An article in the Christian Post, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the New American Religion,” recently caught my attention. Written by Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, it discusses the current state of belief among American teenagers, and his view of a troubling trend towards what researchers have named Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
A study on the religious beliefs of teenagers, done by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has (shockingly) shown that American teenagers can be relatively apathetic in matters of faith. In Mohler’s words, the study “found that American teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs, and most are virtually unable to offer any serious theological understanding.” The majority of interviewees responded to questions about faith and religion in unspecific terms, with answers like: “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
As a recent graduate of teenagedom and a student of religious trends, I feel especially qualified to respond to Mr. Mohler and the larger themes at stake in this study. There are two specific items I want to address:
- First, I want to offer a plea in defense of the American teenager and their right to be conflicted, confused, and questioning.
- Second, I want to address the concept of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” in terms of what Mohler continually refers to as “historic Christianity.”
According to Mohler, the preoccupation of American teenagers with human relationships and “being nice” is a “radical transformation in Christian theology,” because it “replaces the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of self.” He cites the lack of religious rhetoric as a clear indication that “Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith”—one centered in the rhetoric of “happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.”
Mohler also seems very concerned that the teenagers interviewed expressed tolerant and open attitudes towards other religion; his exact response was: “Some go so far as to suggest that there are no “right” answers in matters of doctrine and theological conviction.” The word choice employed in this sentence can only imply his distaste for these suggestions.
In response, I must start with this: if recent history has taught our youngest generation anything, it is that religion is incredibly important in today’s world and cannot afford to be taken lightly. I have often heard my parents say that they will always remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot; for me and my generation, that watershed moment will always be September 11, 2001—when the progression of American history was put on a crash course with terrorism based on religious extremism. For many (and hopefully for most), growing up in the post-9/11 world has encouraged more frank discussions about religion—I am hopeful that it has also encouraged tolerant attitudes towards those with differing view points. If this is fostering the sense that there may be no “right answers in matters of doctrine,” it is my sincere hope that it spreads like wildfire.
As for the second point, I wish that Mr. Mohler had included an explanation of what he refers to as “historic Christianity.” As a Baptist Minister, he most certainly represents a part of Christian history, but the existence of hundreds of Christian denominations across the world indicates that “historic Christianity” has taken many forms. A good portion of our Founding Fathers considered themselves both Deists and Christians. Take Thomas Jefferson, for example, who included the words “Our Creator” in the Declaration of Independence in deference to his Deistic beliefs.[i] Could it be possible that the move toward a “moralistic, therapeutic deism” in American youth is just the next chapter in “historic Christianity”?
[i] Waldman, Steven. Founding Faith. New York City: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008. 88-89. Print.