Almost Mormon

January 15, 2011 | 10 comments
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almost christian

I recently finished Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (OUP, 2010) by Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Chapter 3, entitled “Mormon Envy,” naturally attracted my attention.

Almost Christian relies in large part on data gathered by the National Study of Youth and Religion and on an earlier book presenting results from that sociological study, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (OUP, 2005). But Dean’s interest is more in what the results mean for youth ministers of mainline Protestant denominations. The news is not good, as documented in Part 1, “Worshipping at the Church of Benign Whatever-ism.” The chapter titles — “Becoming Christian-ish” and “The Triumph of the ‘Cult of Nice’” — pretty much tell the story. Mainline Protestant teens are generally not developing a Christian or denominational identity. Instead, they are implicitly adopting the norms of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a term borrowed from Soul Searching. And it’s not really the fault of the teens — they are, suggests Dean, in large part simply responding to the explicit teaching and implicit cues they are getting at church and at home. Enter the Mormons.

As recounted in Chapter 3, Mormon teens (as well as teens from black Protestant and conservative Protestant congregations) buck the trend. Here’s how Dean describes this group of teens:

Highly devoted young people are much more compassionate, significantly more likely to say they care about things like racial equality and justice, far less likely to be moral relativists, to lie, cheat, or do things “they hoped their parents would never find out about.” They are not just doing “okay” in life; they are doing significantly better than their peers, at least in terms of happiness and forms of success approved by the cultural mainstream. … For highly devoted young people, faith is a big deal. They “own” their traditions, possess articulate and integrated theologies, and draw significantly from their religions’ faith stories to influence their decisions, actions, and attitudes.

Regarding what works for Mormon teens in particular, Dean notes early morning seminary, the sense of family and community fostered in LDS homes and congregations, and the twin goals of missionary service and temple marriage that loom so large for LDS teens. Parents, youth leaders, and congregations as a whole all contribute to what are apparently very successful outcomes for LDS teens compared to what the data show for most other American teens. Reading the chapter and the book, I kept expecting the other shoe to drop — for Dean to talk about what, despite the numbers, is wrong with the LDS approach — but that discussion never appeared. Her interest, as noted above, is in how to do better for mainline Protestant teens, and she largely focused on that goal for the balance of the book, without much additional reference to LDS or conservative Protestant approaches.

I took a couple of things away from the book. First, the data appear to be saying that we LDS are doing a pretty good job with our youth. I’m not sure that is always evident at the local level, but the data seem to be telling us that the effort that is put into seminary, Sunday lessons, weekly activities, and family home evening does bear fruit in the faith and conviction of LDS youth.

A second point is that the enemy is not necessarily Babylon — the raucous alternative secular lifestyles that surround us — it is watered down religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Dean summarizes the tenets of MTD as: (1) God exists and watches over life on Earth; (2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other; (3) the purpose of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself; (4) God is not involved in my life except when I need him to solve a problem; and (5) good people go to heaven when they die.

Are Momons immune to MTD? Or is the impact on LDS youth and LDS teaching just delayed a generation or two? Think hard about those five characteristics of MTD and tell me you haven’t heard them presented in Sunday talks or even General Conference talks. Moralism and a therapeutic approach are certainly on the rise in LDS rhetoric. Will Correlation save us from MTD? Or will our next generation be almost Mormon?

10 Responses to Almost Mormon

  1. Dave on January 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Let me start off the comments with a disclaimer: Dean didn’t say all Mormon kids fit her “highly devoted teens” group, but only that Mormons (and black Protestants and conservative Protestants) were disproportionately represented in that category. There are highly devoted teens that are mainline Protestant and that are Catholic; likewise, there are Mormons in her other categories (the regular, the sporadic, and the disengaged). I don’t think this affects the discussion at all, I just don’t want to misrepresent what Dean said about Mormon teens or other Christian teens.

  2. Brad Dennis on January 15, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Yes I remember reading about this book before from a link that someone posted a while back in “Notes from All Over.” I like how he terms it “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Sounds like a fascinating book.

    Oh and by the way Dave, what possessed you to post a link to Charles Krauthammer’s column in the Washington Post “On Constitutionalism” just out of curiosity? All your other suggested links have been to more liberal or at least well thought-out pieces, not to mention your posts are generally well-thought out. I read the piece and it just seemed to be more of Krauthammer’s conservative claptrap.

  3. DavidH on January 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    I just read John Gee’s review of the book in the FARMS Review–although it was mostly a summary (along with a summary of another book) more than a review. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=22&num=2&id=811

    I think Dean may think MTD is the “enemy” because it deemphasizes the importance of denominational identity or need of organized religion. In a sense, the author may view MTD as really secular humanism, with a nod towards the existence of God.

    John Gee maintains that MTD “does not seem to include such moral traits as honesty, chastity, and fidelity.” Does Dean make that argument in the book? Or is that Gee just expressing a negative view of MTD?

    It seems to me that “good, nice and fair” does encompass honesty and fidelity; I don’t know anyone who argues that “cheating” on a relationship is “good, nice [or] fair”. On the other hand, it may be that MTD’s “good, nice and fair” does not include chastity in the sense of abstinence outside marriage (or outside committed relationships), that is, that the supposed “hook up” culture may fit within MTD. It is difficult for me, however, to see how casual sex would fit as “good, nice and fair.”

