A Shocking Conclusion about American Christianity

A Shocking Conclusion about American Christianity May 19, 2014

A Shocking Conclusion about American Christianity

I’m not an expert in or scholar of “youth ministry,” but many of my students are either doing youth ministry or plan to. For some time now I’ve been hearing a lot about something called “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism” (MTD for short). From 2003 to 2005 sociologist of religion Christian Smith and his colleague Melinda Denton carried out a massive study of youth religion in the United States. It was called the “National Study of Youth and Religion” (NSYR). They summed up the overall results with this shocking conclusion:

We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian religion. … It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by quite a different religious faith. (italics added) (quoted in Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, p. 3)

            This sounds like a “the sky is falling!” doomsday prophecy—only not about what will happen but about what has happened. Of course, neither Smith and Denton nor interpreter Dean thinks this is a total picture; they are talking about a massive trend allowing many exceptions.

The religion that is replacing “actual historical Christian religion” in America, especially among young people, is labeled MTD. Dean, a professor of youth culture and ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, summarizes MTD with five beliefs: 1) A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem, and 5) Good people go to heaven when they die. (p. 14)

Dean interprets this trend and the prevalence of MTD as accommodation to “the American way” and implies it is the fruition of two centuries of churches adopting that as their real gospel. The goal is “success in life” and the American way of self-actualization and acquisition of goods and being nice to others is the path to the goal.

Churches tend to support this, she says.

Years ago sociologist of religion Dean Hoge said much the same thing about American Christianity. Here is what I wrote down then on a three-by-five card. Unfortunately I didn’t write down the source, but I think it was in an article in Christian Century sometime in the 1980s:

For the typical Protestant church member[middle class commitments to family, career, and standard of living] are so strong that church commitment is largely instrument to them and contingent on whether the church appears to serve them. As a result, many local churches tend to become instruments for achieving middle class interests, whether or not these interests can be defended in New Testament terms. (italics added)

            Of course, what’s new (maybe) is the identification of contemporary American Christianity as “MTD.” So where does that come from? I would suggest the influence of Oprah Winfrey explains much of it. Of course, all the ingredients were already there—Deism, moralism, therapeutic religion. But the recipe and actual spirituality, such as it is, so I think, is popularized by Winfrey and those she promotes through her books, television show (now in reruns) and cable network. By all accounts Winfrey is one of the most powerful and influential people in American culture. I used to watch her program to try to keep up with popular culture. It didn’t take me long to discern that it was promoting a spirituality of self-actualization and morality of being nice under the guise of a kind of stripped-down, easy to believe and live Christianity. I preferred Phil Donahue because he was openly hostile to traditional Christianity so at least it was apparent to all traditional Christians where he stood.

I have long thought that Smith, Denton and Dean were right—even before I read them. When I read the New Testament and Christian history and put them alongside contemporary American mainline “Christianity” I find the contrast stark and shocking. The only way someone can think most of what goes on in American churches is authentically Christian is not to read the Bible, the church fathers, the reformers, and the great thinkers and evangelists of all denominations.

Even fundamentalist churches are not immune. They may not be into MTD and might even fight against it, but much of what they do is incommensurable with New Testament and historic Christianity. Recently I attended two self-identified fundamentalist Baptist churches—just to see what they are like. Both advertise themselves and “welcome” visitors. One of them advertises its weekly “concealed weapons safety course.” The same one announces that it requires leaders of the church to wear ties (without designating when or where). The other one dedicated about half of its Sunday morning “worship service” to Mother’s Day. The sermon was about honoring parents but the preacher focused mostly on “beating” kids into submission. (I do not exaggerate; he used the word “beat,” not “spank,” and advocated use of belts for even the most minor infractions.) The sermon bordered on endorsing child abuse with the purpose of “breaking their wills” so that they will become “good citizens obedient to authority.” The American flag was not only hanging on its pole at the back of the “platform” but also hanging above the platform from the ceiling facing the congregation. (Those two churches are in a state where the bumper sticker “God, Guns and Guts” is popular.)

Well, none of that is exactly what Smith, Denton, Dean or Hoge were talking about. My point is that even churches that claim to resist cultural accommodation often fall into it. In fact, I suspect that every church will succumb to cultural accommodation unless it consciously guards against it. (And by “accommodation” here I do not mean contextualization, adapting to the culture for the sake of communication of the gospel; I mean subversion of the gospel by culture’s alien habits, customs, beliefs and practices.)

I am afraid that it is becoming increasingly harder to find the gospel in America. It is either wrapped so tightly in the flag as to be virtually invisible or relegated to a footnote to messages about “success in living,” being nice and including everyone.

Again, this is not a new situation; other countries have experienced it to their shame. A German theologian said that when he goes to church he listens for the gospel but comes away thinking the gospel was what should have been said (or sung) but wasn’t. The German Christians of the 1930s certainly didn’t think they were accommodating the gospel to a culture alien to it; they thought they were discovering new dimensions of the gospel that would bring revival to their churches. How strange, we think. But when I really press my students from other cultures to say what they think of American Christianity they’re generally not very complimentary.

I suspect what we need in American Christianity is to take a step back and consider as dispassionately and objectively as possible how much like New Testament Christianity ours is. Where is the tension between our faith and cultural fads that arise from materialism and individualism? How much sacrifice is involved in being an American Christian today? Why do we not hear or talk about heaven? Are we too comfortable here and now? Where is conviction for sin? Is H. Richard Niebuhr’s prophetic quip about liberal Protestantism fitting for even many “evangelical” churches today? (“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”)

Smith’s and Denton’s conclusion is stark and frightening and hopefully extreme. But we American Christians should heed it anyway and consider ourselves in its light. How like New Testament and historic Christianity is ours? What have we lost?

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