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Why you should be worried about Moral Therapeutic Deism

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Christianity in America is changing – and not in a good way.

While declining attendance continues to be a prominent area of concern for the modern church, recent awareness has been directed at the inability of professing Christians to express doctrinally sound apologetics. In particular, Rod Dreher’s book, “The Benedict Option,” has addressed the prevalence of this problem.

Dreher, an Orthodox Christian author and journalist, wrote “The Benedict Option” as a call for Christians to “embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant counterculture,” a solution similar to that employed by St. Benedict in his development of monasteries apart from a depraved Roman culture. For this proposal, “The Benedict Option” has received its fair share of controversy.

At Acton, we’ve talked about the solutions proposed in “The Benedict Option” before. However, distinct from the call for Christians to embrace the Benedict Option, one of the most telling and significant aspects of Dreher’s book is his summary of Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) and its implications.

MTD is the name given to an underlying current of modern religious thought, based on interviews with American teenagers conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion. Dreher argues that MTD elucidates a “pseudo-Christianity that is ‘only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.” As originally described by Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,” MTD outlines five core tenets:

  1. A God exists who created and orders 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.

Smith and Denton continue that “…what teens appear to believe instead is that religion is about God responding to the authoritative desires and feelings of people.”

This lack of an informed faith negatively influences surrounding political, social and economic issues. If modern-day Christians use the tenets of MTD as an articulation of their beliefs, they will be ill-equipped to defend the Christian faith or its implications. The result of a faith that exists to serve your interests instills a malleability to its core truths. As the interests of society and the culture change, the corresponding tenets of religious faith morph to fit those needs. A populace believing that God exists as a distant entity, only relevant when needed to serve their interests will easily yield to ideologies that dethrone God in favor of a government that affirms their subjective morality.

Further, as Dreher illustrates, failing to understand a Biblically-based morality means that individuals will fall victim to the popular currents of ongoing political debates. Dreher contends that “many of these ‘Christians’ are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.” As a result, they will fail to defend Christian morality when its core doctrines are challenged.

In order to counteract widespread MTD, we should look to the family, the community, and the church as avenues of change. In particular, churches can serve as ideal unifiers for communities, as Tim Carney recently outlined:

…for the middle class in America and the working class, the church has always been the main place where they get a connection, where they get a little safety net, where they get a little sense of purpose.

Churches, at their best, deepen faith, provide a point of assembly for believers and strengthen communal bonds. However, the failure of a church to counter the prevalence of MTD means that professing Christians lack the tools to adequately respond to cultural challenges. When the public sphere disapproves of Christian doctrine, those entrenched in MTD will retreat from a conviction to which they only partially subscribed (or perhaps, never subscribed at all).

Therefore, the family and the church emerge as clear solutions to these systemic issues of MTD. Striving to instill lessons of Biblical morality, obedience and worldview based on the Scriptures offers the starting point to address the proliferation of MTD in society. R. Albert Mohler notes that an unsettling aspect of the Smith and Denton study was the discovery that for many of the teenagers interviewed, it was their first time they had discussed deep theological questions with an adult. If we are to strengthen our religious convictions and understanding, it begins with confronting difficult questions, starting in our families and our churches.

Mohler outlines the path ahead as such: “We now face the challenge of evangelizing a nation that largely considers itself Christian, overwhelmingly believes in some deity, considers itself fervently religious, but has virtually no connection to historic Christianity.” As the prevalence of MTD grows, we must make efforts to restore the connection to real, Biblical Christianity. Whether that be through programs like Awana, an evangelical Christian ministry that instructs young students to memorize and internalize Biblical passages, or efforts like those taken by Christian Reformed Churches to hold evening services examining the tenets of the Heidelberg Catechism, Christians need to understand Christianity. Otherwise, Christians will be ill-equipped to defend their faith. If we do not receive a sound Biblical ethic from the church, we will fill this moral void with the whims of popular culture. 

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Kyra Cooper Kyra Cooper is an intern at the Acton Institute. A graduate of Truman State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, Kyra is attending the University of Chicago Law School in fall 2019.

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