Moral Therapeutic Deism

The American church is faltering because of its focus on morality. We have failed our culture because we have chosen to defend moralism instead of proclaiming the gospel.  

In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the common ad-hoc belief system adopted by youth culture. Their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, was the result of a research project, the “National Study of Youth and Religion,” privately funded by the Christianity-promoting Lilly Endowment. From interviews with three thousand teens, Smith and Lundquist Denton discovered a common belief system comprising five core tenets:   

  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on Earth.  
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.  
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.  
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.  
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.  

The scandalous thing about the research is that many teens reported that a primary driver of their adoption of these beliefs was their local church. In our frenzy to “defend the truth that America is a Christian nation,” we have inadvertently communicated the truth that we are most deeply concerned about policing behavior. We have proclaimed a false gospel. To wit: be nice. Being nice is good for you. Also, you’ll go to heaven if you’re good.   

Kenda Creasy Dean’s 2010 book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church seals our indictment:  

The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe, namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people … if churches practice MTD [moral therapeutic deism] in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to church more often is not the solution (conceivably it could make things worse.) A more faithful church is the solution … Maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes.

To the extent that the church has replaced the gospel of death and resurrection with a code of conduct — to the extent that we have been content to invite our neighbors to “come and see” instead of inviting them to “come and die” — we have provoked our culture to dismiss our message. If all we have to say is “be good in the way we define good” then we offer no superlative claim to the basis of human flourishing. The irony is that our focus on morality has lost us the moral battle.