Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

"Moralistic therapeutic deism"

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.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Boy, am I glad we’re home-schooling!   

Discussions - 11 Comments

An interesting set of observations. This "religious" view allows the person to feel a connection to God, allows them to pursue happiness, and wind up in heaven. It does nothing to address moral standards that are to be met, or the betterment of one self. In fact, there appears to be a new sin, that of judging someone else, especially thier actions. There’s sort of an unsaid agreement..."don’t call me on my stuff and I won’t do that to you". So, that God wants you to be happy and feel good is true, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t include sex and drugs, or laziness, or humor at another’s expense. Ask any of these kids to explain in detail their beleifs, beyond this simple definition, and they soon stumble into confussion.

My wife and I are quite interested in home-schooling, too. The problem is, we both work full-time. I work in custodial, and my wife’s a receptionist. How could we give our kids 5 or 6 hours of quality schooling per day and still have time to do everything else that needs to be done??
We’re still interested, but skeptical at this point. Also, we’re concerned that if our kids don’t have the social experiences of "regular" school, that they might have difficulties socializing later on in life. I don’t know...

I attended a public high school during the 1990’s and it was a wonderful experience. While becoming involved in activities, I came into contact with a great group of Christian friends that helped me grow both spiritually and socially. I would not change anything about my experience.

Today, ten years later, I teach in a small public school in central PA. While I have the benefit of teaching in a very conservative area, things are not much different from when I was in school. The Christian kids tend to find one another. They are not put down or ostracized by the other kids. Most of the teachers at the school are devout Christians. I see these Christian students living and preaching their faith in numerous ways throughout the day.

My personal belief is that if you teach your children the religious beliefs that you want them to have, they will model them in the public schools. And, what a better time to learn how to live as a Christian...when your parents were right there to help you. FOr the times that I needed help, it was wonderful to have my parents guidance to look back on. And, even though my brother and I were involved in numerous activities during school, we still had nightly dinners together and other family time.

Don’t count out public schools...not all of them are bad. I think that we tend to blame the schools too soon....

Just a quick thought or two about the time commitments of home-schooling and about public schools.

It takes us roughly four hours a day to work through our curriculum with our two kids (1st and 3rd grades). I do math (daily), science (twice a week) and German (twice a week). My wife does everything else. We usually start around 9 a.m. and are done by 1 p.m. We both work, but our schedules are complementary, so there’s always someone home with the kids. (When there are conflicts, it usually means attending one of my classes or hanging out in my wife’s office. Such are the benefits of being underpaid college professors.) As for "socialization," our kids have friends from their time in public school (my son) and church school kindergarten (my daughter), church, soccer (daughter), swim team (daughter summer, son year-round), Brownies, Cub Scouts, and the home school group my wife has helped organize. There’s also a weekly home school track session organized by Oglethorpe’s track coach, followed immediately by chess lessons conducted by a high school home-schooler who participates in the track session. So my kids socialize with a wider array of kids than they would at school, and with a wider range of ages. And we’re hardly sheltering them in a homogeneous cocoon: soccer is at a Methodist church; Cubs are at a Presbyterian church; Brownies are at a Catholic church; year-round swimming is at the Jewish Community Center. Our own church is economically heterogeneous and moderately ethnically and racially diverse (in all respects more so than the public school our kids would be attending).

Home-schooling is emphatically not for everyone. We decided that it was right for us after my son started hating school in 1st grade, for what we regarded as the right reasons. His way of putting it: the teachers only like the girls (who are really much more capable than boys at that age of sitting still and filling out worksheets, and who consequently win much of the praise). We could be more patient with his "boyish" learning style and also readier to move on when he mastered something. There were other issues peculiar to our local school and I would never insist that all public schools resemble it.

But I will say this: my wife and I (for better and, yes, sometimes for worse) have more "quality time" with our kids than do most of our peers. We are much more influential in their lives than we would be if they were in school 35-40 hours a week for the equivalent of eight months a year. That’s the decisive consideration for us. We control the curriculum and pursue questions and lines of inquiry that would be verboten in public schools, or we can deal with issues with a greater level of sophistication than could the average public school teacher. (No disrespect intended, but we are both college professors, and we can abandon a lesson plan at the drop of a hat to pursue matters further.)

I am not in any way claiming that our experience is normal or normative. There are at least some folks who might be home-schooling for the wrong reasons and others who aren’t suited for it temperamentally or intellectually. So, yes, there are the kind of horror stories you see on TV or read in the newspapers. And, yes, some children come out of home school appallingly ignorant. But some kids come out of public school appallingly ignorant as well.

