The New American Religion

About twenty years ago, a landmark study was published by sociologists Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, who set out to describe the religious attitudes and beliefs of American teenagers. The book they wrote, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,1 contains remarkable findings about the state of Christianity in America. My purpose in this editorial, however, is not to do a book review. Instead, the point I hope to make for readers is that confusion about the basic content of the Christian faith is prevalent in our country. So much so, in fact, that what most “Christians” believe really isn’t biblical Christianity at all.  

The most basic problem with the modern American version of Christianity is that it has forgotten the central message of the gospel. This message is simple: all who believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in true faith and repent of their sins will be justified freely by God’s grace and forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Rom. 3:21–25). As we will see, this simple gospel message has largely been abandoned in favor of self-centered moralism that sees no real need for the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

In their book, Smith and Denton describe the mainstream view of religion in America as moralistic therapeutic deism, which I will abbreviate as MTD for the sake of simplicity. This form of religion is a melting pot of age-old Christian heresy mixed up with modern American individualism. We will break down this term in the next few paragraphs, but first it will help to know the five basic beliefs that many Americans teens associated with their faith. These are listed as follows:2  

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

Seeing these core beliefs is helpful in trying to understand each part of the term moralistic therapeutic deism. Let’s work backward through these parts, starting with deism and then moving to the two adjectives (moralistic and therapeutic) that describe this new form of American religion.  

That mainstream “Christianity” has become a form of deism can be identified from the first and fourth points above. Remember that deism was a Christian heresy that grew out of the Enlightenment in late-seventeenth-century Europe. Deists (including many of the founding fathers of the United States) believed that God is like a “divine watchmaker” who designed and built creation but leaves it to run on its own after starting the process. They denied divine providence and saw little need for regular worship, prayer, or devotion to God.  

Deists are usually secular in their outlook on society, meaning that they see little use for religion in day-to-day life. They also tend to be naturalistic in their view of Scripture, meaning that they deny miracles, including the virgin birth of Christ and the resurrection. What they emphasize is the moral order of creation, which is described as a sort of “natural law” for humanity’s good. This is the basic framework that many self-proclaimed “Christians” in America use for their religion today. 

What separates modern American religiosity from classical deism, however, is the two adjectives that Smith and Denton use as descriptors. The therapeutic aspect of MTD can be seen in the third point in their list. For those who subscribe to this worldview, the entire purpose of religion is focused on self. What God wants is for people to be happy, and anything that serves this purpose is “good.” This version of religion is therefore almost entirely subjective and individualistic. What is good for me might not be good for others—and that is just fine! The popular phrase “You do you” captures this perfectly. My faith and my beliefs are about me, not about God. My self-fulfillment is above everything else. 

Along with being therapeutic in its focus, the religion of modern America is also moralistic. This aspect of MTD is evident from the second and fifth points in the list of beliefs cited above. A religion that is moralistic focuses on adherence to a list of rules that define what it means to be “good.” The American version of these rules is simple. Good people are nice to others and fair in their dealings. They do their best not to harm anyone and are generally pleasant to be around. They certainly do not judge anyone else and are easygoing when it comes to matters of lifestyle and personal choice. And assuming they do their best to follow these rules, they can expect to go to heaven because God is pleased with “good people.” 

It should be evident from the description above that MTD is not Christianity. Any version of deism that denies the active involvement of God in his creation and the authoritative revelation of Scripture is a false version of the Christian faith. Even more alarming, however, is that MTD has “a form of godliness, but [denies] the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5). The “power of God” that is missing is Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 1:18, 24). Without Christ there is no gospel, and without the gospel there is no hope for sinners. 

What has replaced the gospel of Jesus Christ in modern American religion is a return to law. This isn’t necessarily the law of God found in the decalogue, but rather a loose set of rules about what it means to be a “good person.” According to many self-proclaimed Christians today, Christ isn’t really necessary. Was he a good moral example? For sure! Was he the most caring person who ever lived? Absolutely! But do I need the covering of his blood shed on the cross to be saved? Well…no, not really. The substitutionary atonement is an old Christian doctrine we discarded long ago, they say. We don’t need that anymore. All we need is to be well-intentioned and good—at least most of the time. That is the way to heaven, where we can be happy and fulfilled forever. 

Readers both young and old ought to be aware that this is the religious environment in which we live today. The teenagers who were interviewed for Smith and Denton’s study are by now well into their thirties. What was a spiritual crisis among teens twenty years ago is very much the mainstream view among young and middle-aged adults today. We are truly in a post-Christian society that still claims the name of Christianity but has shed most of the key doctrines that define “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Any version of the Christian faith that lacks the gospel is a false version of the faith. And a false version of Christianity cannot save anyone, regardless of how well they follow the law or any other list of commands. There is only one hope: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). 

There is also a warning here. When we speak to others at college or in the workplace, it is absolutely critical that we don’t fall into the trap of moralism when we describe the reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). What others first notice about us might be our visible prayer life before meals, our Sabbath day observance, or our unwillingness to participate in various forms of sinful entertainment. But these outward acts of thankful living are not what define the Christian faith. What defines true Christianity above all else is the gospel of Jesus Christ. When you have the opportunity to share your faith with others, don’t start with “do’s and don’ts.” Start with the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus. That good news includes the confession that you are a sinner saved by grace in Christ, and that faith in Christ is the only way to heaven. 

Above all else, never forget where to point when you talk about your salvation. The credit is not yours—you can’t even claim the initiative for “accepting Christ.” Salvation is all about grace, which always points upward to God. It’s good to be thankful and to reflect to others what God has done for you. But make sure when you share your witness that the glory ends up where it belongs. “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).