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.
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  • MWitham

    Stumbled onto your page – read your reply to Dr. Mohler’s article. My response is simply this: Man was made in the image of God. He is born into sin and is in need of the savior – Jesus Christ, God in human flesh. Jesus said “I am the way, the TRUTH and the life and NO ONE comes to the Father but by Me.” If you are a Christian, you must believe this. No room for philosophical debate here. You might want to read the first and second chapters of Romans (in fact all of Romans). The Roman society of Paul’s day mirrors our society in America today. What Paul said to them is applicable to each of us today. Those of you on the religious left consistently try to pick and choose what parts of the Bible you want to believe (just as Jefferson did). You want to make God over into your own image and follow your own humanistic beliefs rather than submit to His will and His way. You follow your own path of moralist religiosity. You discard the very specific and sometimes harsh teachings in the Bible. You mock God by trying to be God yourself and ignoring the truth of God’s holy word. (Oh yes, some on the right are guilty of this too!) The path to God is a very narrow path and unfortunately one that many in today’s society are missing. All to often, they have been led astray by well-meaning moralist who want to be accepting of all faiths, lifestyles, creeds and beliefs. They refuse to acknowledge sin and it’s penalty. God is Love, right? Well, Sin is sin – and the wages of sin is death. God wants us to come to Him in full submission and humility, denying self in order to follow Him. Even though all fall short, Christians ask for forgiveness and continue along life’s road seeking after His will and not our own.
    Now, I’m sure you will find fault with everything I’ve said and I will have no impact whatsoever on what you have chosen to believe. I do need also to say that I do not support totally the religious right either. I do think God allows us some questioning and soul searching as we seek His will for our lives. We are not robots – we have a mind and a free will and we are all guilty of sin and should forgive others of the sin in their lives, just as Christ has forgiven us. The absolute truth that you liberals seem to be so afraid of and the the right seems to think they have exclusive control of lies only with God himself. It is eternal and unchangeable, and is certainly not conformed to the whims and political correctness of His creation, but rather transforms us by the renewing of our minds to become more like the mind of Christ himself. Christ gave His life on a Roman cross as a payment for all sin because He loved the sinner. He rose from the dead on the third day to give us victory over sin, death, hell and the grave and will one day make intercession for all of us who believe in Him as the son of the living God, so that we may dwell will all the saints in heaven forever. The Great Commission places a responsibility on all Christians to share the gospel with the entire world. But if we labor for the betterment of man without that central truth of the gospel as our guiding theme then we labor in vain as far as God is concerned. All of man’s argument over theology, religion, and philosophy will not lessen the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • J.Donovan

    The only absolute truth where religion is concerned my friend, is that you, nor I or anyone else for that matter, absolutely have any clue what, if it even exists, that may be. Therefore in the absence of even a shred of evidence all you are left with is faith and what you “believe” (which is what you do in the absence of absolutes) is no more or less credible than what anyone else “believes”, analogous to your sleeping dreams not being of any more importance than the sleeping dreams of anyone else.
    That being said, the widespread panic that is gripping the Southern Baptist Conference is that young adults having been spoon fed intolerance and self righteous exclusionist dogma are rebelling and that translates to long term fiduciary concerns for the Jesus industry. The Southern Baptist’s having for the past 30+ years veered sharply to the ultra conservative right and purged their organization of moderates are now faced with a dilemma; do we continue down the path of intolerant, exclusionist canon or do we admit we may not be, to the exclusion of all others, the apple of God’s eye and maybe try to get along with the rest of the world.
    Let me suggest that the former, which Albert Mohler obstinately advocates, will result in more of what you’ve got, more empty spaces in the parking lot.

  • EDede

    I agree with this article. Although I would prefer for the youth to be better read in the Writings. That way, they would understand that all religions are one. They are part of the Progressive Revelation that the One God has and will continue to send to mankind.

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