The Constitution vs. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as Civil Religion

By: April 28, 2011

Most tea partiers view the Constitution as a secular covenant whose terms the citizens and institutions in our republic are bound to honor.  As Professor Randy Barnett argued in his 2004 classic, Restoring the Lost Constitution, we observe the meaning of the words in that document, as they were written. We are “originalists” and consider proponents of “a living constitution” to be usurpers of that original intent.

A more modern variation of the “living constitution” school was presented in a 2009 New Republic article by Damon Linker, who argued that “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which he called “theologically insipid,” is perfectly suited to become our new civil religion. In effect, Linker called for this philosophy to replace the Constitutionalism to which the Tea Party movement and the rest of America adheres.

The term itself was first introduced in the  2005  University of North Carolina study of religious faith among young Christians. In it, the authors described “moralistic therapeutic deism” as a philosophy consisting of beliefs like these:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

A civil religion based on such a theological philosophy, unlike a Constitutionalist approach, is certain to be subject to changing popular opinions about the need for governmental action to be “good, nice, and fair.” Little wonder that  proponents of social justice and redistribution of wealth sound like proponents of this civil religion.

A Voices of the Tea Party e-book that compares and contrasts these two different views of American governance, especially focusing on the impact they will have on future elections, would be most enlightening.

Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series, co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, and the author of an upcoming book on the ideological origins of the Tea Party movement. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .



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