Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

Books and Culture has an interview of Christian Smith conducted by Michael Cromartie in which Smith assesses the spiritual state of American youth with wonderfully impressive precision. The interview should be an absolute must read for every parent, teacher, and religious leader in America. It's an extensive piece and is filled with wisdom and insight. Indeed, Smith says things that many parents and teachers have intuitively believed to be true but seldom saw endorsed by any cultural authority and rarely so cogently. Smith is such an authority. Here's the introduction B&C gives him:

Christian Smith is Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. One of the most influential and widely cited sociologists of his generation, he is the author of many provocative books....His latest book, due in March from Oxford, is Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, coauthored with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, an unprecedented survey conducted from 2001 to 2005, the book opens a window on the religious beliefs and practices of American teens.

In the course of the interview Smith points out, among other things, the following:

Teenagers today (and I am talking about 13- to 17-year-olds) are invested in society as it is and in mainstream values. They are well socialized into the mainstream, they are committed to it, and they want to succeed in it. From the Sixties we've inherited the notion of the "generation gap," but that model simply isn't adequate to describe what we are dealing with today. For the most part, young people have a great deal in common with their parents and share their values. That may not be immediately apparent, but underneath, not too far below the surface, there is a lot of commonality.

We've been conditioned to look for kids who can't stand traditional religion. But that's just not the case! Most kids are quite happy to go with whatever they are raised to believe; they are not kicking and screaming on the way to church. On the contrary: most teenagers have a very benign attitude toward religion.

Lots of people think that a key category for young people is "spiritual but not religious." What we found is that this concept is not even on their radar screen. But one thing that most teens emphatically don't want to be is "too religious." They want to be religious, but they don't want to be perceived as overzealous, uncool, embarrassingly intense about their faith. They have an image in their mind of one kid in their high school who walks around with buttons and badges all day carrying a Bible, and they think that that's wacko.

It really struck us in our research that very few teens are getting a chance to practice talking about their faith. We were dumbfounded by the number of teens who told us we were the first adults who had asked them what they believed. One said: "I do not know. No one has ever asked me that before."

Very few teens are hardcore relativists. In fact, they are quite moralistic. They will confidently assert that certain things are right or wrong. What they can't do is explain why that's the case, or what's behind their thinking.

Based on our findings, I suggest that the de facto religious faith of the majority of American teens is "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." God exists. God created the world. God set up some kind of moral structure. God wants me to be nice. He wants me to be pleasant, wants me to get along with people. That's teen morality. The purpose of life is to be happy and feel good, and good people go to heaven. And nearly everyone's good.

It's unbelievable the proportion of conservative Protestant teens who do not seem to grasp elementary concepts of the gospel concerning grace and justification. Their view is: be a good person.

It turns out when you look at the structure of teenagers' lives, and their schedules, religion fits in a very small piece of all that. It's actually amazing to me that religion has any effect in teenagers' lives. Part of the structure, too, is that what really matters to teenagers is their socially significant relationships. If teenagers have socially significant relationships that cross at church, that cross with other families of believers, then that helps out a lot. But many teenagers have their socially significant relationships almost exclusively through school; even if they have friends at church, the youth group is a satellite out there on the fringe of their life, rather than at the center.

Despite their abject failure at the level of conscious articulation of their faith, on every measure of life outcome-relationship with family, doing well at school, avoiding risk behaviors, everything-highly religious teens are doing much better than non-religious kids. It's just a remarkable observable difference....there are all sorts of other benefits from simply being connected to a religious organization-social capital, social ties, and so on-that empirically make a difference. That's not excusing the relative failure of religious educators, but the difference is there. Highly religious American teens are happier and healthier. They are doing better in school, they have more hopeful futures, they get along with their parents better. Name a social outcome that you care about, and the highly religious kids are doing better.

Non-religious teens are more likely to say, "who cares?" Who cares about suffering, who cares about old people? By every measure we have, religious kids are more likely to live out their faith in terms of volunteering and taking care of people. It's the more religious kids who are more involved in their communities, more civically active. So there are real differences.

This is one of the things that really hit us hard: that parents still have an enormous amount of influence on their kids' lives, even though I'm sure that's very hard for them to believe at times. Adolescents are not routinely coming to their parents and saying "thanks so much for steering me in the right direction. I really appreciate it. I really want you to know that you are a big influence." They don't say it, but it's still a fact. Parents have a lot more influence, and therefore responsibility, than they realize. Teenagers will never admit that they look to their parents for guidance, but most do.

