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Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, who are principal investigators for the National Study of Youth and Religion (a study of congregations in seven denominations).... [are]  seeing an alternative faith in American teenagers, one that "feeds on and gradually co-opts if not devours" established religious traditions.  This faith, called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, "generally does not and cannot stand on its own," so its adherents are affiliated with traditional faith communities but unaware that they are practicing a very different faith than historic orthodox Christianity.  If teenagers wrote out the creed of this religious outlook, it would look something like this:

• A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

• God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

• The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.

• God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.

• Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith and Denton claim that MTD is "colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness." This, they add, is a moral indictment not of American teenagers, but of American congregations....

While Smith and Denton refrain from describing how this "colonization" affects other religious traditions, they are blunt about its influence on Christianity: "A significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that it is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into .  .  .  Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

In short, the study provides a window on how American young people have learned a well-intentioned but ultimately banal version of Christianity that's been offered to them in American churches.  Most youth seem to accept this bland view of faith as all there is—as something nice to have, like a bank account, something you have in case you need to draw from it in the future.  What Christian adults have not told them is that this account of Christianity is bankrupt.  We have not invested in their accounts: we "teach" young people baseball, but we "expose" them to faith.  We provide coaching and opportunities for youth to develop and improve their pitches and their SAT scores, but we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis and will emerge "when youth are ready" (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to, say, algebra).

- Kenda Creasy Dean, "Faith, nice and easy - The almost-Christian formation of teens,"
The Christian Century, August 10, 2010.

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