Almost Christian: The Triumph of the "Cult of Nice"

I’m blogging through Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, a theological follow up to Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I hope you’ll join me.

In chapter two, Kenda focuses on what is “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism,” the reigning religion of American teenagers, and on how we got here.

I found it interesting that in the comments under the last post, the criticism was immediately turned on parents — parents are the problem, was the common refrain.  But I didn’t mention parents.  I wrote that “churches suck,” not that parents suck.  In fact, it is in this chapter, on page 39, that Kenda first mentions parents, and then only briefly,

The National Study of Youth and religion’s more incontrovertible finding is that parents generally “get what they are,” in religion as in most things.

Otherwise, Kenda is again implicating the church: it’s the church’s fault that American teenage religion is basically “benign whatever-ism,” or “benign positive regard.”  You see, American teenagers lead the world in the amount of church they’re exposed to — worship, church-based youth ministry, parachurch youth ministry, yet

They do not seem to be spending much time in communities where a language of faith is spoken, or where historically orthodox Christian doctrines and practices are talked about and taught…Apart from “being nice,” teenagers do not think religion influences their decisions, choice of friends, or behaviors.  It does not help them obey God, work toward a common good, compose and identity, or belong to a distinctive community. (28-29)

And Kenda does not wait till the end of the book to diagnose this problem.  She gets downright theological here in chapter two, proclaiming that the American church has a “muddled ecclesiology” and preaches a “‘god’ who is too limp to take hold of.”  What’s missing, she says, is a Christianity that teaches “radical particularity” and is based in the “missio dei — God’s sending of God’s own self into the world in human form.”

I couldn’t agree more with Kenda up to this point.  This is the church’s problem — not parents’, and not teens’, but the church’s.  It falls right in the church’s lap.  But I can’t help but wonder, will Kenda turn up the heat on the true source of the cancer: church leadership?  The very people that she has given her life to serve — those in seminary and going into ordained ministry — seem to be the ones who are standing up every Sunday and presiding over worship at the Church of Benign Whatever-ism.

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  • tom c.

    Your post reminds me of a novel written by Iris Murdoch, _The Nice and The Good_. I won’t try to sum up the novel, but the title gives a good hint. “Niceness” or “politeness” are not in and of themselves moral virtues.

    I used to work in youth ministry and find much of what you, Tony, are writing about _Almost Christian_ to ring true. I might just add a thought to the mix. The work of youth ministry may not often see immediate effects in teenage behavior or spirituality, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t long term effects. One such long term effect could be merely an openness to God or church community down the road in life. I’ve met a lot of people deeply wounded by their churches — people for whom religion now is a nonstarter — but those who had positive experiences in their youth (however shallow) may remain open to what life with God might look like during a different stage of life. What I’ve suggested is, of course, speculative. I imagine there are stats on long-term effects of youth work, but anecdotally, I have some reasons for thinking it holds some water.

  • Tony, I’ve not read the rest of the pieces on the book, but just working with what you’ve written here, I wonder if part of the problem is that churches have bought into the idea of church as entertainment, so we send our teens out to “youth worship” or such, and thus they don’t experience the community at worship. Yes, we need to do some work on the way we do worship, but farming them out for entertainment 101 doesn’t seem to work either.

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  • As church leadership (and one who just got back from our annual Mission/Camp experience) we deserve both the blame and some pardon for this.

    Let’s face it, church is (and has been for two generations) a competing extra-curricular activity. This is equal parts the fault of parents, youth and the church–BUT the bigger problem is cultural.

    They feel alive with purpose and potential when “on mission” but don’t know how the hell to translate that back home. And, short of calling out the lifestyle their parents provide them, we can’t say much “Well, be nice to people, pick up litter, volunteer somewhere.” We can’t do that because we’re paid by their parents. So when they come back from the slums to their country club house, the only shot at radical discipleship is full-on rebellion–which is cool, until the youth ministers lose their job for it.

    As one whose trying to do it faithfully, I get the criticism, but I think church leadership (especially youth ministers) are exactly the opposite–we work with youth because they haven’t fully sold out yet–there’s enough wild-eyed wonder for them to do ridiculous incredible things and not care about life insurance or a house in the burbs.

    Also, I don’t know a single minister who won’t take an adherent of “Benign Whatever-ism” with the hopes of converting them to a full follower of Jesus.

