Here is a fascinating interview Michael Cromartie conducts with Christian Smith, a leading sociological authority on American evangelicalism. They are discussing Smith’s forthcoming book, Soul Searching: The Religious And Spiritual Lives Of American Teenagers.
Teenagers (13-17 year olds), we learn, are more conventional than rebellious. According to Smith,
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.
To the extent that there is one, this is the "theology" implicit in teen attitudes:
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.
Smith suspects or fears that the kids are basically getting this attitude from their parents and church leaders. Even most religiously conservative teenagers hold something like this view, he finds.
[W]e can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of ’Christianity’ in the U.S. is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition [and that]this has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions.
Of course, if the point of religion is merely social control or promoting healthy, pro-social behavior, there is some evidence that, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, moralistic therapeutic deism is "good enough":
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.
But, as Smith asks, "what is the interest of the Christian church? Is it to make kids wear their seat belts more often? Is that their goal? Or is there some higher commitment—to understanding the world, to practicing a way of life, Jesus’ way, whether or not it makes you happier and healthier and gives you a longer life."
There are more nuggets in the interview, but I want briefly to bore you with my own highly idiosyncratic conclusions, as the parent of two children, aged 9 and 7. Smith makes the point that religion plays a relatively small role in the lives of most teenagers, who devote a good portion of their time and energy to maintaining the relationships they form at (public) school. They’d spend more time with their parents, but virtually everything in their lives (and the lives of their parents) militates against that. So parents and religious educators end up competing for teenagers’ attention in terms of the dominant language of the culture and marketplace, which happens to be therapeutic and moralistic.