The Indigenous American Religion

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the indigenous religion of the United States from its inception, the religion from which all Americans must be converted if they are to become Christians.

I heard a radio preacher today – and not a bad one either, preaching on the book “Soul Searching,” which has been buzzed about for nearly a decade now. This book characterizes the religion of young people (back in 2005) as “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

For those who haven’t read the book (or at least the Wikipedia article), there are said to be five basic beliefs that characterize this religion of the young:

  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.

The radio preacher thinks that for all practical purposes these are the basic beliefs of a lot more than just the youth. And in his sermon he joined thousands of his fellow preachers in putting the blame firmly on the Christian churches of America that have failed to teach the gospel.

About the first he is no doubt right. About the second he is wrong.

Moralistic Therapeutic Diesm isn’t the result of a failure to teach the gospel. It isn’t just Christianity light; orthodoxy stripped of the cross through a failure of nerve. Rather, (and I borrow from Charles Taylor’s arguments on exclusive humanism) it is a positive creation out of the ideals and ideas created the American social imaginary.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the indigenous religion of the United States from its inception, the religion from which all Americans must be converted if they are to become Christians.

Part of the myth of contemporary American Christianity is that ours was always a Christian nation, and that strong Christian homes coupled with strong Christian congregations should have produced generation after generation of Christian young people. Thus when we find that increasingly large numbers of people are not recognizably Christian then we think it must be a failure of either home or church to raise Christian children into Christian adults.

This fails to understand what evangelists from before the American Revolution have seen clearly – that ours was never a converted nation. And because of this it greatly underestimates the countless ways in which a moralistic therapeutic deist society promulgates its faith, only one of which is through careless preaching and conformist Sunday School lessons.

From the time a child engages the public realm, whether through play dates, television shows, books, movies, popular music, or just talking to other children, the indigenous American religion asserts itself. The five beliefs above appear in our children’s books, our movies, the way in which even Christian families organize their time, the names and types of our automobile (and children) and indeed in every aspect of daily life. These beliefs, like pokemon lore and fart jokes, pass from child to child with no adult interlocutors. They are who we are as a Americans.

And this poses a problem for the Christian churches, although it is a problem well-understood in older evangelical circles. John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards and their successors understood that the religion of society as a whole was always not yet Christian. Thus each generation needed to be evangelized. Not because their parents or their church had failed. But because inevitably each generation would need to decide between the dominant social religion, with all of the material and social perks it offered, and faith in and obedience to Christ.

But note, bringing people to faith in Christ is infinitely different from competing for their attention and loyalty. There is no comparison, or really even relationship, between being Christian and being American. If we think we are competing with youth soccer, video games, cable television, Starbucks, or the precious family time of working parents then we don’t understand either the gospel or the indigenous American religion. The former demands more than time, and the latter runs deeper than our distractions.

Nor are we simply adding the missing ingredient to a decent enough American stew. The forgotten truth of Christian orthodoxy is that it is not built on deism. It is not God plus Jesus is the Christ. Nor is it utopianism plus the righteousness of God. (I note as an aside that the failure of modern Protestants to understand Judaism comes in part because we think that Jews must just be moralistic therapeutic deists plus a few extra customs and minus Jesus.)

Rather, in its entirety Christian faith (including beliefs about God) springs from the encounter of disciples with Jesus Christ. Any resemblance between the faith that emerges from this encounter and the indigenous American religion is almost purely verbal and nearly entirely inconsequential.

To say that Christians believe in a god who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth trivializes Christian belief in God. To say that Christians believe that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions falsifies the teaching of the Bible. From a Christian perspective to say that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself demeans our humanity. As it demeans God to reduce God to a lifestyle concierge directing people toward eternal life as an endless spa weekend.

So the question we face as Christians: how do we make ourselves available to Christ for his encounter with our neighbors? And do so in a way that does not reduce him to yet another teacher of America’s indigenous religion.


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