‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ – Where Did They Get THAT Idea?

Some months ago I heard Chuck Colson mention ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as the practical religion of American teenagers. The term is the coinage of Christian Smith, an author connected with the University of Notre Dame. Here are the five basic tenets:

  • “A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.”

It’s noteworthy that many evangelical youth are included in this survey. Also, I would not use the term, ‘deism’ myself to describe their view of God. I would rather call it a weak and feeble theism. Moreover, as someone who grew up in a liberal mainline church, I would describe this as pretty much the same kind of religion which I found there. My own conjecture is that this is the kind of religion that happens in churches when Christians soft pedal and water down the gospel of Jesus Christ and neglect Biblical authority for fear of offending someone.

Googling the term can bring up a large number of references across the web. A number of the proposed remedies among evangelicals tend to be academic rather than practical, or blame ‘seeker friendly’ approaches to church services. I think that at least some of the blame can be to a ‘seeker friendly approach,’ but not all, and that much can be done to correct this impression among evangelical churches that this is a viable form of Biblical Christianity.

First, I think that when the music in our churches addresses God as distant that it give this impression of a weak, inattentive and distant God. In the past few years I’ve noticed a number of songs seem to address God as if he was hard of hearing, or as if it were hard to get his attention. In some cases I think that the song writer may be misapplying part of the Psalms which deal with lament as if they were praise. At other times I think that the song writer is just stringing together phrases and worship clichés for their emotive value or reusing them from other songs they have heard, and that the songs may become popular for the energy of the music rather than the scriptural truth and depth of the lyrics and their correspondence with universal Christian experience. But what is the impression of God that we give when we sing these songs?

Some other songs seem to thank God for his provision in a way which can easily be interpreted by someone without a strong Biblical view of creation, providence and salvation as simply thanking God for my stuff. (That was actually what one teenager came up with when questioned on what he was thanking God for.) These would be the songs that would express thanks and praise to God simply for ‘supplying all my needs.’ In this situation praise and thanksgiving is simply too general to be understood in a Biblical way by those participating in the worship singing. Again, what is the impression that we give when we are not specific enough in our praise and thanks for all the glories of salvation brought about by God through his Son?

A simple way to deal with this is simply to evaluate each song on whether it communicates a Biblical view of God, his nature, his creation, provision and salvation. It’s just as dangerous to present a watered down and dumbed-down view of God in the practice of worship as it is to present a heretical view. I think that evaluating each song on this merit may result in some songs rightfully being discarded as unfit for corporate worship in a church of Jesus Christ. Some might be paired with songs with stronger and deeper Biblical content. Even more, understanding the possible effect of vague and superficial worship lyrics may result in the restoration of more hymns and Biblically stronger worship songs from the past to the regular cycle of worship songs than previously. A question for discussion among the pastoral staff and elders of a church each quarter might be, “Have our worship services faithfully represented the God of the Bible in all that was said and done? If so, how? And if not, how?”

Second, I think that there are a number of times when the preaching, teaching, media programs, practical decisions and even conversations among Christians treat the statements of Christian psychiatrists and psychology as having more weight and commanding more respect, belief and obedience than scripture. I frankly think that this problem is so bad among our churches that if I were to enter a pastorate today, four passages I would preach on within the first two months would be Ephesians 2:1-10 (on salvation by grace through faith and salvation resulting in a life of obedience) II Timothy 3:16-27 (on the inspiration and sufficiency of scripture), Luke 6:46-49 (on the call to obedience of Jesus to his disciples) and Matthew 28:18-20 (the Great Commission to make disciples and teach them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded – in his personal teaching and through his apostles).

Here are some reasons why I think that psychology trumps scripture in so many:

  • Change in a person’s life seems to be treated as the result of a therapeutic program and principles often couched in psychological terms and backed with a scriptural citation. This often strongly resembles popular psychology. What happens if a pastor contradicts the pronouncement of a Christian psychologist if he can show that the scripture being used to back the program of principles is in fact badly misinterpreted? Is the program therefore treated as something unworthy of belief and obedience, or is the pastor’s statement dismissed and ignored?
  • Many of the problems now being addressed by psychology – anger and lust, to name two – are addressed by scripture directly, and believers have historically found deliverance from many of them through confession to God, prayer, adherence to scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit. Is someone who testifies to deliverance from these problems in these ways dismissed as if he or she has swallowed snake oil?
  • Some of the scandalous sins which believers may fall into call for church discipline, according to scripture, if the person is unrepentant, rather than a round of psychological treatment. For instance, I was astonished to hear on a Christian radio program of a case where a woman was clearly acting in a slanderous and divisive manner against a perceived rival in the women’s ministry of a large church. The pastoral staff kept on calling them into ‘reconciliation’ meetings – ten of them in total. Whatever happened to Matthew 18:15-17 and Titus 3:10-11? The woman causing the division eventually left of her own accord – but according to scripture, she should have been asked to leave after three disciplinary meetings.
  • Psychological treatment may involve a lengthy digging into the past to uncover why a behavior may be happening. It’s amazing to me how little scripture addresses this kind of introspection as any kind of solution. It’s also amazing to me how many times I and other pastors have found that simply calling for a sinful behavior to stop and then to address a possible stronghold in past experiences has yielded immediate results, as compared to an introspective form of psychological treatment. If Jesus has truly delivered us truly from sins which have enslaved us (John 8:31-32), is it truly necessary to hash over the past on something which Jesus has already given victory?
  • An emphasis on psychological treatment tends to ignore the real spiritual warfare at times necessary to overcome problems. For instance, the overcoming of problems which involve the thought life, such as lust, will often the recognition that all that comes into one’s mind may not be from one’s own mind. It involves the recognition that Satan does intend to corrupt the thoughts of believers from the simplicity and purity of Christ (II Corinthians 11:3), that he can produce mental images (from knowledge of the images one may have already viewed) as well as suggest thoughts (Luke 4:5), and that the believer has the capability and responsibility in Christ to take every thought captive to him (II Corinthians 10:5). Yet I’ve heard Christians advise overcoming pornographic addiction by a form of Skinnerian operant conditioning (putting a rubber band on one’s wrist, and snapping it every time a person has one of those thoughts). Whatever happened to recognition of temptation and refusing those thoughts and images in the name and authority of Jesus Christ (Luke 10:19)?
  • An emphasis on psychological treatment tends to ignore the scriptural motivation and ability to change given from love to Christ (John 14 ) and through the Holy Spirit. The motivation seems to come back to personal happiness and the power to personal willpower – neither of which are sufficient to achieve scriptural sanctification into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18).

Finally, I think that we give this impression when we water down or soft pedal the reality that there is a real scandal of the cross in this world, and that suffering, rejection and persecution for the sake of Jesus is part and parcel of the Christian life. The truth is that Christians can be amazingly loving – far beyond ‘nice’ — and yet suffer for Jesus in this world, and that is the mark not that there is something wrong with them but that there is something right with them, namely, following Jesus. They don’t need adjustment to a lost and dying world which hated and crucified Jesus.


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