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What is moralistic therapeutic deism and how does it imitate the Christian faith?
It sounds like a catch-phrase a cult leader would use to lure unsuspecting teenagers to a compound before cramming drugs and alcohol down their throats to make brainwashing them a bit easier.
Well, we’re not far off.
Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term moralistic therapeutic deism in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Their book describes the theological make-up of the average American teenager.
MTD isn’t a religion, like Islam or Judaism. It is more of a disintegration of one particular faith, namely Christianity, that melts into ideals that have been spiritualized and inculcated into American religious circles.
The five tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, according to Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, are:
- 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 religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about one’s self.
- 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.
How many of you believe these five tenets whole-heartedly? If so, congratulations, friends. You’re Moralistic Therapeutic Deist!
At least now you know you’re not a Christian. There’s a difference. I’m serious. I’ll explain it below.
But before we jump to contrasting MTD from Christianity Proper, we must first define a few of terms separately.
With very strong beliefs about what is right and wrong, especially when this makes you judge other people’s behavior.
Making you feel calm and relaxed.
The belief in a god who made the world but has no influence on human lives.
Now that we’ve individually defined components of MTD we can better understand that this worldview or theological melting-pot of an ideology is centered on the importance of the individual. Better understood as individualism. It prioritizes doing the right thing, feeling good about it, and knowing there’s someone or something quite impersonal and possibly unknowable that lives high in the sky, in the transcendent regions of the cosmos.
As British philosopher, William Paley explains, the god or deity of a deistic worldview creates a universe the same way a watchmaker assembles a complex watch. After the watchmaker winds the watch it will go on about its purpose for a specific amount of time, working as it should, fulfilling its varied complicated tasks until, one day, it comes to a complete stop.
As you would have guessed, this deity or higher entity is as involved with his creation as the creature is with its creator. They’re both focused on individual and self-centered plans. They don’t communicate with one another even though they are aware of each other’s existence.
It’s likened to a toxic relationship where two people are together simply because they believe they have to be together. There’s no love. No interest in the other person. No shared pursuits. No defined line of loyalty. Not an inkling of monogamy. No reverence for the institution on which their relationship is built on and once this tortuous relationship comes to its disastrous conclusion, both understand that they’re better off without each other.
What a horrible way to live as a created being admitting that your Creator wants nothing to do with you.
These, however, are not the tenets of a Judeo-Christian world view.
In Christianity Proper, and by using the term “proper” I mean historical, biblical, Christ-centered Christianity, God is both Creator and Perfector of His creation. He is not only molding the finer elements of our physical universe for the continuance of our existence but He is also interested in the innermost dreams and aspirations we have made secret in our hearts. He gives attention to the tectonic plates that dance under our nations and also fine-tunes the rate at which our cells replicate or decimate with time. He created Mars and gave it its hue and He also created the atom. He is strong enough to wield the universe into form and structure and He wills sub-atomic mass into submission a trillion times every Planck length.
The God of Christianity Proper is not an impersonal deity who remains aloof about pain, distant to suffering, and uncaring about broken hearts. He is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, Eternally existent in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
He is eternally personable, loving, proximal, and present.
Quite the reassuring message to receive from the universe above. Like an astronaut who has managed to traverse space and reach the outer rim of our galaxy, perhaps, time and advancements in the sciences allowing, this cosmonaut may travel into the further recesses of our universe and even there, he would find God.
A man imprisoned in the lowliest and darkest dungeon for the most nefarious and unpardonable crime he could ever commit is not beyond the reach or touch of God.
The God of Christianity Proper foresaw the need to redeem His creation from their own decisions in life and laid out a triumphant plan of salvation before the creation of the univerise. Because He loved the world so much He gave His only begotten Son for it.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough… ain’t no valley low enough… ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you…”
Now, to a point to point comparison of the two worldviews:
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (Tenets)
- 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.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good.
- God is not involved in one’s life unless that person needs help.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Christianity Proper (Tenets)
- God exists and is intricately connected with, invested in, and sovereign over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be reborn, thus changing their motivations. Not just people who do good things but are righteous and pure at heart.
- The central goal of life is to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
- God became flesh and walked among us. He knows not only knows how we feel for He is interested in how we think, love, seeks, and hope also. Not just how we pray when we are in need.
- Being good does not grant someone entry into heaven. Forgiveness of sins and a new-birth grants someone entrance into heaven. Not good works but a good God who paid for our admission into His kingdom. He gives us this gift of salvation for free. It’s called grace.
Where can I expect to find MTD?
MTD is normally found and welcomed in Christian circles where young adults migrate in and out of youth groups, youth camps, and conferences believing that God is an experience we feel, instead of a Person we commune with. Here, the believer finds more comfort in their performance and attendance before God and church than they find pleasure in knowing Jesus Christ. You’ll know it is present when you hear statements like these:
I’m a good Christian because I read my bible and I pray.
