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Tom BeaudoinDecember 14, 2010

Recently in America magazine, Prof. Christopher Ruddy wrote a typically discerning and meditative article titled "Our Ecumenical Future: How the Bishops Can Advance Christian Unity" (November 8, 2010). I was brought along in a spirit of genial agreement with him until the end of the article, when he cited with apparent agreement the now-famous findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, that young people in the United States tend to share a new common religion, that of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Ruddy draws the implication that "longstanding confessional differences -- and even traditional Christianity itself -- are increasingly irrelevant to younger Christians. Christian communities must make evangelization -- in the fullest sense of the word -- their priority, individually and ecumenically." He then quotes Fr. Jean-Marie Tillard powerfully to the effect that "Today people are going elsewhere. They are searching elsewhere. They are making attachments elsewhere." The conclusion of the Tillard quotation is that "It cannot be doubted that the urgent need to proclaim Christ together should become the chief purpose of the baptized, hic et nunc. It is a question of double or nothing, life or death."

In sealing his approach to ecumenism in this way, Ruddy (disclosure: a good friend of mine) gives us prose that can be read a few different ways. On the one hand, it would take a subtle, extended conversation to interpret exactly what Ruddy is taking from Prof. Christian Smith and his collaborators' groundbreaking and influential work in the National Study of Youth and Religion (published in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (with Melinda Lundquist Denton) and now in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (with Patricia Snell)). Equally complex would be figuring out what it means to "proclaim Christ together" today.

But bracketing those complexities, it seems that the momentum of Ruddy's argument has it that the "moralistic therapeutic deist" diagnosis is basically correct, and that theology should take its bearings in relation to that phenomenon as an important "sign of the times."

Recently, Prof. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary has also taken "moralistic therapeutic deism" as a key descriptor of young people's faith today, and written a forceful and strongly-worded book-length missiology in response to that phenomenon. For a discussion of moralistic therapeutic deism, you may want to look at Smith and Denton, or at Dean's book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. For a brief discussion of moralistic therapeutic deism, see my review of Almost Christian in America magazine here, or my review of Smith and Denton's Soul Searching in America magazinehere.

I would like to suggest that Christian theologians and all educators be quite careful in their adoption of the concept of "moralistic therapeutic deism." In my judgment, the reasons against adopting it are at least as strong as the reasons for doing so. In what follows below, I try to give a simple substantiation of this claim. This substantiation was first sketched in my recent book Witness to Dispossession: The Vocation of a Post-Modern Theologian, pp. 76-99. That case against moralistic therapeutic deism has now been endorsed and expanded by theologian Jeff Keuss on his blog here. Prof. Keuss' posting prompted a blog response from Prof. Kenda Dean here (another disclosure: another good friend), in which she says she agrees with Keuss and me in some respects. (I recently invited Dean to speak in my graduate course at Fordham about her work on theology and moralistic therapeutic deism, and we continued the conversation there.) So where are we now on moralistic therapeutic deism? Should those who work with, for, and in relation to youth trust the term "moralistic therapeutic deism" as an accurate description of young people?

If you have the patience for it, here is the heart of my criticism, as taken from pages 79-85 of Witness to Dispossession. I place in bold my main points. (I have also written about these matters at Rock and Theology.)


As any practical theologian must consider, this major study [Soul Searching] will have concrete effects in religious and academic environments. Those involved in the NSYR have made numerous academic presentations of the findings, and there are multiple planned academic productions: some six more books, seventeen articles or chapters, and eight master’s or doctoral theses presenting and interpreting the data. Smith and Denton’s authoritative interpretation has already been cause for hand-wringing in popular Christian periodicals, and their conclusions, along with presentations of the larger NSYR data, have been the stuff of dozens, perhaps now hundreds, of presentations to ministry professionals and church leaders. Such use of this research also matters because of the resources being invested in “effective” youth and young adult ministries in the United States. The first new Catholic Catechism for the United States in over a century has recently been produced that was ostensibly written with reference to sociological data on young adult Catholic faith in America, signaling an interest in official Catholicism about studies of everyday faith. Such a mobilization of scholars and presenters in academic and religious life reinforces and reflects the presumption, in most theological and ecclesial circles, that when sociologists present data on faith and culture, they are telling the more or less objective truth. Some questions and objections can be raised, however, about this research, that will set us within the theme for this chapter.