A few thoughts from a history teacher considering home-schooling my two little ones in a few years. I would care to address the issue of socialization.

1. Joe has shown that home-schooled kids, just like all kids, have activities in which they make friends with other children.

2. Public schools artificially group kids by age, whereas for thousands of years, children interacted and socialized with a wide variety of ages from child to grandparents. Thus, they taught younger people what they knew and learned from wiser older people as part of the extended family, tribe, or community.

3. Consider WHAT kids in public schools are being socialized in: the secular, consumer culture of music, movies, and television that adults probably shouldn’t be watching. They are socialized in sex, drugs, and drinking. They live in physical fear or fear of being stigmatized for superficial reasons such as wearing uncool clothes.

Rather than "shelter" them, one of the reasons that I want to home school my children is to teach them the character and virtue to counter such things that consume Americans’ spirits and right living. One message at home and a different one at school will seek to confuse them and the wrong one may win during a critical stage in their life.

I disagree with Lori, whom I know, I have abandoned any hope in the public schools long ago.

INTERESTED PARENTS wrote: "Also, we’re concerned that if our kids don’t have the social experiences of "regular" school, that they might have difficulties socializing later on in life. I don’t know..."

COMMENT: "Social experience" is a problem for public education systems, not home school. We (home school veterans and parents of a 4.0 college student)call the “social experience” of people in the public education system “social retardation”. We notice it takes about two years after graduation for most graduates to interact with adults the way home school children can. It may take longer.

Public schools provide a false environment that has no consistent justice system while peer pressure is constant. Social interaction exists within its own realm, separate from law and society, providing an "extra societal experience". Home school if you want to avoid social retardation in your children.


Tony, you are right that I wouldn’t agree with you. While I think that homeschooling can benefit some children, I think that too many Christian families think that it is the only way to raise a Christian child. I don’t think that sending them to a public school would confus them and make them choose wrong. I think that too often, parent think that when children enter high school their children need less guidance and they back off, letting their child get into more trouble. For example, look at Parent Teacher night...the elementary classrooms are swamped with parents...nearly every parent attends. In junior high, I typically see about 30 parents (out of 120 students). By 12th grade, only 1 or 2 parents typically show up. Parents need to be more active in what their children are doing...not simply blaming teachers for what is wrong.

I also disagree with George’s comment about homeschooled children being able to associate with adults better than public schooled children. I find the opposite to actually be true. Teaching seventh grade, I see at least one homeschooled student entering the public school system every year. These students tend to be much more introverted than the typical 12 year old. And, while they may have basic academic concepts down pat, they tend to lack group discussion techniques that most children in our school system master in 5th and 6th grade.

I am not completely against homeschooling. I just wonder how someone can claim to be an expert on every subject. I consider myself an educated person, but I don’t think that I have enough knowledge to properly train my child for success in the real world. There is no way that I could teach my child physics or calculus. How can a person who is trained in one field, say business or science, teach everything to their child adequately? That is where my biggest contention against homeschooling lies. Being in a rural area, I see too many parents with nothing more than a high school diplomia homeschooling their children and touting that they can do a better job of teaching their child history than I could. Then, these students have to take the state assessment tests and their grades get lumped in with our public school grades and guess who gets in trouble if these homeschooled kids scores are low (and in our area they usually are), the public school teachers who bust our butts every day to give these students what they need. The simple fact that homeschooling has no regulations, makes it more likely to be abused.
Please don’t blame the schools...society is more to blame than the schools. Teacher’s are not out their to hurt your children morally or educationally. Believe it or not, most of us actually went into education because we believe in kids and we care about them.

Two points, Lori. You have legitimate concerns the most important of which is that homeschooling, just like public schools, can be done very poorly. Parents that teach their kids poorly or who fail to get their children involved in activities are not doing a great job. But . . .

Homeschooling parents need to educate themselves in topics and can learn alongside their children. Lincoln studies Euclid while a Congressman to train his mind logically in mathematics and parents can too. Since the Progressive Era, we’ve abdicated control over many aspects of our lives, including education, to experts. Moreover, I would take issue with the fact that our education departments in universities are producing "experts" in their topics - way too often, they’re not.

