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The New American Religion


Dr. Jay Worth Allen

The prophets prophesy falsely and the priest bear rule by their means; and My people love to have it so.
(Jeremiah 5:31)

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

When researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, they found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."1

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.

That, in sum, is the creed to which much adolescent faith can be reduced.  After conducting more than 3,000 interviews with American adolescents, the researchers reported that, when it came to the most crucial questions of faith and beliefs, many adolescents responded with a shrug and responded, "whatever."

The researchers, whose report is summarized in Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers by Dr. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton2,  found that American teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs, and most are virtually unable to offer any serious theological understanding.  As Dr. Smith reports, "To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it.  Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both."

The research found, "For most teens, nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion.  'Whatever' is just fine, if that's what a person wants."  This proves again, that corrupt nature is thoroughly in love with error and will more readily and eagerly receive false rather than true doctrine.

This casual "whatever" marks so much of the American moral and theological landscapes and is a substitute for serious and responsible thinking.  More importantly, it is a verbal cover for an embrace of relativism.  Accordingly, "most religious teenager's opinions and views are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion."  The kind of responses found among many teenagers indicates a vast emptiness at the heart of their understanding.  When a teenager says, "I believe there is a God and stuff," this hardly represents a profound theological commitment.

The researchers found that teenagers are not inarticulate in general:  "Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were."  The obvious conclusion:  "This suggests that a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager's lives."

The researchers, conducted thousands of hours of interviews with a carefully identified spectrum of teenagers, discovered that for many, the interview itself was the first time they had ever discussed a theological question with an adult.  What does this say about our churches?  What does this say about this generation of parents?

This study indicates that American teenagers are heavily influenced by the ideology of individualism that has so profoundly shaped the larger culture.  This bleeds over into a reflexive non-judgmentalism and a reluctance to suggest that anyone might actually be wrong in matters of faith and belief.

Many of the responses fell along very moralistic lines - but they reserve their most non-judgmental attitudes for matters of theological conviction and belief.  Some go so far as to suggest that there are no "right" answers in matters of doctrine and theological conviction - a belief system that appears to characterize the beliefs of vast millions of Americans, both young and old.

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.  This appears to be true of the American faith communities' commitment as a whole, insofar as this can be described as a faith commitment - this belief is held by a large percentage of Americans.  The Moralistic Therapeutic Deist, whatever their age, believes 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 is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.  It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people."

Further, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism presents a unique understanding of God.  As Dr. 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."

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," Dr. Smith explains, "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."

This Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 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.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism constitutes a dominant civil religion that embodies 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.  Although in 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.

All true believers need to seriously ponder Dr. Smith and his researchers' 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."  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."

These researchers assert that Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.  The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian 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 of Christian belief have replaced the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the self.  With 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, holiness and justice of God are discarded as out of step with the times and unhelpful to the project of self-actualization.

All of this shows teenagers have been observing their parents and the larger culture with diligence and insight.  They see 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 this life.

This research demands the attention of every Christian.  If we dismiss sociological analysis as irrelevant, we will miss the point.  We must begin to look at the United States of America as our past missionary fathers once viewed nations that had never heard the gospel.  Today, our challenge may be even greater than their 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.

The Church faces a challenge of sharing the true Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with a nation that largely considers itself Christian.  Most Americans believe in some deity and consider themselves fervently religious, but their convictions have virtually no connection to historic Christianity.  Dr. 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 age.  Now our responsibility is to respond in truth to this new religion, understanding that it represents the greatest competitor to biblical Christianity.  More urgently, this study should warn us that our failure to teach this generation of teenagers the realities and convictions of biblical Christianity will mean that our children will know even less and will be even more readily seduced by this new form of paganism.

As one of the Puritans quaintly, yet truly expressed it, "The face of error is highly painted and powered so as to render it attractive to the unwary."


1.  Moralistic, being persons whose behavior conforms to standards of the society in which they live - which can be, and in most instances is opposite to dutiful ethical conduct.  Moralists tend to do what is "right in their own eyes."

Therapeutic, is defined as a system of psychological theory and therapy that aims to treat mental/spiritual disorders by investigating the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the mind and bringing repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind.  Thus, counteracting or eliminating something, which upsets or offends through solely emotional means.

Deists believe in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.  The term was used chiefly of an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.    (back to text)

2.  The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers / Smith and Denton (2005):  http://www.ptsem.edu/iym/lectures/2005/Smith-Moralistic.pdf    (back to text)


The New American Religion
Published:  20 May 2010 on Freed In Christ! blogsite.

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