Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

We’ve just started our series on identity and last week I preached on how what we believe shapes our identity.  In preparation, I did some research on what Americans believe.  It turns out someone has tried to categorize and synthesize a framework of belief commonly held by youth and young adults in America.

After doing hundreds of phone interviews with teenagers for his book Soul Searching and then more research with young adults for his book Souls in Transition, he recognized some trends.  The type of faith that consistently shows up is something he calls, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  He describes it this way:

“Soul Searching argued that the real, tacit, de facto religion of the majority of American teenagers is not any of the many historic religious faiths one usually think of when one thinks of religion but is a new, de facto religion: moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). Soul Searching presented five key beliefs held by followers of MTD. First, a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. Second, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. Third, the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Fourth, God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. Fifth, good people go to heaven when they die.” Souls in Transition, pg. 154

He goes on to say that MTD continues to show up with prominence in young adults ages 18-23, and my experience has been that MTD is woven into the fabric of American culture as a defining belief structure that exists for more than just young people.  Many people I’ve met who are much older than 23 could rightly be categorized in part or wholly as believing in MTD.

Is that bad?  Does it matter?  It seems like MTD sort of gets it right.  Be nice.  Be good.  Be happy.  These are simple and helpful axioms for leading a good life.  Right?

Actually, I think no.  I have a tendency towards MTD, and my experience with it has been that it brings bondage.  Moralism just makes me feel guilty.  I do the thing I think I ought to do, but only because I am enslaved to a moral code.  Then when I break it, I provide myself with so many exceptions that my moral code constantly changes and morphs to fit my lifestyle choices.  Secondly, feeling like the goal of my life is happiness puts me in bondage to my feelings.  If I’m not happy something is wrong, and I have to fix it.  Lastly, deism (which states that God is not active in this world) leaves me feeling like everything has to be accomplished on my own and that God is not with me in the midst of life.

Christ offers me another way.  He says even when you aren’t moral, I love you still.  Don’t expect to be happy.  Life is full of suffering, and being happy isn’t your purpose.  And he says, he will be with me always, even when it’s hard.  This sets me free to just live my life under grace.  I know that God loves me and he is with me when I’m happy, sad, good, or bad.  It’s all grace.

photo from flickr.


2 responses to “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”

  1. Nice perspective.

  2. Thomas Reimler Avatar
    Thomas Reimler

    There is some great discussion on Moral Therapeutic Deism on a recent broadcast of The White Horse Inn.

    As a second comment, I’d like to relay a story from a recent conference I attended, where the facilitator led us through a values exercise where we ranked our top values in life. The young woman next to me valued “fun” and “happiness” as her top 2 values. Not sure whether or not she belives in God, but I thought of MTD when I saw her values.