    Lastly, “obedience” is lousy language for talking to youth. They’re broken, jacked-up and they know it. No leveraging of Puritanical guilt is required. I’ve seen more kids respond to a Quaker-ish “that of God” imago Dei theology than any of the obedience and morality talk.

  • Ultimately, it’s the parents’ fault. However, the Church plays a role in that they help teach parents how to raise their kids. And if the Church isn’t demanding parents to live Christ-like lives and pastor their homes well…

  • Jim

    I don’t get it.

    The empirical methodology nowhere targets denominational nor church nor congregational factors.

    Studies that do explicitly focus on confessing and active church-attending adults have long shown that such adults cannot make simple religious attributions from their confessed theology.


    So here we have another adult theologian using a youth study that doesn’t even target churches — in order to pawn off yet another religious/theological “attribution” of religious torque to blame churches for the spiritual status of youth.

    Theological grandstanding. At its worst.

    Theological idiots should at least use the right studies to do petty grandstanding.

    Or just shut up about studies altogether.

    And just spout theological bias the old fashioned way. Spinning Kiplingesque just-so stories.

  • Tony, as an ecclesiologist, I’m sure you have your own theories about how denominational structures, ordination, and pensions help to perpetuate benign whateverism. I don’t think those things are helping matters. As Trey says above, we’re paid by their parents. Then again, as we will see in chapter 3 Mormons don’t seem to have that problem of softening the message in order to make sure their church leaders stay employed.

    Jim, I’d like you to restate what you are getting at. I got a little lost at “Studies that do explicitly focus on confessing and active church-attending adults have long shown that such adults cannot make simple religious attributions from their confessed theology.”

  • I just posted on the first thread without checking here to see where the conversation had moved. I’ll repost one paragraph because it bears repeating for this thought stream.

    “I don’t think parents suck. Or the church for that matter. In the ways that we’ve all seen the pressures and responsibilities that kids face increasing rapidly, many of those same pressures and responsibilities are increasing for parents as well. Life is just incredibly full and things like religious education, family time, and the centrality of church life and activities are being pushed to the side. There are lots of factors that go into the cultural changes in our churches and society. Yes parents and the church have a part to play, but they certainly are not the only ones to blame.”

    Now, as to your critique of church leadership…..being a church leader, yeah, I’ll accept by share of blame for that. I haven’t been in the game that long but i’ll own up to my part in the problem. I’ll offer 2 explanations as to why leadership has become lackluster. Not defenses, just explanations.

    1) I like my job. I recently heard of a central american pastor who was befuddled by the fact that pastors in the U.S. are paid. His comment was, “how can you be prophetic when your income depends on the people you are supposed to be challenging?!” Valid point.

    2) Spiritual growth happens slowly. There are many people in my church that drive me nuts, for a variety of reasons. But as a pastor, and as a fellow member in the body of Christ, I’m called to meet them where they’re at and walk with them on their journey of faith.

    Both of these reasons give rise to what might appear to be watered down or compromised messages. At least those are the two reasons that are most present in my life and ministry.

  • Jim

    Matt, to put a finer point on it.

    I hard studied 30+ pages of “The Cult of Nice.” I liked the catchy title. And spot sampled much of the rest. I couldn’t stomach anymore theo-babble.

    Kenda’s axe-to-grind resembles ambient temperature. There before the study. There after the study. Just there. Hanging atmospherically. The study design (in its sampling and substantive questions) expressly avoided targeting church and denomination factors of influence on youth. The methodology fairly (can’t do everything) avoided biological/social developmental issues (“confused-kids”) in order to target socialization as one influence on the religious formation. Fair enough. But, without accounting for developmental and life-cycle influences which may resolve so-called problems identified in this study (e.g., youth lack a competent religious vocabulary for expressing benign religious attitudes), there is no measure toward a complete picture of religious commitment in youth, that is, no measure of youth commitment as it matures into a lifetime of expression.

    More to your question. For example, tests and measures for vocational stability (say the Campbell test) and personality (say the MMPI) are notoriously unstable in measuring aspects and attributes of youth through about their mid-20’s because many youth traits are simply neither fixed nor stable enough to measure. Yet. So the ambiguities of this study are opportunities for theologians to grandstand pre-loaded ambient theo-blather. For another example, when this study revealed that youth lack sufficient vocabulary to express religious sensibilities (vocabulary is a valid socialization measure), the problem with this finding is that a long line of previous empirical studies have already shown that adults themselves lack the capacity to plug their own religious vocabulary (say of confession) into real life attributions of God’s work in the work (see the whole slew of adult studies in the Scientific Study of Religion, with just one e.g., Miner, M. H. and McKnight, J. (1999). Religious Attributions: Situational Factors and Effects on Coping. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(2), 274-287), showing that active-confessing Calvinists who say that God controls everything cannot identify specific and concrete instances of God at work in the world). And s on.

