We can work it out?

I don’t know if there was some sort of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism Awareness conference that I missed out on, but I had never heard the term before—even though it’s not all that new—and now it’s shown up three times in two days in stuff I read. So.

Mike Friesen illustrates moralistic therapeutic deism with a clip from Boy Meets World, and on the blog for the New Media Project at Union, Elizabeth Drescher suggests social media like Facebook as venues for adults to act out faith for the digital natives using social media—a fine idea, I think, though I’d add that this faith is acted out best in posting interesting/edifying/faith-full things. An evening prayer, sure, but also a link to an article on civil rights, or a particularly good religious joke—and definitely not posting in ALL CAPS about SAYING MERRY CHRISTMAS INSTEAD OF HAPPY HOLIDAYS!1!!!111!. That will just get you blocked from my news feed (I avoid conflict—more on that later).

What I want to focus on is this first reference I came across, a quote that was Tuesday’s “daily asterisk” (i.e. daily thought-provoking quote) put out by a cool organization called *culture is not optional. It’s taken from Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian:

So who can blame churches, really, for earnestly ladling this stew into teenagers, filling them with an agreeable porridge about the importance of being nice, feeling good about yourself, and saving God for emergencies? We have convinced ourselves that this is the gospel, but in fact it is much closer to another mess of pottage, an unacknowledged but widely held religious outlook among American teenagers that is primarily dedicated, not to loving God, but to avoiding interpersonal friction. There are inspiring exceptions, of course, but for the most part we have traded the kind of faith confessed and embodied in the church’s most long-standing traditions for the savory stew of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And, for the most part, young people have followed suit. [emphasis mine]

I don’t think “moralistic therapeutic deism” even approaches a description of my faith—and I was an American teen in 2005, when the National Study of Youth and Religion on which this book is based was conducted. BUT—ah, BUT—I’m pretty darn dedicated to avoiding interpersonal friction.

Most of the time I do manage to avoid it, too. Probably because I spend significantly more time listening than speaking (introvert, remember?), but also because I tend to hold fairly moderate stances, or at least stances that are more or less welcoming to a variety of opinions. I generally think of this as “open-mindedness” or “hospitality to other perspectives”—I still think of it this way. But I do have to examine my motivation.

I don’t think “loving God” and “avoiding interpersonal friction” are mutually exclusive. In fact, I’m pretty sure that a lot of people who love God so abundantly exude God’s love that being with them soothes frictions, not in a surface-y, cover-it-up way, but in a deep and healing way. I’ve known people like this. Many of them I met at church. That said, though, look at the biblical prophets. They didn’t exactly avoid interpersonal friction. I don’t think I’d make a very good prophet. It seems awfully lonely. Even today, even in TEC, being too different or too outspoken makes trouble.

How much would I risk to raise my voice? Would I risk awkwardness? Judgment? Would I risk losing friendships? Would I risk losing my church community?

Millennials are said to particularly value relationships. It’s certainly true for me. Maybe some of the reason for the slide toward a moralistic therapeutic deism is an attempt to preserve relationships. Perhaps, then, the best way to deal with tendencies toward moralistic therapeutic deism is to enact healthy confrontation in the church—show that interpersonal friction can happen without mortally injuring relationships. Show that interpersonal friction needn’t even diminish love, respect, and affection; that it can be sensitive—even tender if need be.

I don’t really see the Church doing this—I see waves of squabbles on the national and international stage as the Anglican Communion tries to figure out what to do with the strange beast that is the Anglican Covenant. On a bad day I’m tempted to say, “Is it any wonder people are walking away from this?” But there’s opportunity here: opportunity to demonstrate that conflict and friction needn’t destroy, but could in fact strengthen relationships. Will it happen? I don’t know. But I can hope.


When have you encountered the term “moralistic therapeutic deism? Do you see it in play in culture? Do you avoid conflict? Do you have stories of when you didn’t avoid conflict, or when you avoided conflict and shouldn’t have? How do you deal with interpersonal friction?


5 thoughts on “We can work it out?

  1. Important questions – and typically insightful discussion. I think I would like to add that, although I agree that we’re taught to avoid conflict, we’re also taught to rally around certain political points that can unite us and even bring us together with people outside the Church. I’m thinking, obviously, of the mindset in particularly conservative, evangelical circles as people come together about the typical range of issues I needn’t mention here because they are so repetitive and boring. This, of course, leads to our mentality of this great crusade we’re on, this great culture war we’re waging, the us vs. them mentality that’s led millions of American Christians into thinking that this country is simply a battlefield and increasingly a place where we as Christians are being persecuted. Without writing a whole blog post myself, I do think we like to reserve our confrontational spirit for these political issues – which is too bad because that often makes discussion nothing more than shouting matches where you’re in one camp or the other and intelligent discussion is scarcely feasible.

    • Thanks, Joel — and I think you’re right. The no-conflict-zone would come in if, inside that group, someone were to question or challenge the issue. I find there’s not always a lot of room for asking difficult questions in the in-group.

      I think I’m guilty of doing the same on the other side, though (just because I’m right, haha). I hold up my (more liberal) perspectives as The Best, without always making room for conservative views (i.e. anything I majorly disagree with)–my knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss those voices as “wrong,” or, you know, “obnoxious.” But if I style myself as being on the side of love and inclusion, oughtn’t I also make room for the views I perceive as being against love and inclusion?

      This works back into my example of the Anglican Covenant, and specifically the schism withing TEC in the wake of Bp Robinson’s consecration. Conservative Episcopal parishes are separating themselves from TEC and styling themselves as “Anglican,” putting themselves under the jurisdiction of bishops in Africa and Latin America (this is an enormous issue that I can’t approach doing justice to in this already-too-long comment). They’re abandoning TEC b/c they can’t accept gay bishops and all the other liberal mumbo-jumbo we Episcopalians like. But I don’t know that I can say TEC is taking the high road–we’re suing for property, not really listening to the conservative Anglicans (because they’re wrong, of course), seeking disciplinary action for conservative clergy “abandoning the church.” It’s… messy. complicated. There’s not a whole lot of listening happening on any side, as far as I can see.

      And… I wrote you a blog post. Thanks for letting me think aloud.

      P.S. Your comment reminded me of this article I read today. I think I like this Danforth guy.

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