Today, we are going to explore a cousin of expressive individualism called therapeutic deism. This refers to a religious worldview in which God is a master therapist, helping us feel happy about ourselves and our lives. In this worldview, love is incompatible with moral judgment, and for this reason, moral judgment is treated as a failure to love.

Therapeutic deism can be contrasted with divine love as described in the scriptures: God cares how we live our lives, and weeps when we commit sin, because He loves us. In this worldview, indifference towards how others live is not love. God’s redeeming love cannot be indifferent to our sins, nor can our love be indifferent to the sins of others.

The hidden worldview: Therapeutic deism

God is a cosmic therapist whose love is characterized by indifference to our choices.

“Therapeutic”, in this context, refers to the practice of making oneself feel good, and “deism” refers to a belief in a God who cares less about the details of our lives (in contrast to theism, a belief in God who cares about and is intimately involved in the details of the world). Therapeutic deism is a worldview that melds our understanding of God with humanistic psychotherapy. As with expressive individualism, it may be helpful to explore the work of the psychologist Carl Rogers. (And it may be helpful to review the article on expressive individualism.)

Rogers claimed that because of the cultural and social expectations of others, we frequently hide behind facades for fear of showing our true selves to the world. Whenever we sense that we might be evaluated by others, we retreat behind these facades, and project an idealized image of ourselves designed to meet the expectations of those around us. Rogers argued that these “facades” were the root of most human unhappiness, anxiety, and mental illness.

Rogers argued that the best way for a therapist to respond to this innate anxiety is offer what he called, “unconditional positive regard.” This means that the therapist creates an environment free of judgment of any kind, either positive or negative. Positive judgment implies that the person is doing what they should, and negative judgment implies that they are doing what they should not. Both postive and negative evaluation involve “shoulds”, which are exactly the problem. Unconditional positive regard is an environment free of all “oughts,” regardless of whether we comply with them.

This is a valuable technique in a therapeutic context, since therapists are often trying to build a relationship of trust with clients who are reluctant to share aspects of their lives for fear of judgment. So it is unsurprising that it is now treated as standard practice in therapy. However, Carl Rogers was describing more than merely earning the trust of clients. He believed that institutions (such as churches or families) that make people feel bad for living certain ways contirbute to these problems. He hoped people would form communities where unconditional positive regard is widely practiced. Only then can people truly live authentic lives and become their “true” selves.

Interestingly, Roger’s theory was translated into popular literature as “unconditional love,” where “love” replaced the term “positive regard.” The term “unconditional love” was rarely used before the 1960s, when Rogers developed his theory. Google provides a nifty tool called an “n-gram” analysis, which analyzes the number of times a word or phrase is used in published literature in a given year (in proportion to the total amount of words published). If we look up the term “unconditional love,” it shows near zero usage prior to the 1960s (when Carl Rogers published his research). The usage of the term “unconditional love” then skyrockets afterwards.

Because of historical connection between “unconditional love” and “unconditional positive regard,” the phrase “unconditional love” carries a lot of hidden baggage. It is often seen as incompatible with norms or moral teachings that imply that individuals ought to live differently than they do. This has filtered into modern culture. Today, when often assume that when we love someone, we cannot (or must not) judge their lifestyles. We have come to see judgment as antithetical to love.

In fact, this “unconditional love” has now become bundled with our image of God. Because we believe that God — in his everlasting love for His children — condescends to suffer for and redeem even the most vile sinners among us, we often call his love “unconditional.” But over time, our understanding of what this means has been bundled up with Rogerian thinking. Today, many now think that a loving God wouldn’t want people to feel bad for committing a variety of sins.  As Christian Smith, the sociologist who first wrote extensively about this idea, noted: “This God is not demanding.  He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good . . . he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”[1]

It should be noted that many who adopt this view do not see themselves as doing so. Of course people should not steal from each other, lie, or commit violence against others, they argue, and of course they should feel bad when they do. That is because therapeutic deism is often bundled with a view we call moralism, a perspective that argues that God only expects us to follow basic standards of decent conduct (such as honesty, non-violence, and mutual respect).

Some scholars refer to therapeutic deism (and its sibling, moralism) as a “new American religion.” In this view, God is something like a Cosmic Therapist, whose purpose is to help us feel happy about ourselves and our lives. Unconditional love is seen as God’s only important characteristic. They refer to this as the “new” American religion, because they recognize that, at its core, it is fundamentally different from the Christianity of old, with a wholly different view of God and what He asks of His children. As Smith has written: “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, or steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera. Rather [it] is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.”[2]

The alternative: Divine love

God’s love is not indifferent to our choices, but rather chastens and corrects us as needed.

This understanding of God and love stands in stark contrast with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob described in scripture. As one author writes: “The God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks, not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness, and calls for sacrificial love, not benign whatever-ism.”[3] Because of His perfect, infinite love for us, the God of Israel gives us commandments to follow, and he cares deeply whether we do. Paul taught, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” The Lord further told John, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19). Joseph Smith taught:

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.[4]

This sort of love is a far cry from the unconditional positive regard of therapeutic deism and expressive individualism. When we genuinely love others, we don’t become indifferent to their sins and shortcomings. We feel joy when others change their lives for the better, and sorrow when they alienate themselves from God. From the perspective of an expressive individualist, a loving mother will refuse to judge the sexual indiscretions of her adult children. But for a Christian, the mother who weeps when her children commit serious sin is the one who truly loves them. In this view, love is not indifference, and indifference is not love.