Soul Searching should be credited with and celebrated for many serious achievements in the study of American youth and religion. My purpose here, however, is to underscore the problematic theological assumptions that seem to implicitly and explicitly guide the generation, classification, and reportage of this sociological data. These assumptions prevent this study from comprehending everyday faith in its specificity, that is, the ways in which everyday faith is amalgamated from multiple ways of operating in everyday life; is practiced as “fragments”, “side plots”, and “tangents”, more than theorized; is irreducible to a “logical syllogism”, and is speakable only after something like “therapy” —none of these dimensions of faith as practiced are allowed in Soul Searching, except as deformations of a supposed ideal form of faith.

This misreading of everyday faith stems from Soul Searching’s conception of personal religious identity as derivative of official conceptions of identity. Institutions and their representatives get to define what counts as authentic faith, and it is these contemporary declarations against which teens’ own declarations (narrowly understood, as will become evident) are measured.

This misreading operates through four strategies in the analysis, which I shall delimit:

First, teen faith is framed as a problem for the power of religious leaders. Smith and Denton define institutional representatives as the “agents of religious socialization” and describe their ineffectiveness in contemporary American culture.  The authors presume, but do not defend, any theological ground for evangelical exhortations such as “there may be more than a few Catholic and Mormon leaders who may be justifiably concerned that roughly one in every seven of their teenagers are not even convinced that God exists”. They elsewhere write that “all religious groups seem at risk of losing teens to nonreligious identities…”, betokening a suspect theological assumption—that of an easy distinction between a religious and nonreligious identity. Such “top-down” analysis also lacks psychological-sociological curiosity regarding the ways in which ‘religious’ identities may be necessarily related to ‘nonreligious’ identities in a life or a social circle.

The authors imagine religious beliefs as starting from pure official teaching, stewarded by contemporary religious leaders, well or poorly, through official channels, such as programs of religious education. Beliefs that begin as given at the “top” are corrupted by American culture, sometimes with the assistance of weak delivery systems for education in faith. Thus, on one page, the study states three different times that teen faith has suffered significant “slippage” from the official doctrines of religious tradition and religious education. They report with evident surprise that “a number of religious teenagers propounded theological views that are, according to the standards of their own religious traditions, simply not orthodox.”

This preoccupation with what slippage might actually reveal seems over the course of the book to be an anxiety regarding the maintenance of religious power. Typical evidence can be found in the survey question presented to teenagers regarding whether it is legitimate to pick and choose beliefs without having to accept the teachings of the faith as a whole. Such a narrow question boxes teenagers in unnecessarily, adopting a “with us or against us” tone that lacks sophistication. No one, of course, can possibly know all the teachings, even all the “important” or “foundational” teachings, of a religious tradition. Moreover, as theology itself is discovering with ever greater complexity, the particular beliefs that are “sanctioned” by religious leadership, at any particular time and place, are deeply implicated in “non-theological” or “non-religious” political, social, cultural, and economic factors. The very opposition between “picking and choosing” and “accepting the whole” is itself a recent way of imagining, often for the sake of an intended control, what the “options” for belief are today—much like the opposition between fundamentalism and enlightenment, or relativism and moral foundationalism. (Or, for the authors of Soul Searching, the dualism between inhabiting “morally significant” and “morally insignificant” worldviews. )

Part of the anxious defense of institutional religious authority happens through another dualism that runs through the study, between individualistic and communal faith. Individualism is cast as that which threatens the communal maintenance of traditional religious identity and convictions. But this bifurcation leaves important theological points in the study lacking nuance. For example, after discussing several examples of teenagers who say that they want to glorify God, live for God, have Christ in their heart, or give up old behaviors by being saved, the authors write that these teenagers “illustrate something of a departure from the individualistic instrumentalism that dominates U.S. teen religion by making God and not individuals the center of religious faith.” Or consider their contention that conservative Protestant and Mormon teenagers “tend to hold the most particularistic and exclusive views of religion and tend to be the least individualistic about faith and belief.” To the contrary, it is not evident that those who say such things have transcended “individualism” in their faith, nor whether the category of individualism allows a sufficiently rich screen through which to hear such statements. Such theological claims might well be heard in other ways: as self-serving affirmations, as testaments to surviving hardships, as ways of showing love or honor to the authorities from whom one learned such statements, or as phrases that cover a theological terrain very different from that intended by an “official” “theocentric” understanding. It could, indeed, be argued that a “conservative” theology can effectively be an individualist theology. The point is that an individualist/communal dichotomy fails to capture the richness and complexity of such statements to register the “rough ground” of everyday life that makes American Christian faiths such interesting foci for study.

