Moralistic Therapeutic Deism… Minus Moralistic
Sociologist Christian Smith famously coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the predicament of religion in America today. Smith’s term means that most Americans believe in a creator God in some sense (deism), and believe that they are supposed to be “good people” (moralism), and that the central goal of life is to be happy (therapeutic).1 Particularly among the younger generation and even among professing Christians, these are the core driving beliefs many people hold.2 There are several problems with moralistic therapeutic deism, not least of which is that it is a lukewarm faith (Revelation 3:15-16).
Mescudi’s music resembles the definition of moralistic therapeutic deism through his frequent reference to God and constant themes of seeking instant gratification. Yet, as tepid as moralistic therapeutic deism is to start with, Mescudi’s spirituality seems to drop “moralistic” in any significant sense, leaving only therapeutic deism. Mescudi’s own view appears to be that the main goal in life is to be happy (and therefore God’s goal is to make us happy), but that he doesn’t in any meaningful sense have moral obligations. Mescudi’s popularity perhaps indicates that many people believe in God in this same way: he exists, but he exists for our happiness and we aren’t saddled with any reciprocal moral responsibilities.
Mescudi’s lyrics reveal the therapeutic deistic mentality in several ways. Mescudi practically uses his deism as an excuse to avoid moral responsibility: he sings, “I’m just what you made God… I’ma go my own way God”,3 implying that whatever he does is because of the way God made him. The idea of an objective moral standard seems to be foreign to Mescudi; in one song he sings, “Ain’t no such thing as Satan, evil’s what you make it.”4 He leans into the “therapeutic” part of therapeutic deism on the song “Pursuit of Happiness,” and “She Knows This,” which are tableaus of seeking pleasure through drugs, alcohol, and sex. The themes of deism and hedonistic pursuit of pleasure consistently emerge in Mescudi’s music, but it’s never made clear what the relationship is between happiness and belief in God.
The Pursuit of God and the Pursuit of Happiness
In Mescudi’s lyrics, the idea of happiness is central. His approach to happiness is to look for it in immediate, physical pleasures, but that doesn’t mean that he thinks he can really find happiness there. “Pursuit of Happiness” is subtitled “Nightmare,” pointing to the nightmarish experiences Mescudi creates for himself in his headlong pursuit of satisfaction through drugs and alcohol. In the chorus he repeats, “I’m on the pursuit of happiness, and I know everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold,”5 because he recognizes that all things that seem appealing and pleasurable are not going to truly satisfy. In the outro to the song, we hear him in a cracked, moaning voice, say, “Oh my God, why did I drink so much and smoke so much?”6
Mescudi’s lyrics show that he is seeking happiness, which is what all people seek. What he misses is the connection between happiness and God. Many Christians also fail to make the connection between God and happiness—often for the opposite reason: Christians sometimes believe that there is no significant connection between God and happiness because God only cares about our holiness, not our happiness. What Mescudi misses is that the truest, best, and longest-lasting happiness comes from pursuing God. The choice between happiness and holiness is a false choice: happiness in its fullest form comes only when we pursue God’s holiness. It seems natural for us to expect to find happiness through pursuing our own (sinful) desires, but the greatest and truest happiness comes when we align our desires with God’s desires (Psalm 1, NRSV). As Randy Alcorn puts it, “forcing a choice between happiness and holiness is utterly foreign to Scripture.”7 Pursuing God first, pursuing holiness above—but not instead of—happiness, allows us the opportunity to pursue our deep desires for both happiness and meaning (Proverbs 8, NRSV).
Mescudi’s songs make it seem like he knows that how he is pursuing happiness is leading him more into a nightmare than into happiness, but also that he has no clear idea of how he should pursue happiness. Rather than having God as a background presence as he (Mescudi) throws himself headlong after the immediately apparent pleasures of life, if he were to realize that “since God’s nature is to be happy… the more like him we become in our sanctification, the happier we will be,”8 he might be able to find a way out of his calamitous pursuit of happiness.
Therapeutic deists and strictly moral Christians are both liable to make the mistake of separating our holiness from our happiness, our search for meaning from our search for satisfaction. But the God of Christianity is too great and too good for happiness and holiness to be separated.
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