Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or Legalistic Sectarian Deism?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Deaton introduced the term moralistic therapeutic deism. The phrase has become well used to describe the content of much of the teaching of Christian churches in the U.S.

As the name suggests, the view of Christian that this describes has three (obvious) core elements:

  1. moralistic — having a good and happy life means living a moral life.
  2. therapeutic — living morally is done for its therapeutic benefits, such as lowering stress and having good relationship.
  3. deistic — God is remote. He created the world, but he is not actively involved in it now.

As I said, moralistic therapeutic deism is supposed to describe the common religious beliefs of American youth. These beliefs form the content of much of the teaching about Christianity.

My Experience

I’ve read enough pop Christian books and visited enough churches to know that this is a good description of the teaching of many churches. But it doesn’t describe what I was taught when I was growing up.

I grew up in churches that were very legalistic and sectarian. For years, I believe that if a new convert were to let a curse word slip before his car was hit by a speeding truck, instantly killing the new Christian, he was going to hell. I was also raised in churches that not only thought other denominations were going to hell, but was pretty certain that most of the congregations in our own denomination were heretical.

Of course, I was taught the importance of living a moral life. The reason was almost never therapeutic, but that I should avoid the fires of hell.

I can relate to the deism in Smith and Denton’s conception. I was taught God is remote, so much so that some of the churches even doubted the continuing operation of the Holy Spirit (not just with miraculous gifts, but even with conviction and the illumination of the Bible).

I was not taught moralistic therapeutic deism.

Legalistic Sectarian Deism

I was taught what I’ll call legalistic sectarian deism. That sums up pretty well the Christianity I was raised in and what those churches taught.

The three elements:

  1. legalistic — having a good life is obeying the laws that God set up, and if you break the least of them you are in danger of hell. Be careful.
  2. sectarian — a lot of people think they are living Christian lives, but they are mistaken and therefore damned. Be careful.
  3. deism — God created the world, but he is currently remote. Be careful (that you don’t live as if He is not remote).

I imagine most teenagers are taught moralistic therapeutic deism, but at least a small group of teenagers are taught legalistic sectarian deism.

Both are dangerous and damaging. I’m not sure which is the most dangerous and damaging.

2 Comments

  • December 12, 2013 - 6:20 PM | Permalink

    Sometimes I find it hard to believe that we grew up in the same denomination.

    Is the cuss word car crash thing how they reconcile the small number of saints in Revelation? ;-)

  • cobbmic
    December 12, 2013 - 10:37 PM | Permalink

    Yeah, our churches were quite different! We certainly didn’t think you guys were going to heaven.

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