Most, though not all, religious educators in this country are failing. Most young people are not being formed primarily by their religious faith traditions; rather, they are being formed by other notions and ideologies. And in part this is because adults are afraid to teach. They are afraid of young people. They are afraid of not looking cool when they teach real substance....And yet youth actually want to be taught something, even if they eventually reject it. They at least want to have something to reject, rather than an attitude of anything goes. Teens need an opportunity to articulate, to think and to make arguments in environments that will be challenging to their faith. And I don't think they are getting that. In general, religious traditions that expect more and demand more of their youth get more. And those that are more compromising, more accommodating, more anything-goes, end up not getting much.

There's much more at the link. One of the messages that comes through in this piece is that parents should not be reluctant to talk to their children about the fundamentals of their religious faith, and they should be very willing to put up with whatever resistance some kids might offer to attending religious services. The benefits to the child in the long run are, of course, immeasurable.

On the other hand, parents also should ensure that the services they take their kids to offer more than just babysitting and social interaction. Teenagers both want and need to talk about their deepest convictions. They want and need to learn what it is their religion is all about, what it's based upon, and how it answers the most profound questions of life. Even if they reject it down the road, as Smith says, they need to know that they're rejecting something substantial and consequential. If they do the chances that they'll eventually come back to it are far better than if they perceive shedding their faith to be on a par with discarding a threadbare, ill-fitting, unfashionable coat.

City of Brotherly Love

Reader Ryan H. links us to Laer at Cheat Seeking Missiles who relays a notice from the journal of the American Family Association. The gist of it is that four people were arrested last October in Philadelphia for protesting at a homosexual rally:

Along with founder Michael Marcavage, members of Repent America-with police approval--were preaching near Outfest, a homosexual event, handing out Gospel literature and carrying banners with Biblical messages.

When they tried to speak, they were surrounded by a group of radical homosexual activists dubbed the Pink Angels. A videotape of the incident shows the Pink Angels interfering with the Christians' movement on the street, holding up large pink symbols of angels to cover up the Christians' messages and blowing high pitched whistles to drown out their preaching.

Rather than arrest the homosexual activists and allow the Christians to exercise their First Amendment rights, the Philadelphia police arrested and jailed the Christians!

They were charged with eight crimes, including three felonies: possession of instruments of crime (a bullhorn), ethnic intimidation (saying that homosexuality is a sin), and inciting a riot (reading from the Bible some passages relating to homosexuality) despite the fact that no riot occurred.

If the facts are as they are related here this is an outrage. When has anyone ever been arrested for protesting at a Christian rally or event? The charges are so absurd that they could only have been concocted by a lawyer. Since when, for example, are homosexuals an ethnic group?

If these four protestors are convicted the courts will have in effect ruled that public objection to homosexuality is a hate crime, and it will be just a matter of time until opposing homosexuality from the pulpit will be ruled illegal. On that day the entire first amendment will lay in tatters.

This case represents a powerful and insidious assault on both the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion in America. We're therefore anxiously awaiting word that the ACLU has entered the fray on behalf of the protestors. In the meantime, the AFA has vowed to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. If the protestors win, let's hope they sue the city officials responsible for this travesty for every penny of the graft they've doubtless managed to stash away over the years.

More details of the whole sordid affair can be found here.

Our Friends the French

The French can always be depended upon to sink to the occasion. The Belgravia Dispatch has some commentary on a piece which appeared recently in the French newspaper Le Monde snidely venting its jealousy of the ability of the U.S. to mount a massive rescue effort in Indonesia while the French, a third-rate power whose only consolation is a much undeserved seat on the U.N. Security Council, stands by in relative impotence.

Here's a sip of French whine:

Colin Powell, who is in Bangkok and is on his way to Jakarta, tries to make sense of the [U.S. initiative]: "We are not looking for any political advantage," assured the U.S. Secretary of State. "We are not trying to make ourselves look better in the eyes of Muslims," he affirmed. "We are doing it because human beings need it, even desperately need it." In other words, the P-3 Orion American reconnaissance planes that are flying over Aceh are only surveying the destruction to facilitate the humanitarian effort. [emphasis added]

Note the sarcastic implication. The U.S. is only doing what it is because it's preparing for some military adventure against Muslims. The French, in an act of moral projection, cannot imagine any nation, least of all the U.S., doing something simply because it's the right thing to do. Viewing the rest of the world through the lens of their own cynicism and corruption, they assume there must be insidious motivation behind our willingness to amass such an effort. In the process they defame and insult the U.S. government and the American people who are funding and conducting the relief effort underway in the Indian Ocean. This is the sort of sniping one engages in, we suppose, when one bitterly resents that fact that his own nation's accomplishments are as insignificant as those of the modern French.

There's more on Le Monde's whimpering at the Dispatch.