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Moral Therapeutic Deism: The Majority Religion of America

A prominent Notre Dame scholar and sociologist named Christian Smith did substantial research and came up with a term to describe the basic message of many churches in America, particularly as youth in the church have perceived it. He called it “Moral Therapeutic Deism” or MTD for short. That phrase may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but I promise it’s not that complicated.

First, this message is “moral.” It approaches life in a moralistic way. It teaches that the central feature of living a good and happy life is simply being a moral person—being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible.

Basically, it substitutes morality for Jesus. Rather than directing our gaze toward Jesus and what Jesus has done on the cross for our salvation and the subsequent grace Jesus provides to make us moral people, this message directs our attention to morality all on its own. That’s a big problem…because that’s not Christianity. The reason we call Christianity “Christianity” is because it’s about Christ, not just about morality.

Also, Moral Therapeutic Deism is called what it’s called because of what the second word points to: its therapeutic emphasis. This message is therapeutic because it teaches that the life is centrally about feeling good about ourselves—feeling happy, secure, and at peace with where we are.

“Don’t worry about discussing sin. That’s not very uplifting or enjoyable to talk about. And definitely don’t mention anything about God’s judgment. That was so 500 years ago. We just need to talk about things that help us feel better about ourselves and increase our self-esteem.” That’s what they’re basically saying. So, again we see that the emphasis of this message is clearly on ourselves rather than on Jesus.

And lastly, as the name implies, Moral Therapeutic Deism teaches a form of “Deism.” Deism is the belief in a god who may exist and may have created the world along with its moral system, but he doesn’t really get involved beyond that. He’s definitely not actively involved in our lives, especially not in the parts of our lives that we don’t want him to be involved in.

Maybe he’ll help us when we need help, but other than that, he kind of minds his own business and keeps a comfortable distance. That way we can live the way we want to live and choose which rules we want to follow without too much interference.

It kind of reminds me of the way a few of the guys on my dorm at college related to their parents. They really liked getting money from their parents, but they didn’t really like their parents giving them an opinion about how they should live their lives. It seemed like they just wanted their parents to act like a vending machine and regularly give them money so they could eat out seven days a week, but that’s as far as the relationship needed to go.

According to this theory of Moral Therapeutic Deism, that’s the way many people approach God. Yet again, you get the idea here life is really all about us rather than being all about Jesus.

But the Bible paints a radically different picture of reality. It tells us that God actually does care about the way we live—he cares a lot. And because we’ve rebelled against him and lived sinfully, the Bible says we’ve alienated ourselves from God and brought upon ourselves a sentence of condemnation.

But thankfully, the story of the Bible doesn’t end there.

The vast majority of the Bible is about God progressively working to save us from our sinful condition. And the way God does that be summed up in one word: Jesus. Jesus is at the very center of God’s rescue plan. As John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.