Second, the authors accept religious—effectively, Christian—leaders’ placing of the boundaries between religious traditions. The study therefore employs the discourse of “eclecticism” or “syncretism” and, of course, comes out strongly critical of it, even as the alleged phenomenon rarely shows up in their study. Smith and Denton claim that the “absolute historical centrality of the Protestant conviction about salvation by God’s grace alone…” is “discarded” by many teens. Such hyperbolic language as “absolute historical centrality” is already a clue that an ahistorical theological claim is being advanced. No such historical-ahistorical “conviction”—held by all (authoritative?) clergy, all (authoritative?) theologians, or even all “the faithful”—exists, as the turn to “historicism” in theology would expect, and as histories of Christianity, especially from “below,” increasingly show.  Further, no attempt is made to distinguish “eclecticism” from other attempts at plural faith inhabitations, including practices such as what theologians are presently naming “multiple religious belonging.” As it is, “eclecticism” is labeled as the domain of “religiously promiscuous faith mixers” —a rhetorical dismissal of any potential case for a pluralistic holding by invocation of a sexually dangerized (“promiscuous”) religious identification. According to the study, however, not many practice it anyway, since “almost all stick with one religious faith, if any”. This phrase, “one religious faith,” is another problematic designation that the authors leave as a natural category. This seems especially worth questioning when the authors themselves find that 14-20% of five of their religious subgroups (black Protestant, Jewish, mainline Protestant, conservative Protestant, and Roman Catholic) attend services at more than one congregation.

Moreover, they set an unrealistically high academic bar for someone to be considered a spiritual seeker: those who truly qualify must satisfy at least a half-dozen conditions. They must be “self-directing and self-authenticating individuals pursuing an experimental and eclectic quest for personal spiritual meaning outside of historical religious traditions.” Not surprisingly, only 2-3% of teens do this, they report. However, this description sounds like a critique of a romanticized view of the Baby Boomer searching of a generation ago. How many adults would qualify as “seekers” under that description? While it seems unhelpful as a way of gauging spiritual bricolage today, it is consistent with the book’s frequent segregation of “new age” from “biblical” views of God—without argument or rationale, and the book’s striking continual recourse to theistic terminology without a discussion of the limits of God-references for theistic traditions themselves, or for teenagers in our culture. For example, references are made to survey questions designed to elicit views on “belief in God,” “views of God,” or of “God’s judgment.”

Third, Soul Searching accepts as unproblematic and self-evident many theological concepts, allowing them neither cultural context nor sociological-theological critique. For example, the authors state that “two out of three teens profess to believe in something like the Bible’s personal, historically active God.” This simplistic theological statement is made to sound common-sense regarding the Bible. On the contrary, it is far from evident that “the Bible” manifests an unproblematically “personal” and “historically active” God. The key phrase here is “something like,” which allows the authors a zone of ambiguity regarding both the sociological and theological aspects of the claim: as if to say that lots of teenagers operate in a zone of belief that bears some affinity to a theological claim that may or may not be quite right, but it does not need to be justified, anyway, because the correlation is not being too tightly claimed. The very provisionality of the association between teens and the true meaning of the Bible is the rhetorical key, paradoxically, to the illusion of tight association/dissociation between the Bible and teens.

Smith and Denton also report that half of Roman Catholic youth believe in communicating with the dead, and proceed to group this belief with significant levels of Catholic teen belief in reincarnation, astrology, psychics, and fortune tellers. These are portrayed as evidence of deficient religious education, and as a consequence, youth going over to magical or paranormal beliefs. The authors report this despite praying to the dead and the communion of saints being not only quite commonplace in Catholic teaching, but part of the symbolic order of many churches and of home altars, especially for Hispanic/Latino Catholics. Further, the authors do not give any indication that what they term reincarnation, astrology, or divination have ever been seriously considered in, conceptually congenial toward, or an historical influence upon the Christian tradition. Indeed, an ahistorical and idealized view of Christianity is evident throughout the analysis, such as in the statement that “the religion to which most [teens] appear to be referring seems significantly different in character from versions of the same faith in centuries past.” They then make theological judgments that rely on stock theological formulae: teen religion as practiced today is not orthodox, nor is it “revealed in truth by [a] holy and almighty God who calls all to a turning from self and a serving of God in gratitude, humility, and righteousness”; nor does it fashion teens “into a community of people embodying a historically rooted tradition of identity, practices, and ethics that define[s] their selfhood, loyalties, and commitments.”  It does not witness to a “life-transformative, transcendent truth…” As a theologian, I wonder where, apart from experiences of the religious “ghetto”—if even there—such descriptions of [Christian?] religion’s purpose really hold true. These idealizations structure the study throughout, perhaps most tellingly displayed in the important claim that “a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.” As in “absolute historical centrality” earlier, the hyperbole is a clue to the anxiety of the power of religious authority underpinning the study. Readers then learn in a footnote the revealing claim that this “actual historical” tradition is given in Christianity by “creeds and confessions,” a motley and contradictory Protestant and Catholic mix of which is then listed, presumably for the reader to sort out.