    So what? Studies on adults make Kenda’s analysis. But they don’t support her remedy and conclusion. Nor does this youth study.

    Kenda attacks moralizing. By more moralizing. Dumb and dumber. Nice and nicer.

    So what are the “nice” countermeasures? If nice is too nice, then what’s the not-so-nice fix for kids?

    Well, don’t look for youth to read Kenda’s nice moralizing about nice moralizing and get fired up like Gideon to do the not-so-nice tearing down of parents’s high places. Gideon hiding in the wine press had already heard all the stories. Nice stories. Oh, such nice stories. Very nice. Gideon was “socialized.” With nice stories. Narrative theology. Kenda says the benign attitude of youth toward religion is good news. She ought to be pissed off by this finding. Like Gideon who was so nicely socialized that the old stories didn’t square with Gideon’s own father and the rest of the sold-out fathers paying benign extortion dough to Philistine heavy mafia for protection.

    Religious socialization language like Kenda’s moralizing against moralizing doesn’t square for youth who see news reports of dozens of people with their heads chopped off by drug cartels moving dope into local backyards.

    Religious socialization language like Kenda’s comfy pew moralizing against moralizing doesn’t square for youth who see news stories or who know young teenagers sold into child prostitution next door.

    Empirical studies can inform and guide ministers. For one example, the old chestnut that sexual abusers cannot be rehabilitated has been shown wrong by empirical studies for non-violent abusers. I know a few local pastors who have had the guts to take in and work with non-violent felons because empirical studies show more hope than the old bias held.

    Kenda’s use of the youth study is another example of confused adults confusing science with more moralizing in a world where religious language doesn’t square with drug cartel corpses and child prostitutes.

    Why do youth have the socialization-language to know the street cash value of Mexican tar heroin?

    But not the street cash-out value of religious language?

    Because Kenda’s theo-babble grandstanding is the symptom. Not the cure.

    Hope this puts a finer point on it.



  • Jim

    NB – I studied 30+ pages of “Almost Christian.” And on …

    Matt, empirical studies can measure the effect of language. “Socialization” is not a theological theory. It’s testable. Measurable.

    For example, we can measure whether the language on speed limit signs (e.g., “35 mph”) in your local neighborhood has any effect on whether youth drive the speed limit (example: such and such a percentage of youth slow down and drive 35, or maybe cut to 40 and play the gray area: finding —> the language on speed limit signs does have a measurable effect; advice, post more speed limit signs). No brainer.

    So too, we can measure the socialization-language competence of youth who want Mexican tar heroin. Who know they must pay say $35.00 a hit – because the dealer demands $35.00 a hit. And youth pay $35.00 a hit. No brainer. Language gets very effective when there’s a machete in over your head in the background. Speed limit language gets pretty clear with the red lights of a cop car flashing my rear view mirror.

    There are tons of concrete examples showing youth are extremely competent to understand language. And to apply language. Or game out language: “Johnny, clean your room … but dad, why?”

    Are language skills really the test of religious sensibilities? (I don’t have the answer: only a bias).

    What are valid tests for religious commitment in youth? – talk? more talk? — what are hard measure tests? – what are valid tests for measuring whether youth apply religious language? – can adults who are confused about how to apply religious language test and measure youth who can’t? – what’s up here? – if you devised a language-to-application test for youth in your church, what would the test be? — how would you know whether youth are just playing to your expected results? — like teaching to pass the test?

    Someone here mentioned Quakers. Thousands of them killed in the first generations. Imprisoned. They distrusted language. Especially religious language. They resisted wordy theology. Why? What’s the test?

  • ProperVillain

    I agree with @Bob, I think the problem is most churches have become places of mass entertainment in order to “compete with the world” instead of places of thought, contemplation and worship. Most have also become way too corporate. Meaning, what is paramount is the maintaining the overblown campuses, the overblown salaries, and the “vision” of leadership that was, supposedly, given to them by god. In most cases I think it is nothing more than their overblown egos talking. Unfortunately, most never question church leadership and that just perpetuates the problem. Even sadder is that if they do question leadership they are, at best, seen as “not a team player” and at worse as a heretic.
    Sad. In the churches quest to compete with modern day media in order to “win” the youth they have lost their soul.

