What do Twenty-first Century Christians Believe?

In his book We Cannot Be Silent, R. Albert Mohler summarizes some research by Christian Smith into the elements of faith that are most prominently exhibited in the lives of teen and young adult Christians in the first decade of the twenty-first century. I would love to read the books in which Smith details his research, and I will read these books, but the summary reported by Mohler is so consistent with my own observations that I will dare to say that Smith’s research is disturbingly accurate. Smith uses the term moralistic therapeutic deism to describe what passes for orthodox Christianity in the lives of many young people.

As soon as you look at the term, you see why it fits. First, these young people have a fervent commitment to what they believe is morality, but the core of their morality is nothing like the moral code of the Bible. In fact, their morality is not an expression of God-fearing faith, but rather it is an expression of human-fearing despair. Their morality suggests that murdering unborn babies and shutting down vital industries because polar bears are alleged to be starving are essential expressions of compassion and responsibility. Nevertheless, they knit this moral code into a general sense that God must want them to do right.

Second, they aspire to decisions and actions that make them feel better; the outworking of their morality is therapy for their vague but persistent feeling that the existence of humans is a cosmic threat. Because of this attitude, they enter into a consensus that all sorts of things that cannot be proved threaten humans and the whole earth but the threats must be believed because the threat is so dire. They don’t believe in sin, and certainly not in original sin, but they are sure that humans as a species are responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened.

Finally, they worship a God who has no image, and they feel most in tune with their spirituality if everybody is mouthing the same words, even when the words have no legitimate meaning. The deity to which they consistently turn is government, and in the words of government, as laws and regulations, they find the outworking of their penance and absolution.

According to Christian Smith, the adherents of moralistic therapeutic deism have a simple creed:

  1. A God exists who created and orders 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.

The worldview of people who subscribe to this creed is about saving polar bears, curing cancer, and dividing everything equally. Safe, consensual sex in any combination of humans renders marriage an obsolete concept, an unborn baby is protoplasmic waste whose only value is as a vehicle for research, and it is immoral to eat broccoli, because vegetables have feelings, too.

This worldview is in serious conflict with the biblical worldview that starts with a commitment to Jesus Christ and works out as follows:

  1. I put my trust in the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  2. I center my life in Christ.
  3. Christ is first, and I am last.
  4. I willingly die rather than give up Christ. The cross is Christ’s glory and my greatest aspiration is to be like him.
  5. Instead of self-actualization, I aspire to be obedient to God’s will.
  6. My weakness is a gift that allows God’s power to triumph.
  7. In contrast to the culture, I always stand out rather than blend in, living by God’s absolute revealed values.
  8. I do not evolve, and my values do not evolve.
  9. I am first to take on the dirty jobs, serving others rather than promoting self.

It is inevitable that God’s worldview will be in direct conflict with feel-good deism. This is not a bad thing. What is unfortunate is that for so long, moralistic therapeutic deism has held sway in the culture as if it were Christianity. It is actually quite a beneficial development that Christianity is now clearly differentiated from all other ways of living.

The real challenge ahead for confessing Christians is the inevitable conflict when confessing Christians exercise their right to free exercise of religion while moralistic therapeutic deists look askance at behavior they disapprove as surely as any atheist does. Why can’t Kim Davis just do her job and hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Why doesn’t football coach Joe Kennedy go silently into a room and pray behind closed doors instead of “making a scene” on the fifty-yard line? Why must those rabid pro-lifers pray and sing on the sidewalk in front of the local Planned Parenthood clinic? For the twenty-first century deists, secular definitions of marriage, prayer and abortion just make sense, and they cannot understand why the quaint language of some ancient book has any bearing on life and death in the contemporary world.

Confessing Christians, Christians who can state their faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, have been standing out from the general culture for about two thousand years. It will always be so. This is our destiny.

 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.     —John 15:18-19 ESV