Mr.Smith describes this 'religion' (which he's careful to point out is not a religion any one teenager would every claim as his own, but is rather Smith's term for what he uncovered) as having five characteristics. To paraphrase: 1) there is a God who created the world and watches over it, 2) God wants people to be good, 3) the goal of life is to be happy, 4) God isn't involved in one's life and isn't usually called upon unless there's a problem, and 5) good people go to heaven when they die.
As Smith himself points out by the end of the article, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD for purposes of this blog) can be said to describe not only the spiritual lives of American teenagers but the spiritual lives of any number of adult Americans who have
passed on their particular brand of sketchy Judeo-Christianity to the next generation. "The religion and spirituality of most teenagers actually strike us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations and structures of the larger adult world into which adolescents are being socialized."
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a little bit like a new word that enters a language. For a time the word hangs on to its history and everyone knows where it came from so to speak. (So for us ancient types, we know that the word 'xerox' evolved as a verb meaning 'to copy by machine' because there was a company Xerox that invented the machine.) But after a time, the word's history becomes only so much baggage and falls away. The word becomes just another word to its new generation of users. Its original meaning may even change completely and end up as an archaism studied only by fuddy-duddies interested in ancient history.
The MTD faithful know a little bit about the history of their 'word.' They know there's a Bible, sort of. They know there's an all-powerful God, kind of, and they know there's something good about being good, for some reason. But the whys and wherefores of their new religion are history, only so much baggage that has fallen away, no longer of interest for its new generation of users. Words coming and going and changing meaning along the way is one thing. Language has to behave that way to serve the needs of its speakers who use it as a tool. Moral teaching isn't supposed to behave that way. It's foundational, true at once and for all time and it changes its users who use it as a guide and model.
Though perhaps unbeknownst to the Therapeutic Deists, the Judeo-Christian bedrock is still there underneath all their feel-good add-ons. As Smith writes, "It [Moralistic Therapeutic Deism] cannot sustain its own integral, independent life. Rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image. "
If the MTDers were to take a look at the source of their mutated religion, they might see how much more sense the real thing makes and how much more they might gain by believing in the whole truth rather than the bowdlerized fairy tale version.