Though they aren't journalists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton broke one of the biggest stories in contemporary religion with their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Conducting the most comprehensive study of religion and teenagers to date, the sociologists discovered a newly dominant creed that they dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Rather than transformative revelation from God, religion has become a utility for enhancing a teenager's life. Smith and Denton lay out the five points of MTD:
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.
Surely American teenagers did not invent this new religion. A quick scan of bestseller lists, television guides, or public school curricula will reveal MTD's appeal. Indeed, the God of MTD sounds like the "cool parent" teenagers adore.
"God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process," Smith and Denton write.
Writing this month for his blog with The New Republic, Damon Linker declared MTD to be an ideal civil religion for America. Maybe it's not surprising that someone who wrote The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege would champion an admittedly "watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity." But Linker worked for Richard John Neuhaus at First Things from 2001 to 2005. So he is an unlikely advocate for "thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant" MTD as a perfect civil religion for a pluralistic America that rejects traditional Christian moral teaching.
"An America in which all of this is happening would still be Christian in significant senses," Linker allows. "It just wouldn't be the kind of Christian nation that makes a theocon feel all warm and fuzzy. And that's a very good thing indeed."
Linker's proposal has met no little resistance from the conservative blogosphere. Rod Dreher argued that political activism from principled Christians produces both Pat Robertson and Martin Luther King Jr. If you want to get rid of one, you will sacrifice the other.
"Nobody finds the courage to face down police dogs and Klansmen in the vapid mewlings of MTD," Dreher observed for his Beliefnet blog, Crunchy Con. "MTD Christians don't sing 'We Shall Overcome'; they trill 'We Shall Accommodate.'"
In a blog post titled "Theology Has Consequences" for The Atlantic, Ross Douthat argued that writers who hyperventilate about the theocon threat obviously prefer that Christianity would give in to Oprah. Such "mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law." Turning Linker's argument on its head, Douthat wrote that the "self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian" religion of MTD contributed to the current economic collapse and President Bush's ambitious foreign policy. He called Bush's second inaugural address "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War." Unlike traditional Christianity, MTD naively underestimates evil and promotes selfish pursuit of financial gain.
Since even Linker admits that MTD is not good for traditional Christianity, the question at stake is whether traditional Christianity is good for America. No observer of American religion, culture, and politics has since surpassed Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who visited the United States during the early 1800s. Tocqueville makes clear that the diversity Linker describes today is no new phenomenon. Blogging for The American Scene, James Poulos quotes Tocqueville's observation about the link between religion and freedom.
"When there is no authority in religion or in politics, men are soon frightened by the limitless independence with which they are faced," Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America. "They are worried and worn out by the constant restlessness of everything. With everything on the move in the realm of the mind, they want the material order at least to be firm and stable, and as they cannot accept their ancient beliefs again, they hand themselves over to a master. For my part, I doubt whether man can support complete religious independence and entire political liberty at the same time. I am led to think that if he has no faith he must obey, and if he is free he must believe."
So what, then, is the connection between belief and freedom? Take free markets for example. Our current economic malaise reveals what happens when accountability wanes and selfishness reigns. The federal government has responded with plans to enforce stricter regulations. Of course, not even a large and complex federal government can effectively ensure ethical practice by American corporations. Federal agencies can't even track the billions they have already distributed to these banks. If markets will be truly free, then traders and fund managers must be governed by higher principles that restrain their sinful impulses toward lying and greed. Otherwise the markets will be enslaved to manipulative forces.
For the purposes of restraining sin and promoting the common good, MTD is useless. Those previously disposed to ethical behavior need no vapid creed that tells them to be good, nice, and fair. For those who seek selfish gain by any means, MTD offers no compelling alternative. Smith and Denton write, "What we hardly ever heard from teens was that religion is about significantly transforming people into, not what they feel like being, but what they are supposed to be, what God, or their ethical tradition wants them to be."
If orthodox Christianity gives way to MTD, American public life may further degenerate into a feel-good free-for-all. No merely civil religion, especially one shaped by MTD, can long sustain a free republic by itself. A nation committed only to liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be left wondering why life is so unfulfilling.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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