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  • Micah Coate

What You Should Know About Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Updated: May 29

“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”Paul to the believers in Galatia (Galatians 1:11-12)

If you are just now reading about the term, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, don’t worry. It wasn’t too long ago that I found out about it. Astonishingly, it was first coined nearly twenty years ago in 2005. Authors, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sought to determine the collective belief system of young Americans.

Their study concluded that many teenagers of that time believed in a general morality that adhered to a number of spiritual beliefs. Without having a distinct religion or maintaining a particular theology, the authors named these combinations of beliefs as: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, (MTD).

As the acronym suggests, their beliefs are 1. moralistic, in that they are “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.” They are also 2. therapeutic, in that they believe in having “a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being.” And lastly, they are 3. deistic, in that they believe in a higher power or deity who creates and at times intervenes in our lives.

Being compiled from over 3,000 teenagers, MTD was boiled down into these five points:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. 3

Because the United States was once a Christian nation, it makes logical sense that the five points outlined in MTD are generically tied to the Christian faith. As the authors wrote nearly two decades ago, “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, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” 4

In briefly comparing the five points of “Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin”, to historic Christianity, we can see profound differences between the two.

First, while there is a God who created the world, ordered it, and “watches over human life on earth”, the Bible reveals that God not only created and continues to order the world, but is presently and sovereignly in control of all things now, and always will be. 5

Second, while God does want “people to be good, nice, and fair to each other” that is not His main concern. God really desires to be in relationship with all people; that all would believe in His Son Jesus for the remission of their sins and for the promise of eternal life. Being good, nice, and fair are great, but merely byproducts of a life first surrendered to God.

Third, the central goal of life is not to be “happy and to feel good about oneself.” While being happy, (the common translation from the Greek word blessed) is another outcome of being in a relationship with God, it is not the purpose of our existence. I think the Westminster Confession beautifully states the purpose of humanity confessing that, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 6

Fourth, although, “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life” at all, the gospel truth is that God actually wants to be. The certainty that a holy and good God desires to be inseparably involved in our lives in every aspect of our lives for the whole duration of our lives, should comfort and encourage everyone.

Lastly, the Bible shows us that no group of people, whether deemed “good” or not, go to heaven when they die. The bad news is that all people stand under the judgment of God. But the good news is that all people have the ability to go to Heaven by confessing their sin and accepting Jesus’ offer of forgiveness.

Why are these distinctions important to know and articulate?

Because, while MTD might be tolerable for a nation, as I’d rather live in a community with people who believe in basic Christian morality than those who openly oppose it, MTD is horrible for the Christian church and especially for those on her outskirts.

Regardless of intentions, MTD dilutes the historical life and works of Jesus to nothing more than the story of any other religious figure. It also gives an illusion of being “Christian” to those who might not know what the Bible teaches as a whole. But ultimately, MTD seeks to dethrone God with man. It makes humanity the center of the universe while placing the Santa Clause-like-helper in the peripheral clouds to assist us only in times of need.

Furthermore, the teenagers in 2005 are now fully grown adults. And in a world that has only moved further away from God’s Kingdom since that time, there is a temptation for us to cling onto anything that has some resemblance of Christianity. For example, we all have friends or relatives who’ve probably never heard of MTD but completely adhere to it’s five core beliefs. Yet due to its Christian cladding we accept it because it’s not open Satanism. But MTD is not Christian. Like many other counterfeits, MTD is a manmade set of beliefs with a withering Christian veneer.

It was this type of false belief systems posing as the gospel of Jesus that lead the Apostle Paul to insist that the gospel he preached was “not of human origin.” He “did not receive it from any man, nor was taught it; rather, [he] received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” 7

Christian, we not only need to know the difference between the biblical gospel of Jesus and those that just look like it, but gracefully communicate it to those we know and love. If Paul was emphatic to inform the people in Galatia then, we must be emphatic to inform the people in America now.

But what do you think?

Micah Coate, President and Host of Salvation and Stuff

  1. * Oxford Thesaurus of English, Copyright © 2009, 2021 by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

  2. * Oxford Thesaurus of English, Copyright © 2009, 2021 by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

  3. Smith, Christian (2005), Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. With Lundquist Denton, Melina. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/019518095X.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-803997-6. pp. 162–63.

  4. Ibid., p. 171.

  5. This sovereignty should not be confused with fatalism.

  6. Westminster Confession of Faith, Question 1, Answer 1.

  7. Galatians 1:11-12.


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