Fourth, the authors make their own a critique of teenage articulacy and inconsistency that becomes a characteristic form of moralizing. The authors note their discovery of the “apparent logical inconsistency of some teens in relating to God,” and when teen “deists” report that they, too, feel close to God—the authors name this a “conceptual confusion”—and mockingly add, “go figure.” These criticisms indicate the lack of a creative sociological-theological research frame for the vicissitudes of everyday faith. Such criticisms make me wonder which religious, or even nonreligious, persons the authors would point to as models of logical consistency. (They seem surprised to report that it is “not easy to find someone who is clear and articulate about what [spiritual seeking] means,”  and they moralize about a seventeen year old who lacks “solid grounding” for his “moral reasoning” —something that has eluded even the best of our contemporary moral philosophers. )

It seems at least unfair, as well as theologically problematic, to overvalue what comes to teenagers’ minds to say to an interviewer as a key to their deep moral commitments. That is why it is particularly striking to note the piling-on that the researchers do, salting their book with various moralizing comments whenever the topic of teen articulacy surfaces. It is characteristic of the way that sociology can rhetorically produce theological truths that the claim that “some” teenagers are “Machiavellian moral relativists” (never mind that Machiavelli was a sophisticated political philosopher who articulated his views as an adult) comes with disavowal of any interpretive action on the part of the scholar: after all, these teens “openly profess” it. It is as if, to quote the old saying, their words go “from their lips to God’s ears,” with the sociological researcher having the divine clairaudience, the ear of the Other. It must be so: teens “profess” it, and “openly”. The rhetoric of confession is precisely what a theological account of this study must protest. After Foucault, we know too well the reasons for regarding confession as an unproblematic route to theological truth.

There are some acknowledgements of teen articulacy, but these tend to be swallowed by the study’s moralizing approach. Interestingly, the authors claim that most teens are more articulate about sex or media than about their faith. However, they do not see these other kinds of literacy as bearing on teen faith, or as a way of articulating faith as such. This seems to be part of a larger problem in the book of a lack of letting sociology be informed by scholarship on theological understandings of spirituality, such as research in spiritual direction and pastoral care and counseling. (Theologian Donna Freitas has made a similar point in suggesting that in focusing on phone surveys and individual person-to-person interviews, a crucial theological resource has been left out of Smith and Denton’s study: analysis of personal writings by youth and young adults about their faith lives.) Such a lack of attention to theological perspectives on faith is evident throughout the book, as when the authors report that “One 17-year old black conservative Protestant boy from New York…readily slid from discussing how religious faith influences him into how having faith in himself has been helpful: ‘How is religious faith important? Well, like school. If I didn’t have faith in myself, I wouldn’t be going to school right now, wouldn’t have the motivation.’” The authors do not ask after the potential links between the two types of faith in self and God.

Despite all this, the simplest evidence for this moralizing is that Soul Searching never considers that contemporary teen belief may have something substantially spiritually constructive and new, not just alarming, to teach the larger Church.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
PJ Johnston
12 years 5 months ago
Fantastic - absolutely spot-on methodologically, theologically, and (I think) politically!
Winifred Holloway
12 years 5 months ago
Thank you for this post.  As a non-theologian I had to read it slowly and carefully, but it was well worth it for its insights into the faith of young people.  And not only the young.  Articulating what one believes and feels about faith and the presence of God in our lives is difficult when we have only the words, phrases and concepts that we picked up in church and religious ed. classes.  When we  ponder what that handed-down language means to us and we come up with our own words and insights I suppose we could be accused of non-orthodoxy.  We are influenced by our personal experiences, our culture, our contacts with friends from other traditions and a host of other encounters with our rich and complicated world.  All of this non-orthodoxy has made my own faith richer.  As for syncretism - is this so threatening?  A dear friend of mine is an Episcopalian, born and raised, and would describe herself as such.  However, she goes to Mass at RC churches, prays the rosary and sometimes, as she says, sits in the park on Sunday morning and watches the birds. 

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