I went on a mission trip and I helped poor people.
Yeah, I believe in God and stuff but…
Yeah, I sleep around and stuff but…
Yeah, I know about theology or whatever but…
We need more events, longer summer bible schools, cough inducing fog machines for worship, repetitious song lyrics, and charismatic preachers that make us feel excited and relevant.
Good things will come my way because I fasted and prayed about this…
I’m going to church/that conference/that camp/that revival/that place to experience God.
I spoke in tongues, received a revelation, a vision, a prophecy, a dream, or a word of discernment or a word of knowledge, therefore…
But MTD isn’t prominent in church settings only. In fact, our secular culture has received this ideology with open arms. You’ll know it when you hear very relativistic, self-serving, feel-good inconsequential statements like these:
I don’t follow a religion I have a relationship with God.
I believe in the golden rule of life. Treat people well. Do that and you’re good.
Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
Do no harm.
If it feels good then it must be right.
Live and let live.
America First and America Only. #MAGA
I’m a very spiritual person. I’m just not constrained by religion.
I’m one with the universe and the universe is one with me.
Speak your truth. Live your truth.
Do what works best for you.
God only wants what’s best for me.
This is my season.
Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
God forgives but I don’t.
My body my choice.
A God who keeps a safe distance
To find him, one must make the pilgrimage to that mountain top, or that temple, or that tabernacle once a week, once a month, or once a year. One must attend that summer camp or participate in that mission trip or be present for that one irresistible conference with the famous speakers.
A God who is always over there, in the yonder, the beyond, the place, the event, the process, the ritual, the rosary, the fasting, or even in that prayer session.
We’re comfortable with this God as long as he or it is always one or more steps away from our private lives.
The moment this God becomes personal, at all times and in all places, we are led to the precipice of our self and we are pressed to hand the guidance of our lives over to someone else. We are horrified by the possibility that God becomes more than a savior in the sky. He becomes our Lord on earth, and that, we cannot accept.
Too much is at stake if God is ever-present, eternally personable, and sovereign.
We must not only sacrifice our hopes and dreams; we must not only forsake our aspirations but also our ego. This is frightening to the moralistic therapeutic deist.
To paraphrase Albert Mohler’s explanation of this ideology, moralistic therapeutic deism comfortably displaces the Trinity, holiness of God, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, heaven, and hell, and replaces them with more acceptable ideas like happiness, niceness, and earned heavenly reward. It replaces the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of self. Human problems are reduced to pathologies. There is a total exclusion of sin, wrath, and divine justice. MTD adherents worship at the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth.
Concerning the moral aspect of this ideology, if one does not have a personal ethic by which they measure their morals, say, like the person of Jesus, then their morals are subject to change with the culture. Say, slavery is illegal and immoral today but it may be legal and moral tomorrow. There is no ultimate goal post, foundation, or standard by which morality is stationed, thus allowing the domineering force or governing body to dictate what is right and what is wrong for society and the individual. This is a slippery slope.
Concerning the therapeutic part, again, on the toes of the moral framework that is no longer solid, whatever feels good must be good is a misleading trope. Predators and abusers like to hide behind the moniker of pleasure and comfort to promote all forms of perversion for their own illicit gratification. Without a superior, transcend moral ethic, the individual is subject to any form of a pleasure-centric ideology that may, at first, seem enjoyable but in its final state becomes a prison for the person and his community of like-minded adherents.
Concerning the deistic theology of this ideology, we must acknowledge that a god or deity that does not care for his creations good intentions will in like manner disregard their ill intentions and behaviors. This god is not concerned with justice, righteousness, punishment for wrongs, or evils. This god is as comfortable with a Gerber baby as he is with Nazi SS soldiers loading men, women, and children into gas chambers, and through it all, the deistic deity is unaffected by suffering or too indifferent to do anything about it. In this deistic framework, there is no ultimate consequence, no ultimate purpose, no ultimate meaning and as the universe began, without purpose, it will, with time allowing, devolve into nothingness and no one will miss it.
In short, moralistic therapeutic deism is akin to humanism with a pinch of intelligent design.
“We are created, sure, but we are our own gods here on earth. We dictate what is right. We dictate what feels good. And that Creator up there better not interfere with our works, unless, of course, there is a natural disaster on the horizon.
For whenever we need him, or her, or it, we will send for them with our thoughts and prayers.” – Moralistic Therapeutic Deist
Questions to consider
- Can you tell the difference between moralistic therapeutic deism and Christianity proper?
- Who do you believe stands to benefit most from following this kind of ideology?
- If Christianity proper offers salvation, what do you think MTD offers its adherents?