If you’ve crossed paths with a certain strain of white theobro online, then the odds are you’ve seen them employing one of their favorite epithets: “Moralistic therapeutic deism.”
If you’re not sure what they mean by that, don’t worry — they’re not sure what they mean by that either. The substance of this word-collage matters far less than the tone of it — supercilious, sanctimonious, sneering condescension.
That dismissive tone is ironic considering the source of this phrase-turned-slur. It comes from sociologist Christian Smith’s 2005 book-length write-up of (co-authored with Melinda Lundquist Denton) of their National Study of Youth and Religion. On the one hand, this large-scale study was designed and conducted as a serious and scrupulously impartial bit of social science research intended to measure the religious views and practices of American teenagers. But on the other hand, it also seems intended in part to provide a resource for Christian churches hoping to reach or retain young members.
The timing of this study is interesting in that it came years before the more recent wave of worry about “the rise of the nones.” (That later development accounts for its enduring popularity and influence.) The brief spasm of white Christian concern about “reaching Generation X” had already played out by 2005, but the larger, later panic about the larger, later Millennial generation hadn’t yet begun in earnest. So credit Smith and Denton for paying attention to “Youth and Religion” even when it wasn’t trendy.
Alas, one thing that cannot be gleaned from a long-term longitudinal study of the religious life of American teenagers is how or whether their attitudes differ from the religious life of American non-teenagers. That’s why the findings of the NYSR may not strike you as all that astonishing. The broadly generic description of teenage American religion Smith and Denton provide doesn’t seem to vary much from a broadly generic description of popular religion among American adults.
This folk religion is what Smith and Denton describe (and implicitly criticize) as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” That weird, clumsy phrase somehow caught on — so much so that it now has its own Wikipedia entry, where the broad characteristics of this broad characterization are summarized in words mostly borrowed from the study:
It is this combination of beliefs that they label moralistic therapeutic deism:
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.
To be clear, this isn’t what the study said that most young people believe. “Deism,” for example, is absolutely the wrong word for a study that found two-thirds of teenagers claiming to have a “personal” relationship with a “personal” God. And unlike many of their fans, Smith and Denton understood that their data involved constricted, quantifiable responses to multiple-choice survey questions supplied by the researchers. When you say, “We will provide you with a very short list of categories and you must squeeze yourself into one of the options we provide” you can’t very well turn around and pretend that respondents have freely volunteered such categorization as their preferred, self-created sense of identity.* There’s a huge difference between “If I had to pick one of the following to define myself, I guess this one would be closest” and “This is how I choose to define myself.”
But that five-point list does fairly summarize a cluster of beliefs held by a minority of American teenagers. Christian churches hoping to communicate effectively with that minority of young people, then, might constructively try to learn from this description. I don’t think any sincere efforts to do so have been aided by the awkward and misleading characterization-turned-insult that Smith and Denton provided in “moralistic therapeutic deism.” That muddle of lightning-bug words distracts from an accurate description and an accurate understanding of the study’s actual findings. (The difference between the right word and the wrong one, the old joke says, is like the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Or like the difference between “moral” and “moralistic.”)
I suspect the judgmental, pejorative aspects of that unfortunate phrase contributed to its eventual weaponization and its current usage. The phrase is now primarily employed for precisely the opposite of what Smith and Denton originally hoped. Now instead of a phrase intended to help Christians understand the folk religion of their neighbors (young or old), it’s primarily a phrase employed by Christians to condemn, mock, dismiss, and push away those same neighbors.
Or, to return to the revealing cliché that arises whenever panic over the loss of younger members strikes, it illustrates the problem of “droves.” Young people are always said to be leaving the church “in droves,” and yet those most loudly lamenting this never seem to wonder who it is that’s driving those droves. These days, the drove-drivers are largely the very same people huffily sneering at “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (Git along! Get a move on! Git!)
These drivers include pretty much anyone still using the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These are Christians who reject as illegitimate anyone who does not also reject as illegitimate all of the folk/popular religious beliefs that Smith and Denton described.
They are, in other words, Christians who do not believe that “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other.” This is why they view “moral[istic]” as a self-evidently negative aspect of MTD. And these are Christians who do not believe that God wants people “to be happy and to feel good about oneself,” which is why they regard the unambiguously positive adjective “therapeutic” as though it were somehow obviously ridiculous.
If one’s goal is to reach young people in a way that makes them want to believe what you believe and to belong with you in belonging, then it’s not helpful to begin by telling them that only godless fools would think being “good, nice, and fair to each other” was important or by suggesting that being happy or feeling worthy are somehow goals to be mocked.
Yes, I get it. Soteriologically obsessed Protestants always get freaked out when they encounter the folk-religious belief of “Good people go to heaven when they die.” They’ve spent 500 years railing against such notions of “works righteousness” and it makes them want to scream. That screaming may not be quite so off-putting if what they end up screaming is all about God’s overwhelming grace or about our overwhelming need for it. But when, instead, they wind up raging and shouting that there’s no such thing as good people and no such thing as being good and no such thing as goodness or fairness or justice, then they should probably learn to take note of the looks of horror this shouting inevitably produces (and deserves).
Because when normal people hear anyone shouting like that — when they hear someone sanctimoniously sneering at morality and healing, derisively dismissing justice and the pursuit of happiness — those normal people are going to be driven away in droves. This is not because they are lost and depraved sinners, but because they are creatures bearing the image of God and recipients of the common grace that allows us all to recognize that morality, healing, fairness, and happiness are not Bad Things.
All of which is to say that if you encounter any of these perverse theobros in the wild — people unironically using “moral[istic] therapeutic deism” as an insult and an epithet — then steer clear and feel free to ignore them. They’re not serious people. Goodness and happiness are always going to elude them (and vice versa).
* For an example of that effect in this survey, consider the extreme individualism of the answers provided by the young people who participated in this survey. Every consideration here — providence, the character of God, goodness, fairness, happiness — is expressed in exclusively individualistic terms. That seems to say something significant about the religious beliefs of all of these young people, but only until you realize that all of the questions and all of the answers available to them were also expressed in those same individualistic terms and didn’t allow for much of anything else as a response.