Death By Deism
Though they aren't journalists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton broke one of the biggest stories in contemporary religion with their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Conducting the most comprehensive study of religion and teenagers to date, the sociologists discovered a newly dominant creed that they dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Rather than transformative revelation from God, religion has become a utility for enhancing a teenager's life. Smith and Denton lay out the five points of MTD:
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.
Surely American teenagers did not invent this new religion. A quick scan of bestseller lists, television guides, or public school curricula will reveal MTD's appeal. Indeed, the God of MTD sounds like the "cool parent" teenagers adore.
"God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is 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," Smith and Denton write.
Writing this month for his blog with The New Republic, Damon Linker declared MTD to be an ideal civil religion for America. Maybe it's not surprising that someone who wrote The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege would champion an admittedly "watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity." But Linker worked for Richard John Neuhaus at First Things from 2001 to 2005. So he is an unlikely advocate for "thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant" MTD as a perfect civil religion for a pluralistic America that rejects traditional Christian moral teaching.
"An America in which all of this is happening would still be Christian in significant senses," Linker allows. "It just wouldn't be the kind of Christian nation that makes a theocon feel all warm and fuzzy. And that's a very good thing indeed."
Linker's proposal has met no little resistance from the conservative blogosphere. Rod Dreher argued that political activism from principled Christians produces both Pat Robertson and Martin Luther King Jr. If you want to get rid of one, you will sacrifice the other.
"Nobody finds the courage to face down police dogs and Klansmen in the vapid mewlings of MTD," Dreher observed for his Beliefnet blog, Crunchy Con. "MTD Christians don't sing 'We Shall Overcome'; they trill 'We Shall Accommodate.'"
In a blog post titled "Theology Has Consequences" for The Atlantic, Ross Douthat argued that writers who hyperventilate about the theocon threat obviously prefer that Christianity would give in to Oprah. Such "mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law." Turning Linker's argument on its head, Douthat wrote that the "self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian" religion of MTD contributed to the current economic collapse and President Bush's ambitious foreign policy. He called Bush's second inaugural address "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War." Unlike traditional Christianity, MTD naively underestimates evil and promotes selfish pursuit of financial gain.