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The New American Religion: Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

The New American Religion: Moralistic,
Therapeutic Deism

Sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame (but formerly of UNC Chapel Hill) coined a new phrase at the conclusion of his research in 2005 to characterize the predominant belief system of the average young American, “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.”  No longer do we refer to America as being in post-Christian times but as in the era of MTD!  Smith boiled down the theology of the MTD to five points:

  1. God created the world.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Deism is reflected in points 1 and 4.  Therapy-ism we see in point 3.  Moralism we see in points 2 and 5.

Though point 1 can be taken as Christian on its own, the definition of God as creator, especially concerning his governance of it and his intentions with it are so altered by 2-5, that Christians cannot concur and sound the collective “Amen.” In essence, though the language of creation is retained, the definition is so altered as to bear no resemblance to Biblical meaning – the God of providence and redemption.  Therefore according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, all of these tenets must be rejected.

This new phrase MTD has been popularized by some very prominent pastors and theologians not the least of which is Rev. Tim Keller pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC.  In his book Counterfeit Gods (2009), he discusses how powerful an idol is “control” in the lives of people (pages 115-118).  He says the MTDs make us the masters of our own fate.  “Salvation and happiness is up to you.”   In essence we are our own gospel rather than the Lord Jesus Christ.  This plays well into the American psyche where we are eager to guarantee results in our lives (and our kids, especially) by our own intellect, savvy, hard work, money and persistence.  Keller observes that the reality is much more complicated since so much in our lives is not self-determinative.  We passively receive so much in our lives that we cannot control starting with who are our parents and where we will grow up.   He concludes that we are under an illusion that we are in control and that it is an idol that competes with fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, San Diego, spends considerable time diagnosing MTD in his book Christless Christianity (2008).  First, he identifies MTD as nothing more than a newly repackaged Pelagian heresy (pgs 44-55, 61) – the religion of self-salvation. Then he argues, “…that a moralistic religion of self-evaluation is our default setting as fallen creatures.  If we are not explicitly and regularly taught out of it, we will always turn the message of God’s rescue operation into a message of self-help (42).”  He goes on to say that what happens in most churches week-in and week-out is the reinforcement of MTD theology cast in the name of evangelical Christianity.

Horton cites modern-day examples that like Robert Schuller formerly of the Chrystal Cathedral (Reformed Church in America, RCA), and now, with Joel Osteen of the Houston based Lakewood Church (formerly Baptist, now name-it claim-it prosperity gospel) (Horton spends pages 65-100 in his book analyzing Osteen’s message and ministry).  Horton characterizes Osteen as, “Exemplifying the moralistic and therapeutic approach to religion…his message represents a convergence of Pelagian self-help and Gnostic self-deification (71, 68).”  Just because someone asks you to “pray that prayer” at the end of every single message doesn’t make it gospel-Christianity. It is as if anything taught in a sermon can be sanctified if some assent is made before the end to placing faith in Jesus.  Nonetheless, Osteen’s reach has expanded through a network of hundreds of churches nationwide called the Champions Network linking like-minded churches across the nation of which Louisiana currently has seven representatives.  I cite this only in evidence that there has been a profound MTD high-jacking of the evangelical church in America.

If you are like me, you will find your own thinking strangely in alignment with MTDs.  Our flesh is so powerful!  I want nothing more than what MTDs offer me.  And even though my creed is completely different and my gospel would send it to Hell, I am often operating as a functional-MTD.  We are on “automatic” to be our own saviors, to be in control of our destinies, to make life about our own happiness, to craft a God that serves our pleasure.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is constantly pulling us out of this madness.  In Philippians 1:6 Paul tells us this is the “good work” that God has begun in us and that he will bring it to completion.  And it is by the agency and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ that this is accomplished all the days of our lives. Amen!

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