To understand the difference between the faux-love of therapeutic deism, and divine love of scripture, we must distinguish between moral judgment and self-righteous judgmentalism. As we get to know and love others, we will recognize when they are living in ways that will distance them from God. But this does not necessarily lead to self-righteous judgmentalism. We engage in self-righteous judgmentalism when we begin to believe that we are superior to others because of their sins, or that it is our unique duty to make them feel bad for their lifestyle. That attitude is sinful, and we must eliminate it from our hearts and lives. But this does not mean that we eliminate moral judgment altogether.

From a Christian worldview, we should be patient with others, refrain from needless criticism, and help those who wander feel wanted and valued within our congregations. God is patient with us, and so we should be patient with others. In His infinite mercy, He graciously forgives us a host of failings — and so too should we be willing to forgive the failings of others. We should create a community where God’s abiding love is unmistakable — a bonfire of redeeming love that warms those who have felt alienated from God. We should see the Church as a hospital for sinners, not a playground only for the righteous. And so those who sin should feel welcomed, loved, and wanted. And any time we falter in this regards, we should take corrective action.

But compassion for those mired in sin does not overlook sin — it recognizes it for precisely what it is. We cannot see the Church as a hospital for sinners if we do not see sin as a sickness that needs treatment. And seeing sin as a sickness that needs treatment implies that there are ways that we should be living but aren’t, standards that we often fail to live up to (and should feel bad at times for it). It implies a capacity for moral judgment. In other words, this assumption carries with it all the oughts and shoulds that Carl Rogers wanted to sterilize from therapy, from schools, and from families. And this includes “oughts” and “shoulds” that are unique to our covenant community.

Let’s use a specific example to illustrate. Moralistic therapeutic deism holds that if two of our friends announce their divorce, we should decline to make any judgment whatsoever of their decision, especially if it is mutual, amicable, and consensual. Anything else is treated as a lack of compassion and a failure to love. However, from the Christian perspective, if we truly love our friends, we might be deeply saddened by their choice to break their covenants with God, and for the myriads of choices along the way that led to that decision (or necessitated it). We should refuse to see ourselves as morally superior to them, because that would be self-righteous judgmentalism. Further, courtesy and compassion dictate that we do not engage in mean-spirited gossip or criticism. But we might still see the dissolution of the marriage as a tragedy, and mourn for the violation of covenant it represents.

Further, we should recognize that in a covenant community, traditions and norms help structure our expectations of each other, and can reinforce God’s expectations of us. Dismantling these norms in the name of “unconditional love” might not actually be love at all, but might merely institutionalize the indifference of therapeutic deism. We must teach in word and deed that God loves everyone, no matter how far we have wandered. But we must not teach that God does not care about our wandering. It is precisely because God loves us that He wants to draw us back onto the straight and narrow path that leads us to Eternal Life. As Elder Holland has astutely noted:

Sadly enough, my young friends, it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.

Talk about man creating God in his own image! Sometimes—and this seems the greatest irony of all—these folks invoke the name of Jesus as one who was this kind of “comfortable” God. Really? He who said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like “comfortable” doctrine, easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in? …

Christlike love is the greatest need we have on this planet in part because righteousness was always supposed to accompany it. So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be, then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others. Jesus clearly understood what many in our modern culture seem to forget: that there is a crucial difference between the commandment to forgive sin (which He had an infinite capacity to do) and the warning against condoning it (which He never ever did even once).[5]

In other words, therapeutic deism — which, again, refers to a belief in a God who cares most that we are happy with ourselves, and not feel too bad for the bad things we do — is a fundamentally different faith than the Christianity of the New Testament or of the Book of Mormon. And for that reason, we might be cautious when using the terms and rhetoric of this new religion. This is why President Russell M. Nelson and Elder Todd D. Christofferson (of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) have both cautioned against using the term “unconditional love” in reference to God. Elder Christofferson explains:

There are many ways to describe and speak of divine love. One of the terms we hear often today is that God’s love is “unconditional.” While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture. Rather, His love is described in scripture as “great and wonderful love,” “perfect love,” “redeeming love,” and “everlasting love.” These are better terms because the word unconditional can convey mistaken impressions about divine love, such as, God tolerates and excuses anything we do because His love is unconditional, or God makes no demands upon us because His love is unconditional, or all are saved in the heavenly kingdom of God because His love is unconditional. God’s love is infinite and it will endure forever, but what it means for each of us depends on how we respond to His love.[6]

Each of these terms implies that God loves sinners, even the worst among us. But they do not Rogerian baggage that His love is indifferent to our sin. In fact, terms like “redeeming love” imply that we have sins to be redeemed of, and that He, in His infinite love, is willing work with us to make us into new creatures in Him.

References   [ + ]

1. Smith, Christian, and Melina Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2009.
2. Smith, Christian, and Melina Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2009.
3. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christ: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (2010), 17.
4. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 257.
5. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Cost and Blessings of Discipleship,” Ensign, May 2014.
6. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, “Abide in My Love,” Ensign, November 2016.