    I also disagree with including the “D” in MTD as the predominating religion of youth. Among other things, it directly conflicts with #1 of MTD. I have many theist but nonreligious friends who do take a Deist view, but I have many others who believe that God is very much involved in their lives. I suspect that nonreligious but spiritual youth are also split between the two views.

  4. Dave on January 15, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Brad, I believe that link related to a discussion we were having on the backlist. If my prior links struck you as liberal, I guess that just shows how broad-minded I am.

    David H, thanks for the link to the FARMS review. I think the term Deism in MTD is used rather loosely. In classical Deism, God does not intervene in the world; in MTD, God’s primary concern is to solve your problems, and He pretty much minds his own business at other times.

    I think the reason MTD can be an effective replacement for more detailed theologies is that one cannot directly criticize its tenets. For example, you can’t say God doesn’t want us to be good, nice, or fair, you have to explain how God has something more in mind for us, and that maybe “be nice” oversimplifies God’s call to serve him in righteousness.

  5. Dan on January 15, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Dave,

    in MTD, God’s primary concern is to solve your problems, and He pretty much minds his own business at other times.

    That seems to be a more accurate description of reality.

    I think the reason MTD can be an effective replacement for more detailed theologies is that one cannot directly criticize its tenets. For example, you can’t say God doesn’t want us to be good, nice, or fair, you have to explain how God has something more in mind for us, and that maybe “be nice” oversimplifies God’s call to serve him in righteousness.

    It might also be a better replacement because the more hardline tenets have so many loopholes to account for the exceptions to the rule. In our faith, for instance, we certainly don’t believe that only those baptized here on earth will be saved in the Celestial Kingdom, otherwise why go through the laborious process of baptisms for the dead? In the end, most Christian faiths end up believing that far more people will be in heaven than their own doctrines allow, because the world is far more complex and God seems to not be interfering as often as he supposedly had in the past, that in order for their faiths to grow, they have to show more than just the faithful will enter.

  6. Ben H on January 16, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Dave, I sort of agree, but I think DavidH is onto something. The worst part of the problem is not contact with Babylon as such; the House of Israel has (more or less) always had to maintain its boundaries against a surrounding, alien culture. But a lot of why the young people are being taught MTD is because they are being taught by clergy and such who have been co-opted by a culture of nonbelief. The problem is not that the young folks are surrounded by Babylon, but that their leaders too often have been eating the king’s food, so to speak, and were worn down to where they don’t really believe much more than MTD themselves, or perhaps they believe less, but MTD seems innocuous enough that they can teach it even though they don’t believe it. If you’ve been hired to run a church, you have to come up with something to say that sounds like religion, whether you believe it or not, right?

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 17, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Many Protestants have noted the fact that emphasis on “salvation by grace alone” has misled many Christians into thinking that not only their past behavior, but also their current behavior, is irrelevant to their salvation. This results in absurdities like “stippers for Jesus”. They don’t even feel the need to demonstrate their being “born again” through manifesting a changed heart due to their preemptive salvation in the here and now.

    For many Christians of that philosophy, no action–including baptism–is a prerequisite to salvation. And churches which concentrate on the salvific moment and have no guide to how Christians should live their new lives are having trouble hanging on to congregants. After all, if you are definitively saved, why bother with church?

    It is also mind-boggling how many professional ministers respond to surveys and say that they are not really confident of certain facts, like the physical resurrection of Jesus. Even some who are believrs in the resurrection respond to the concern about salvation for the vast majority of people who are not Christian by positing that some kind of vague spirituality based on a least common denominator Areopagus-style “unknown god” who is revealed by the “general revelation” of the hints about the Creator in nature is sufficient for salvation; in other words, that salvation is through Christ, but not necessarily due to belief in Christ.

    Is it possible to be an MTD Mormon? I suppose so, if you are in a comfortable existence without challenges. But between the challenges the Church actively puts before us to make sacrifices, including missionary service and tithes and offerings, the Word of Wisdom, and faithfulness ot spouse and family, and the normal challenges of life, including sickness and death and loss of jobs, and the hostility of many people toward the Church, I think a Mormon would actually have to work at being that complacent about matters religious.

  8. Fabien Desse on January 18, 2011 at 2:40 am

    I don’t think Mormons should be MTD Mormons. I believe Mormonism is about following the Laws of the Gospel and going through certain ordinances. We need to lean to become Gods like all the Gods before us, said the Prophet. Being nice and fair is a good starting point, but a starting point only, and one -as stated by Dave- shared with many other Churches which do not have the truths restored through the Prophet. I too see MTD infiltrates talks and we all have seen some teachings watered down. Basics are important, don’t get me wrong, and they might save us, but they won’t exalt us.

  9. D. Michael Martindale on July 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Trying to figure out why this article is making those five “tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” sound negative. They sound just about right to me.

    Also trying to figure out why “moralistic” or “therapeutic” are considered negative too.

    Hell, I’m trying to figure out why teens not adopting a specific denominational identity is a bad thing. If they’re adopting those perfectly fine five tenets in their lives, what negative thing results in them not associating with any specific denomination? I mean, other than the preachers of such denominations finding their collection plates a little emptier than before.

  10. Jax on July 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    I’m not sure that ‘moralistic’ or ‘therapeutic’ were meant as negatives. But being non-denominational could be. When they say that the youth are ‘Christian-ish’ that raises alarms. You could follow all of those tenets and not believe in Christ. Read each one again and you’ll see there is no reason you couldn’t be Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, …etc. To people in the christian country, the idea that our youth could grow up as something other than christian is a negative thing.

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