense of authority (unless it serves our purposes) and God gets out of the way (unless we call on Him because we are feeling bad and need to be happy again). That means God is distant, but unlike classical Deism, I have the chance to call on God to make ME happy. God becomes a bail bondsmen, someone we don’t really think about day to day, but we are glad he is there when we need Him. Thanks God, for being so nice to us to leave us alone unless we need you!
Honestly, this one scares the living daylights out of me. How can you believe scripture has any authority, how can you be a meaningful part of any church, and how can you believe that Jesus was essentially God interfering in human history with this skewed view of Deism? It scares me to think that God is viewed in terms of convenience and culls from a variety of vague sources on God and not on anything specific like Scripture. I would rather deal with an honest difference of religion or atheism than a highly distorted and despairing view of God present in MTD.
So, what do you do?
If this bothers you, as it bothers me, how can you stop the ideas in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism from spreading?
I have three thoughts.
- God doesn’t want you to just make “good” decisions for yourself. He wants you to follow him.
- God doesn’t want you to feel good or happy. He wants to give you joy and peace.
- God wants to be involved in your day to day life, not as a boss, but as the Spirit who guides us.
I could go into detail on each of these points, but I will let them suffice and let you think it over.
Most importantly, engage on this topic. It is not an easy thing to counteract something that has permeated both secular and Christian culture. It will take some family discussions, lessons and discussions in church, and a presence that is both loving and challenging on this issue to make a difference. We live in a difficult age for the church, where voices on each side are clamoring for us to retreat or accommodate to culture. When we engage on this issue, we take the difficult path the church has traveled for centuries, of challenging the culture where it is at.
I pray that God gives you strength as you call others to the good and righteous, to peace and joy, and to a God who cares enough to be involved in human history. God bless!