What the Faith of Our
Teenagers Is Telling
the American Church
by Kenda Creasy Dean
Oxford, 264 pp., $24.95
Thomas Jefferson’s most radical declaration of independence isn’t his most famous. In 1820 Jefferson created a simplified, reasonable version of the Bible—taking out the miracles, prophecies, claims of Jesus’ divinity, and other weirdness which offended his Deism. Kenda Creasy Dean suggests that mainstream Christianity, in virtually all of its manifestations, has been similarly bowdlerized. Instead of the life-changing, culture-challenging demands of the gospel, Dean argues, American teenagers follow a mutant creed best understood as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Almost Christian, a popularization of the results of the 2002-05 National Study of Youth and Religion, attempts to help Christian parents, youth pastors, and others who are alarmed at the shakiness and incoherence of most teens’ faith.
The content of that faith is simple and as American as a smile in an airport. The tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) include belief in a god who watches over us and orders life on earth, and whose major moral concern is that humans should be nice to one another: “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” These kids aren’t hostile to religion; who would kick such a toothless cocker spaniel? Dean argues that adolescents who were able to be articulate and expressive when discussing issues they really cared about suddenly became tongue-tied when the subject of God or religion came up, falling back on phrases such as “I would imagine [God is] a very nice guy.”
(These impressions of inarticulateness and incoherence echo similar findings by Donna Freitas in Sex and the Soul. Freitas found that students at the most explicitly evangelical colleges were among the very few who could describe their religious beliefs in detail and explain how those beliefs affected their romantic lives and plans for the future.)
This is not the kind of faith that makes saints. It’s not the kind of faith that can carry a teenager through the death of a parent. It’s not the kind of faith that prompts sacrifices and resistance to the norms and behaviors of one’s peers. It is not—as Dean’s title indicates—really Christianity at all. And MTD cuts across old denominational and confessional boundaries. It’s most prevalent among mainline Protestants and Catholics and least prevalent among Mormons, black Protestants, and “conservative Protestants.” In fact, this belief system seems designed to minimize the importance of religious difference, partly as a way of defusing the tensions and passions of a pluralist society. It’s as if believing that other people are wrong about God in some important ways is bad manners.
Dean asks where this new belief system came from, and finds that it’s not indigenous to adolescents. Teens think this way because their parents do. Parents who show, by their words or their actions, that the tenets and practices of their faith are vague, unimportant, or only tenuously related to daily life, produce teenagers whose faith is vague, marginal, and unlikely to shape their actions and plans in any significant way. Parents who ask little of their children in terms of faith formation, but a great deal in terms of, say, getting into a good college, make a statement about priorities which their children trust and follow. Churches, youth ministries, and similar groups that trade “send[ing] young people out” for “rop[ing] young people in” wind up with teens who think church is fine, a good place to be—“nice.” And who then leave church to act just like all of their friends.
Mormons, by contrast, challenge their teenagers and require a lot of time, study, and leadership from them. Mormon parents rise at dawn to go over their church’s history and doctrine with their children. More than half of the Mormon youth in the study had given a presentation in church in the past six months. They frequently shared public testimony and felt that they were given some degree of decision-making power within their community. They shape their plans for the immediate future around strong cultural pressures toward mission trips and marriage. Whatever one thinks of the actual beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it seems obvious that both adult Mormons and the teens who follow them really, really believe.
Dean wonders whether some of the most apparently committed teenagers, in the Mormon church and elsewhere, are merely parroting words they’ve heard or going with the flow of their semi-closed subculture: Is their faith “foreclosed,” plucked from the tree before it’s ripe? Is the mission trip just the Mormon equivalent of studying for the SATs—something you do because you’re a good kid and you want to please your parents, not because you want to please God? But overall, she argues that the churches which challenge their children the most also often help the children develop mature, deeply held faith which can withstand shocks, doubts, and suffering.
Dean, therefore, has her own challenge for Christians who work with adolescents: Push them to take hold of their faith and let it reshape their lives. She has qualified praise for short-term mission trips to poverty-stricken areas. She knows why these trips are sometimes derided as “voluntourism,” but believes that they can also provide not just a break from middle-class American daily lives but an implicit, radically Christian critique of those lives.
On a more general level, she offers a wake-up call to Christian parents. She has two basic questions, and the more obvious one is, what are you doing to shape your children’s faith as Christians? But the deeper question is, do you want your children to be Christians at all? Would you be proud to raise a Mother Teresa, even as your heart trembles for her and you wish she’d come home? Do you want your child to be a saint, even if it might mean she’s less normal or less happy or less materially successful or less like you? Dean knows that for many parents, MTD is a lot easier to explain to the neighbors than the imitation of Christ.
There’s an interesting tension in Almost Christian. On the one hand, Dean cites studies showing that teens who are more serious about their religious faith are doing better than more wishy-washy teens on a wide range of sociological metrics, from drug use to hopeful outlooks toward the future. MTD, she notes, promises happiness but doesn’t deliver it as consistently as committed Christian faith. And yet on the other hand, Dean wants to challenge precisely these sociological markers of success. She wants teenagers who are willing to follow Jesus’ words: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” Or to put the point in terms even Jefferson might have acknowledged, pursuing happiness might not be the best way to win it.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.