You refer to this "moralistic therapeutic deism" quite a bit in your book. Can you unpack this term for us?

That's the name the NSYR came up with to describe the "belief system" of the majority of teens surveyed. The shorthand of moralistic therapeutic deism is that religion helps you feel good and do good, but God pretty much stays out of the way. Now, you can call on God if you need God to solve a problem, but God's track record on solving problems is pretty bad. So the primary God-images that the kids had were either as the "cosmic therapist" or the "divine butler." The therapist serves as the one who helps you feel good about yourself; the guidance counselor image comes to mind here when working with teenagers. The divine butler is somebody who comes when called upon but otherwise stays away. Those images were identified in the study as being dominant among teenagers. And that was very true with the teens I talked to as well. They believe that: 

  • A God exists who created and orders 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 most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to Heaven when they die.

And yet, I imagine a lot of people would look at this and say, "Well, those aren't terribly bad things for a teenager to associate Christian identity with -- being nice to everyone, a God they can call on when in need, and a God who helps them feel good about themselves." But you assert that for Christians, there is something fundamentally disturbing about this kind of faith. How would you answer those people who say these aren't bad things for teens to believe in?

I think the bottom line is that it's a very acculturated and self-serving view of religious faith. And at least in the historic teaching of the church, you can't get away with having it be all "about me." That's contrary to what Christianity has stood for historically. So for the church to have a self-serving spirituality winds up really undercutting what the central understanding of the church's purpose has been since the beginning of the church itself.

Now you're right, it's true, there are worse heresies out there. It's a good thing that kids aren't killing each other. We should be glad about that! But if the church settles for that as being all that we stand for, then I think we've missed the mark. There are a lot of cultures that would say we shouldn't kill each other, but they would not call themselves Christian. 

So my view is that the self-centered nature of moralistic therapeutic deism is simply contrary to what the purpose of the church is. Theologically, the church is supposed to exist for the world. We don't exist to perpetuate ourselves or to make ourselves happy. It's nice if that can happen, but that's not the purpose. If anything, that might be a fringe benefit. The Gospel story that animates the church is about self-giving love and dying in order to live.

This seems to be one of your most important points, the difference between a belief in the God of "niceness," which dominates most teens' understanding of religion, and the God of sacrificial love. And that difference can be found in the unique claim that Christianity makes in our lives and our world. You contend that the church has not done a very good job of passing on this claim to our young people, and is in fact, passing on a "watered-down version" of Christianity. That seems like a pretty important wake-up call for the church.

Well, you asked earlier about the most significant findings of this study. One is that moralistic therapeutic deism isn't just about kids. It's about the faith of their parents as well, and by extension, the faith of their congregations. There are a number of other kinds of studies that have shown that if you want to assess the health of a culture, look at what's going on with young people. Youth are barometers of what's happening in the larger system. And the findings of the NSYR would be an example of that. So, I think what it tells us is that we've gotten off-message. The message we have bought into is one that is very closely tied to American civil religion or American civic values. Those may be values we want to uphold, but there are places where they are at odds with the Gospel.  Sacrificial love, for example, goes against the grain of can-do American individualism.