  • Dolores Lear
    “A bogus Christianity” “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).”
    “is about more than what teens believe and how churches can get them back in the pews – It asks people to be nice, it wants God to be a cosmic bellboy and it wants people who adhere to MTD to feel good about themselves. You know, self-esteem and all that.”

    Jesus was a Male Celibate, and took over his cousin John the Baptist Celibate movement when he died. Maybe some of John’s Disciples also remained. Jesus had a Male Celibate and Equal Sharing of Resources Movement, before he went up in the air, Alive, in the year 30.

    How did Jesus’s Nazarite Movement get changed into a Trinity Religion in 300? The Religious Books of the Bible that were written about him, were about his Celibate Nazarite Movement. Where did this Trinity God idea come from? The Trinity Religion of Egypt and Rome was about a Trinity Religion of Father, Mother, and Son. How did the Religious Humans in Rome start a Trinity Religion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three Persons also in One Godhead?

    Where do all the Man-Made Religions of Humans on Earth come from? Does Genesis 1,2, really explain how Life began on Earth? A Supernatural/High Tech Colonization of Earth, by Supernatural God/Us in our Human Image and Likeness? Where did all these Religious and Myth Writings come from? Handed down by the Heterosexual and GLBT Children of Adam and Eve, by Generation Birth, Death and Rebirth?

    How does all this Supernatural/High Tech Religious and Myth Information tie-in with the New Evolution Theory from the 1800s? How does it tie-in with our High Tech Science Revolution since the 1900s?

    Until we Answer these questions, all that can happen is a new Man-Made MTD Religion, like the Israelite/Jewish, Islam, etc. MidEast Man-Made Religions from Abraham’s sons, like the Man-Made Catholic Trinity in 300, the Man-Made Protestant Religion in 1600, and All the new Religions since, like the Mormons, etc.

    “If you are a Christian, make sure your pastor, youth leader and others read this book — and insist that they do some honest and serious reflection on whether they’re really teaching young people MTD or Christianity.”

    Which version of Christianity? Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, etc., or New Age?

  • Kenda Creasy Dean

    Thanks for the great conversation–and the critiques. I want to clarify one thing (in case I was unclear in the book). Jim says:

    “Kenda says the benign attitude of youth toward religion is good news. She ought to be pissed off by this finding.”

    It may be obvious that I was P.O.’d enough by the NSYR findings to write the book. So I hope I did not say that youth’s benign attitude toward *religion* is good news–that is certainly bad news, as Jim notes.

    What I hope I said (in the conclusion, most directly) was that youth’s benign attitude toward MTD, and an MTD church, is –if not good news–at least the best news in the National Study of Youth and Religion. It means that teenagers are not viewing a banal version of Christianity as a life-giving or life-changing faith…because it isn’t. They’re not buying a self-serving version of Christian faith as the real deal…nor should they. The reason that may be good news for the church is that it gives us (church leaders, parents, congregations) a chance to show them what the real deal of following Christ actually is, as we re-orient ourselves around Christ’s self-giving (not self-serving) love.

    Can we do that? I’m not sure. But…I’m convinced we can do better.

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify…and for reading!

  • Bot


    Yes, you are correct to question how the Trinity evolved from early Christian thought. A literal reading of the New Testament points to God and Jesus Christ , His Son , being separate , divine beings , united in purpose. . To whom was Jesus praying in Gethsemane, and Who was speaking to Him and his apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration?

    The Nicene Creed’s definition of the Trinity was influenced by scribes translating the Greek manuscripts into Latin. The scribes embellished on a passage explaining the Trinity , which is the Catholic and Protestant belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The oldest versions of the epistle of 1 John, read: “There are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water and the blood and these three are one.” Scribes later added “the Father, the Word and the Spirit,” and it remained in the epistle when it was translated into English for the King James Version, according to Dr. Bart Ehrman, Chairman of the Religion Department at UNC- Chapel Hill. He no longer believes in the Nicene Trinity. .

    Scholars agree that Early Christians believed in an embodied God; it was neo-Platonist influences that later turned Him into a disembodied Spirit. For example, it was an emperor (Constantine) . who introduced a term, homoousious, which defined the Son as “consubstantial” (one being) with the Father. Neither term or anything like it is in the New Testament. Harper’s Bible Dictionary entry on the Trinity says “the formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the New Testament.”

