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Saint Ignatius High School

The Future of American Religion?

In their work on the religious lives of young people, a pair of socialogists concluded that the prevailing religion among American youth is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Is this all too different from Christianity or Judaism? Could it get adherents to heaven? Mr. Healey unpacks the impact.

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Deuteronomy 6:2-6

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51

Second Reading: Letter to the Hebrews 7:23-28

Gospel: According to St. Mark 12:28-34

For Moses and the Israelites, as for Jesus and His followers, religion was theologically profound, yet amazingly simple: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

The Tradition that we have inherited from Moses and Jesus is one that requires a total commitment to God and then, because of God, to our neighbor.  This total commitment is not only difficult, but doesn’t fit well with the prevailing Zeitgeist – especially for those who are members of the Generations at the end of the alphabet. 

In their very important work on the religious lives of young people, especially in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton conclude that the prevailing religion among American youth is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Our young people may be baptized as Catholics, but they share with their non-Catholic peers the overriding characteristics of MTD.

According to Smith and Denton, MTD describes the general consensus among “religious” young people that God is "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: He's 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."

The creed of Moralistic Therapeutic Deists is pretty simple and according to Smith and Denton can be summarized by five core beliefs:

  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."

Now since children often unwittingly pick up the habits and ideas of their parents, might it be possible that these key tenets of MTD are either implicitly or explicitly a part of the mindset of the Baby Boomer generation as well?

In an article in The New Republic, Damon Linker points out that the beliefs inherent in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are basically a “watered-down, anemic, and insipid” version of traditional Christianity and Judaism.  He finds MTD theologically repulsive, yet perfectly suited to be the civil religion of 21st Century America.  As Linker puts it, MTD is a religion that is “thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant,” and he likes it that way – believing that MTD is the best option for the future of American religion.

As things stand, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may very well carry the day in America and her satellite states around the world.  And if it does, one wonders if, when Jesus comes again, He will look at us and say, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

A.M.D.G.