Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

What do Americans believe?  In my last post, I suggested that even though 65% of Americans say they are Christian, I and others believe that many (most?) of them are not. Many of them believe in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism worldview and not the Christian worldview.  What is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)?  Those with MTD beliefs tend to believe in 5 tenets.

  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.

This comes from a survey of teenagers (15+ years ago). The survey (Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina (2005). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers) also asked where the teens got their beliefs.  For most, their beliefs came from their parents, so these beliefs cover at least a few generations. 

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not an organized faith, however it is so pervasive in America that some call it the civil or civic religion of America.  Tenets 2 and 5 describe the moralistic beliefs while tenets 3 and 4 describe the therapeutic beliefs. They are considered deists because of the minimal interaction of their creator god with the world (tenets 1 and 4). One can see these beliefs in American culture over the past 50+ years.

Even though many MTD deists will say they are Christian, MTD is not at all like traditional Christianity.  First MTD is very “Me” oriented and is not focused on God and what he has done for us.  For MTD, god is not involved and there is no relationship with us except being ready to help when needed.  In Christianity God desires a relationship of love with him and is very involved in the world.  Life as a Christian is about serving him in love and thankfulness, not as MTD says about being happy and feeling good. In fact, the God in Christianity does not promise happiness, but he does promise being there in the tough times.  

The Christian Faith is about bad people going to heaven, not good people, because we all are bad and in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. We find our identity in the fact that we are loved by God, not in our own goodness.  We can be realistic about our shortcomings because we are loved by God.  

Tenet 2 says “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”   That is true in a broad general sense, but with Tenet 5 it makes MTD into what we do to get to God, not God reaching down to save us as the Christian Faith declares.  It also implies that all major world religions are effectively the same. That is far from the truth, but is a fairly common belief among Americans. 

So what do you say when you are talking about spiritual matters to an American?  First you can not assume they believe what you believe.  Americans tend to pick and choose what they believe.  MTD is a summary of what the common beliefs are.  You need to ask and listen carefully to what they say they believe.  Ask questions and nail down the best you can of what they believe.  And then respectfully share with them what you believe.

Check out this explanation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in comic form by Adam Ford.

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