    Furthermore, 11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were non-Trinitarian Christians The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views the Trinity as three separate divine beings , in accord with the earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts and the Founders.

  • Dolores Lear

    Thank you, Tony.
    Here are some more ideas to consider.
    “Religion insists that each of us has a duty to care for our neighbors, and that surely means helping to provide the basics of food, clothing and shelter. – ..but the reality of hunger around the world reveals that something continues to be terribly wrong, and we are called to find ways to respond.”

    Until the Human Species translates All Scripture and Myth with High Tech Science, they keep accepting the Selfish Lifestyle handed down to them as Children through Generation Birth, Death and Rebirth. “In the beginning” in Genesis 1,2, the Female was Reproduced from the Male Rib. This God/Us Humans ‘in our image and likeness’, did not Reproduce Children, but Equal Asexual Male and Female Helpmeets, not Mates.

    This is not Supernatural Knowledge today, but High Tech Science. Also in Genesis 1, the outline for Colonizing a Planet with High Tech Science is outlined, with our High Tech Science today. Life did not Evolve on Earth, but did have a ‘Super’natural/High Tech Beginning, that could not be Translated as such, 100 years ago.

    Until Humans accept the Equal Beginning on Earth of All Species, to Sharing the Resources on Planet Equally, we will not Overcome Overpopulation or the Inequality of Selling the Earth’s Resources to the Human Species. Earth’s Resources are Free to All Species, but with Heterosexual Reproduction, All Equality of Resources for All Species was Lost.

    Not only Humans Starve, but Many Other Species are Dying Out, from the Human Population Explosion the past 100 years from 1 Billion in 1900, to 7 Billion Humans in 2011. Where is the land area to house and feed that many Humans? Where is the Clean Water for that many Humans? How is the Eco System and Ozone Canopy staying in Balance?

    What are Humans doing to their land are with all the Waste Dumps full, and Nuclear Waste on land and sea that cannot be destroyed or dissolved? What are Humans doing Arming their Home Planet to the teeth, with Nuclear Bombs and all types of Killing Weapons, Military Bases and Embassies, to protect their Wealth? Are Humans Getting ready to Share the Earth’s Dwindling Resources, or Getting Ready to Killing Each Other and our Home Planet?

    How many Greedy Human Billionaires make an Unequal Billion Poor Starving Humans?
    To the Winner goes the Spoils, does not work Planetwide. Why should one Country have More than another? Because of their Military Might? How does this Obey and Compliment all the Religious God teachings of Humans Sharing Equally Gods Blessings? Or does God give Unequally to the Children of the Wrong God? Which God is the Right God? The One of the Billionaires which is many Gods Planetwide?

    Whatever the Human Greed Reason, How much does One Human Need To Store up in Unnecessary ‘Things’ while other Humans Starve. Our Home Planet is set up for the Prophesied End Times ‘Arm’ageddon War, and the Planetary Fire, not by the Peace God in Genesis 1,2, that does not Kill. Unequal Sharing Greedy Body Birth Humans on Earth, have used God’s Blessing for Killing and Pride in Things, through Body Birth Generations, instead of Equal Sharing.

    Or is Evolution Right, there was no Peace God on Earth, and Humans Evolved from Killer Animals? So why did Humans have all the Past Man-Made Religions and Myths? For Comfort? Humans keep saying Peace, Peace, when there is No Peace. And there will not be Peace, until Everyone Shares Equally, Stops Reproducing Killers, and Quits Owning God’s Resources on our Only Home Planet Earth.

    For reference the Billionaires that own the Oil, Gas, Coal companies, the Motor Vehicle companies, and all other Billionaires that Own God’s Resources, even if they giver 10% to the Poor, the Poor get Poorer and the Rich get Richer, as Male Lust makes the Population Explosion Explode more each day. Are we ready for a new Trillionaire, before our Home Planet dies?

  • Dolores Lear

    Thank you for the Creed information. I have been writing about this for a long time, with no acceptance, that this was Man-Made, like All Religions handed down from Generation Birth, Death, and Rebirth, since Planet Earth was Colonized with Purebred Celibate Adam, and Eve was made an Asexual Female Clone Helpmeet from his Rib.
    I accept this was a whole Colony, not one male and female, since we have the High Tech to Translate all Religion and Myth today. Why Not?

  • Jim

    Response to Kenda Creasy Dean July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am,


    Jim July 22, 2010 at 3:06 pm (two threads forward).