Source: Wikimedia Commons

Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist?

on May 4, 2015

There is talk in some church circles about “moralistic therapeutic deism.” We may abbreviate this ungainly phrase as “MTD,” in allusion to the popular cable channel showing music videos. Many teenagers and young adults are familiar with MTV; however, few would recognize “moralistic therapeutic deism” as playing any role in their lives.

Yet the contention we hear is that MTD, rather than classic Christianity, is the predominant religion among today’s teenagers and young adults. They may not recognize the phrase, but it describes the belief system that they actually profess and practice. And what’s more: We, the parents and other adults around them, are the ones who taught them MTD. This is a serious charge and deserves serious consideration.

An Inarticulate Faith

The phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” you will not be surprised to learn, was coined by an academic: Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. It has been disseminated more widely by Smith’s associates, including Princeton Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean. Based on her research with Smith, Dean published a book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Dean has become a popular speaker at church events. She delivered a challenging presentation at my local church on a snowy February Saturday, and I was among the large crowd that came out to hear her.

Smith, Dean, and their colleagues did surveys and in-depth interviews in which they queried thousands of young people about their religious beliefs and practices. Very few, they found, were atheists or hostile toward religion. On the other hand, relatively few were able to articulate and consistently practice a faith that resembled classic Christianity.

The vast majority of the respondents found it difficult to articulate any kind of belief system. They mentioned God, but it was a vague and distant God. They didn’t have much to say about Jesus.

What the respondents did seem to believe, as Smith summarized it, was: God functions as an authority who gives us rules to guide our behavior (this is the “moralistic” part). The main point of these rules is to be a nice person who gets along with other people. If we obey the rules, God makes us feel good about ourselves (this is the “therapeutic” part). But God isn’t involved in a personal or direct way in our daily lives (this is the “deism” part). He may show up in a crisis, to make us feel better about ourselves.

Almost Christian

This set of half-conscious assumptions is what Smith, Dean, and associates call “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It’s not necessarily false. We should seek good relations with the people around us. If we obey God’s commands, we will usually end up happier. God is a refuge in times of trouble.

Yet the Good News of Jesus Christ is so much greater than any of this. Dean, in her talk, showed a side-by-side comparison of MTD and the Apostles’ Creed. The differences were stark. MTD is all about myself and my happiness. The Apostles’ Creed is about the Truine God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and God’s amazing works from the Creation to the Incarnation to the hope of life eternal.

So how did these teenagers and young adults come to settle for so much less than the Gospel? It wasn’t by rebelling against their parents’ religion. On the contrary, survey respondents by and large felt positively toward their parents and shared common values. Many of them reported that their parents had taken them regularly to church and youth group, and they had few complaints about the experience. It’s just that they didn’t emerge with a distinct Christian faith that they could articulate and practice.

Is This What We Teach Our Children?

Dean suggests a disturbing explanation: Perhaps these teenagers and young adults adopted MTD because that’s what they were taught. That’s basically the philosophy of life they have received from and observed in their parents. It’s what they learned in Sunday school and youth group: Be nice to other people and you’ll have a happy life, and God will be there when you need him. All that stuff about Jesus dying for our sins never really made an impression.

Dean’s presentation provoked some self-examination in me and others at my church: Is MTD what we are teaching our kids? When my wife and I lead Children’s Church, is the message the children are hearing the Gospel of God’s great mercy in Jesus Christ? Or is it something less? Are we preparing them to be nice people or disciples of Jesus Christ?

I must admit that some of the Sunday school curriculum we have used has been very moralistic and therapeutic. We read Bible stories, but the takeaway at the end of the lesson often seems to be that everyone is special to God and kids should be kind to their classmates. There isn’t much said about our being sinners to whom God sent a Savior. I have seen this failing not only in oldline Protestant curricula, but also in curricula from publishers that have an evangelical reputation.

How would your congregation fare under this kind of self-examination? Maybe you intend to communicate the Gospel–as my wife and I do–but are you sure that’s what the children are hearing? It’s a question worth asking. The consequences go far into the future–indeed, into eternity. In my next article I will discuss what we can do about moralistic therapeutic deism.

This article originally appeared on the website of  Theology Matters. 


  1. Comment by Namyriah on May 4, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I used to work for the United Methodist Publishing House, editing Sunday school literature, and I think MTD would describe it all pretty well. There’s nothing wrong with the message “Be nice to people,” except that the sentiment gets hijacked by the various pressure groups within the church (feminists, homosexuals), so we end up where we are today, with all the mainlines and some of the evangelicals taking the position that “be nice” means celebrating behaviors that have been consistently condemned for 2000 years of Christian history. People attend church regularly and really have no clue about the ethical teaching of the New Testament, no grasp of the core teaching that living a life pleasing to God requires becoming counter-cultural, not conforming to a sinful world, which inevitably involves conflict with that world. Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross” has no place in the MTD religion, and the MTD believers are in no danger of ending up on a cross, or in a prison cell. The sad truth is, most Christian churches in the US today are post-Christian, in some cases even anti-Christian, expressing open contempt for people who still regard the New Testament as a guide to life. The old evangelical phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is meaningless to many churchgoers, as they have no desire for a relationship that would involve them modifying their behavior to please God, since God only exists as a divine pacifier when they are having a rotten day. God is not Father or Judge, he is a divine slave who fluffs up your pillows and massages your feet.

  2. Comment by Dan on May 4, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    Yep, sounds like the standard UMC catechism to me, short thought it is. The only thing missing is the part about if you do enough good works for social/economic/racial/climate justice then you will be acceptable to God and earn a heavenly reward.

  3. Comment by Jason P Taggart on May 5, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    I’m not all that certain that the religious left even believes in an afterlife. They certainly don’t believe in hell.

  4. Comment by Greg on May 10, 2015 at 8:32 am

    They have turned scripture and classical Reformation theology on its head. They now believe in “works without faith.”

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.