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Contemporary American Christianity: Fiscal, Political Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

by Carson T. Clark on October 21, 2012

In their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton described the common faith of American youth as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It’s an obviously spot-on appraisal.11.The more I think on this the more I find it as troubling as it is insightful. Yet my experience has been that while teenagers are perhaps more prone to this, the description also holds true for most of this country’s adult Christians. My only criticism is that I think this description a bit too narrow. If I might humbly propose an expansion, it seems to me most of contemporary American Christianity can be summarized as Fiscal, Political Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Let me explain the two additions.

What I mean by fiscal is this sort of nebulous, presumed social contract between deity and believer such that God will bless us financially if we’ll be faithful.22.To be clear, while that last sentence sounds like the overt Prosperity Gospel, that’s not what I mean. Though perhaps the two are insidiously linked. For example, when I was broke and unemployed a couple years ago I was shocked to find this deep-seated sense that somehow God hadn’t lived up to His end of the bargain. I was being faithful. Where was He? I didn’t expect, or even hope for, overt wealth. I did expect basic financial provision, and felt a terrible sense of divine injustice when it wasn’t happening.33.I cognitively knew this was absurd. It took no more than reflecting on Paul’s life and the book of Job to know that, but I’d nonetheless been so imbued by my uncritically capitalistic church culture with this financial-religious link that it was nearly impossible to be rational about it. If my life experience is in any way an accurate measure, the vast majority of American Christians have that sort of unknown presupposition underlying their faith experience.

As for political, what I mean is the joint presupposition of the preeminent role of government within the public square and the use of faith to substantiate one’s political ideals. Ours is an increasingly diverse, multi-cultural, and pluralistic society in which the binding cultural moors are evaporating.44.There’s a lessening commonality of presuppositions about life, religion, economics, and the like. Within this context the state is increasingly playing the role of the unifying institution. Consequently, “public life” is increasingly being perceived as synonymous with “political life.”55.Sociologist James Davison Hunter talks about this at-length in his book, To Change the World. Within this cultural milieu, Christians of nearly every tradition, and spanning the ideological spectrum, appeal to their specific understanding of the Christian faith to back not only their conflicting, divergent political beliefs but also their underlying church-state models.66.In this way, the eternal Bride of Christ is consistently being co-opted and prostituted by/to almost every conceivable temporal political cause–figures, parties, ideologies, nations, etc.

I close with a brief exposition of each word:

  • Fiscal – There exists a social contract between God and His followers whereby God will, at a minimum, provide basic financial security in exchange for faithfulness.
  • Political – God’s intention is that all believers living under democratic governments participate in the political process, thereby being involved in the public square chiefly through their political discourse and voting habits.
  • Moralistic – “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”77.Each of the three quotations below comes from the Wikipedia entry on Moralistic therapeutic deism. I presume they’re direct quotes from the book, but I could be wrong. Either way, I think them solid summary statements.
  • Therapeutic – “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
  • Deism – “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”88.The final description strongly combines Therapeutic and Deism, so I wasn’t sure where to put it: “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
  • Lynette Cowper

    I believe you meant to say “sociologists” and not “socialists” in the first paragraph, yes?

    • Carson T. Clark

      Indeed. Thank you. Fixed….

  • Charles Twombly

    Really helpful.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Thank you, Charles.

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