Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the religion that Christian sociologist, Christian Smith identifies as the prominent religion of most Americans who claim to be, or in fact are nascent or cultural Christians. We might reduce the catchy language down to one word: Deism. Deism, by definition, entails both moralist and therapeutic; but we can understand why Smith would give us this amplification—for both rhetorical and descriptive reasons. Even so, I think it would be good to expand upon what Deism actually is. Without getting into its history too much (because of space constraints), I thought it would be instructive to allow Charles Taylor to give us further insight into just what Deism is, and even more significantly, how it functions as an ‘opiate,’ of sorts, for so many of us in the affluent North American context. Taylor writes at length:
But with the fourfold eclipse, the very notion that God has purposes for us beyond fulfilling his plan in the world, equated with our good, begins to fade. Worship shrinks to carrying out God’s goals (= our goals) in the world. So element (2) becomes weaker and weaker.
As to element (1), this was expressed principally in terms of a doctrine of grace. This was seconded in lay ethics, like neo-Stoicism, by a sense that the power to impose order on self and world is God’s power in us, which we have to recognize and nurture. With growing confidence, reflected in the new harmonious, economic-centred order, neither grace nor the nurture of God’s power in us seem all that indispensable. Space has been created for a shift, in which the power to order will be seen as purely intra-human.
It is true that on the Deist view, God can also help us in another way. The very contemplation of his goodness in his works inspires us, and energizes us to do his will.
Thus as the calm and most extensive determination of the soul towards the universal happiness can have no other centre of rest and joy than the original independent omnipotent Goodness; so without the knowledge of it, and the most ardent love and resignation to it, the soul cannot attain to its most stable and highest perfection and excellence. [Frances Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, p. 217]
The strength that this can impart to us is not negligible, and perhaps most people will recognize the need for some source like this. But having got this far, it is not clear why something of the same inspiring power cannot come from the contemplation of the order of nature itself, without reference to a Creator. And this idea has recurred in exclusive humanisms.
And so exclusive humanism could take hold, as more than a theory held by a tiny minority, but as a more and more viable spiritual outlook. There needed two conditions for its appearance: the negative one, that the enchanted world fade; and also the positive one, that a viable conception of our highest spiritual and moral aspirations arise such that we could conceive of doing without God in acknowledging and pursuing them. This came about in the ethic of imposed order (which also played an essential role in disenchantment), and in an experience with this ethic which made it seem possible to rely exclusively on intra-human powers to carry it through. The points at which God had seemed an indispensable source for this ordering power were the ones which began to fade and become invisible. The hitherto unthought became unthinkable.
Clearly, Taylor has other previous context he is referring to; with his reference to his points (1) and (2). Because it is too lengthy to elaborate on all that, for our purposes, we will press onto engaging what I did in fact share from him.
I think what stands out most clearly is the idea that in a world that is disenchanted—a major theme in Taylor’s work—of a world that is inhabited or suffused with the splendor of a mighty and benevolent Creator God; the world is still in need of some sense of Divine Transcendence. As Taylor helpfully underscores for us, when the personal Christian God is abandoned, the vacuum left is filled by collapsing ‘Him’ into the human-spirit writ large. Herein people still have a sense that in the after-life, based upon their own ethical imaginations and determinations, they will be rewarded with or despoiled of anything good and lively. But here, in the here-and-now, in this ultra-immanetized world, we are the divine sparks of all that can be good and holy; we just need to appeal to our inner-positive-resources, and usher in peace and well being into the world.
What Taylor describes as Deism can come in both hard and soft forms. What we get in the Christian version of Deism is the soft form. When Christians abandon sound orthodox doctrine what they must turn to is themselves; albeit, they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between themselves and the one they call Jesus Christ. It is in this framework that so called moralistic therapeutic deism takes on a life of its own; with a liturgy of nationalist and moralist folkisms in tow.
Interestingly, we have a case study of this in the history, not too far back, in the early to mid-20th century among the German Christians. Karl Barth, per John Webster’s analysis, noted this fall into a sort of deism among the nationalist fervor that took hold of so many Germans in the post WWI context. There was a wily fear afoot in the Weimar Republic that caused even the Christians to turn inward, and engage in this sort of collapsing of God into the inner-recesses of their own will to power; in their own capacity to determine what was right and wrong. Webster notes with reference to Barth’s moral theology:
A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.
Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.
Interesting that Barth’s primary referent was liberal Protestantism; interesting because I think this can equally apply to what counts as conservative evangelicalism today—and yes Mainlinism, and other religious iterations in the West as well. But Barth’s critique of his own German/Swiss context fits well with what Taylor is identifying for us as the Deist project. A project wherein God and the enchanted world He gives us is pushed to the side, and the disenchanted world takes its place with the primacy of the indomitable human spirit as its center.
It seems undeniable to me that this sort of ‘spirituality’ is the dominant one, even and maybe especially among the evangelical churches. It isn’t for lack of good intention, but lack of good, sound, orthodox doctrine among the churches that has led to this vacuum. Not to dog-pile on the conservatives, we see this Deistic impulse shaping so called Progressive Christianity just as surely; most likely because they operate from a shared anthropological and intellectual heritage. No matter its level of overt exposure, Deism as a powerful source of moral inflection in the world, as far as I can see, is only gaining speed. It can be corrected, but this will only come as Christians come to a point of ‘repentant thinking.’ But will they? In order for repentant thinking to occur, it is required that sound theological teaching is given. But I don’t see this, in the main, occurring in the churches. People are largely being fed a pabulum of individualistic spirituality that majors on the self, and minors on God. True, we do see a resurgence of Reformed theology; but I’d contend, at root, that its understanding of grace and election only plays into the sort of Deism that Taylor (and Barth) describe.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007), 233-34 kindle.
 John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.