American Faith: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”

Few studies have been more timely and pin-point accurate in it’s findings than the research of Christian Smith in “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” concerning the religious beliefs of American teenagers.  I would argue that many of these teens have learned their faith from parents with similar Christian convictions and level of commitment.  Thus, his findings are not limited to teenagers by any stretch of the imagination.

Smith’s definition and description of what he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” will long be used as the best description of what goes for typical civil religion in America.  Here’s an excerpt from Albert Mohler’s commentary on this ground-breaking study:

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 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.”

That, in sum, is the creed to which much adolescent faith can be reduced. After conducting more than 3,000 interviews with American adolescents, the researchers reported that, when it came to the most crucial questions of faith and beliefs, many adolescents responded with a shrug and “whatever.”

As a matter of fact, the researchers, whose report is summarized in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, found that American teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs, and most are virtually unable to offer any serious theological understanding. As Smith reports, “To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it. Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both.”

As the researchers explained, “For most teens, nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion. ‘Whatever’ is just fine, if that’s what a person wants.”

The casual “whatever” that marks so much of the American moral and theological landscapes–adolescent and otherwise–is a substitute for serious and responsible thinking. More importantly, it is a verbal cover for an embrace of relativism. Accordingly, “most religious teenager’s opinions and views–one can hardly call them worldviews–are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion.”

Nothing motivates me more as a youth pastor of teens than research findings like this.  There is much work to be done in raising up, discipling and equipping a generation of new Christians established on the firm foundation of biblical faith.  The strong current of wishy-washy, religious pluralism grounded on our culture’s highest virtue of tolerance will continue to make this task challenging.  Yet, we have God’s revealed truth on our side and the Holy Spirit empowering our efforts.  This should give us the courage and strength to continue to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

“The harvest is plenty but the workers are few.”  Let’s keep laboring for the Kingdom!

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