Be careful about how much you blame society and relieve the schools of moral responsibility and hurting and confusing students. The insidious relativism, values clarification programs, secularism/anti-religion, etc., that is being promoted in most schools can certainly harm children as well as society. They teach students that one’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s and that there is no truth. You or other individual teachers may not do this, but the institutions of public schooling promote this world-view.

Good parents should be deeply involved in the moral and intellectual and social development of their children whether schooling them by the public or in the home - we can agree on that.

Joseph Knippenberg said "...we can deal with issues with a greater level of sophistication than could the average public school teacher. (No disrespect intended, but we ARE both college professors..."

Well, la-dee-dah! Just TRY to imagine how outraged NLT bloggers and readers would be if some liberal or leftist professor (the same ones that dominate the academy with an iron fist) had uttered these words. Surely it would be another example of arrogant, condescending, out-of-touch liberal elitism - par for the course in blue-voting states, right?. Also, the little "no disrespect intended" disclaimer doesn’t really assuage the disrespect demonstrated by your words.

The right is hard at work to privatize and/or Christianize (usu. within a rather narrow conception of the Christian faith) the public schools. I suspect that the progress has not been fast enough for some, and many of these angry parents decide to home-school. What would surely be considered pure propagandizing, social & political indoctrination, and brainwashing were it practiced by liberal or left-leaning parents who yanked their kids out of public schools is, when practiced by the right, a righteous and common-sense desire to be "more influential" to their children and instill moral values -who could object??- that only conservatives (esp. Republican-voting ones!), apparently, can be arbiters of:

"We control the curriculum and pursue questions and lines of inquiry that would be verboten in public schools"

Very well, then.

Mr. Pearce,

The student-teacher ratio in my "home school" is 2:1. I’ve been teaching since 1979, my wife since 1990. I’m fairly confident that one or the other of us can figure out virtually anything we have to handle until we get to high school science, when we’ll probably have to supplement our efforts with those of tutors or other credentialed and/or experienced home school parents.

Please note that, while I am a theologically conservative Christian, I have no desire to impose my beliefs on anyone by monopolizing an educational system. Nor, for that matter, do I wish simply to dismantle the public education system. It works reasonably well for some people in some settings. I do think parents have the primary and ultimate responsibility for the education and well-being of their children, which means I do think that that they should decide how their children should be educated (bearing in mind, of course, that we all have a responsibility to prepare our children for citizenship in a democratic republic). These considerations lead me to favor a rather capacious pluralism in approaches to elementary and secondary education, i.e., state-subsidized school choice.

I used to worry more about preparation for citizenship than I do now. The decline in my worry doesn’t follow from my indifference to the requisites for citizenship--I take republican (please note the small "r") self-government very seriously--but rather from the decline in my confidence in the public schools as schools of citizenship. We haven’t done a very good job in real civic education in the public schools. While it’s possible for home school parents to do worse than the public schools in cultivating public-spiritedness, toleration, and self-reliance (among other virtues) in their children, most of the home schoolers I have encountered are not lacking in those virtues. Indeed, many of them know a good deal more about history, philosophy, and the principles of government than do many of their publicly-educated counterparts. Of course, I recognize the limits of my experience and would love to see any "hard data" on the subject.

Last point: one thing my wife and I both learned to do in graduate school was to conduct research in primary sources. Our kids are a little too young for that (except with respect to the little science demonstrations we do), but when I said we don’t have to stick rigidly to the lesson plans, what I meant was this: (1) We both the freedom and the ability to pursue matters beyond the textbook material. The advantage we have over public school teachers in this regard is that we have fewer restrictions on how we spend our time with our kids. (2) If we get interested in something in a way that goes beyond our curriculum, we as a couple have a very deep reservoir of knowledge, a well-trained capacity to learn by research, and a campus full of colleagues willing to help us answer our dumb questions. I frankly think that all of those things are nice resources for my kids. (I should note that I haven’t been miserly with them: I have spoken to public school classes and tutored kids as well. My experience of home schooling, limited though it may be, suggests an awful lot of mutual parental assistance.)

The very phrase "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is a lie, typical of the dishonesty of the "Christian right" -- "Moralistic" sounds like it's not really moral, as though fairness and being good to others were immoral (maybe they are to the fundies); and the key elements of "Deism" are belief in God based on reason, and rejection of revelational claims and other signs of interference from that God. Nothing of the sort is claimed for "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," which is therefore nothing but an unfair and dishonest smear campaign against true deism and its intellectual objections to fantasy religions.

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