Perhaps these teenagers and young adults adopted MTD because that’s what they were taught. That’s basically the philosophy of life they have received from and observed in their parents. It’s what they learned in Sunday school and youth group: Be nice to other people and you’ll have a happy life, and God will be there when you need him. All that stuff about Jesus dying for our sins never really made an impression.
There is talk in some church circles about “moralistic therapeutic deism.” We may abbreviate this ungainly phrase as “MTD,” in allusion to the popular cable channel showing music videos. Many teenagers and young adults are familiar with MTV; however, few would recognize “moralistic therapeutic deism” as playing any role in their lives.
Yet the contention we hear is that MTD, rather than classic Christianity, is the predominant religion among today’s teenagers and young adults. They may not recognize the phrase, but it describes the belief system that they actually profess and practice. And what’s more: We, the parents and other adults around them, are the ones who taught them MTD. This is a serious charge and deserves serious consideration.
An Inarticulate Faith
The phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” you will not be surprised to learn, was coined by an academic: Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. It has been disseminated more widely by Smith’s associates, including Princeton Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean. Based on her research with Smith, Dean published a book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Dean has become a popular speaker at church events. She delivered a challenging presentation at my local church on a snowy February Saturday, and I was among the large crowd that came out to hear her.
Smith, Dean, and their colleagues did surveys and in-depth interviews in which they queried thousands of young people about their religious beliefs and practices. Very few, they found, were atheists or hostile toward religion. On the other hand, relatively few were able to articulate and consistently practice a faith that resembled classic Christianity.
The vast majority of the respondents found it difficult to articulate any kind of belief system. They mentioned God, but it was a vague and distant God. They didn’t have much to say about Jesus.