American Christianity: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

The "Perfect" Church

The “Perfect” Church

Some time ago I read a blog post identifying the degradation of American Christianity into what was termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It’s given me much pause for thought and the analysis seems to me to be spot on.

Today’s post is a further speculation on this analysis with a long contribution from a regular reader to the combox. I offer these thoughts not as any kind of dogma, but for speculation and something to ponder or readers. If you think what I’ve written is wrong–say so in the combox.

Moralistic in replacing vital sacramental, evangelizing Christianity with a set of rules and regulations. Different sets of rules and regulations exist for different sub sets. For a smart suburban congregation the rules might be those of respectability and good manners. For a liberal, socially aware or hipster group the rules might be all about ecology, the right attitude on human rights issues and the right political stance. For a conservative Christian group the rules would be focussed on sexual morality, modesty and the right religious devotions. While none of the rules and regulations are necessarily wrong, the error is in mistaking the rules and regulations for real religion.

The “therapeutic” part of the definition refers to replacing religion with therapy. As in the “moralistic” part of the definition the “therapy” takes many different forms, but at the heart of the problem is the need for the religion to help me in some way. For a smart up to date community church it might be all about recovery from addiction, advice on money matters or help with parenting skills. For a classic, suburban church it might be the therapy of feeling good about oneself, one’s “blessings” i.e. wealth, and using church to get the kids into good private education, the right college and a “good” job.

Another dimension to the therapeutic aspect is how we want our religion to make us feel good. Whether it is warm, fuzzy charismatic worship or high church aestheticism with ornate ritualism or whether it is a feel good sermon and sentimental music, we want our religion to be like our morning drink: warm, comfortable and sweet. Now, there is nothing wrong at all in receiving a good feeling from religion, but just as the rules and regulations are not the religion, so we must remember that the good feelings should not replace the religion. The religion is our worship and service to God.  The regulations are the rule book for the game. The good feelings are the enjoyment we get from religion, but it is not the religion itself.

Deism is the belief that God is “out there” and not really involved in our lives on a day to day basis. We believe in this distant God, but we do not have a regular transaction with Him. Because he is disconnected our religion reverts to being a system of rules, regulations, therapy and feeling good.

A reader from the UK writes:

All it shows to me is what I have been thinking for a long time: that Western Christianity, even if supposedly ‘intentional’, seems to be disappearing up its own, humanistic, backside. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

It seems the only counter-narrative we’re offering is more of the same: a religious form of ‘self-realisation’ or solipsism. We are not combatting it effectively with a really alternative – transcendent – message, are we, but a ‘pie in the sky’ fairy tale, as if God and heaven are just at the top of a beanstalk, rather than a giant ogre?

Rather than using fairy tales and fantasy effectively, aren’t we, to some degree, wanting to live in one, too? Has the medium become the message? Have we given the more reasonable atheist who thinks Christianity ‘is just a bunch of fairy tales’ or an opiate, all the evidence he needs?

You are right to bring the diabolical into it. We have to realise that swaying like a zombie in front of a monstrance might feel good and make one feel ‘in tune’ with something, but where’s the awe? Where’s the respect? Where’s the…God? Is the same feeling one can experience at a football match where it’s at? (Interestingly, secularists at these events often use religious language to describe it.) Were Durkheim and the 20th century anthropologists right? Is it just ‘effervescence’? What’s more, sticking it on youtube just confirms our ‘insanity’, doesn’t it? Continue Reading


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