A friend of mine was recently summoned to appear in District Court. She asked me to go with her. It was instructive. I witnessed several head-on collisions with reality.
Last week we looked at Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the three categories that define reality—and faith—for most millennials. Moralistic is feeling good about yourself—no judging. Therapeutic is about comfort, not confession. God will forgive—that’s his job. Deistic is worshipping a tailor-made God.
These categories are not unique to American Christianity. They pretty much define American culture. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when a friend asked me to sit with her in District Court in Annapolis. I had never been there.
I immediately noticed the District Court is like a Religious Order, perhaps the last remaining order in American society. I don’t think that’s a stretch. The US legal system is based on religion. Sir William Blackstone, the great 18th century English legal scholar, taught that man is created by God and granted fundamental rights by God. Our Founding Fathers referred to Blackstone more than to any other English or American authority. His Commentaries on the Laws of England created the basic categories for the US Constitution, codifying three branches of government—a legislature, a judiciary, and an executive. District Court operates like a Religious Order.
Like every Religious Order, the court is about reordering society’s disorders. Take Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In court, there is a judge. The day I visited, the judge was she—and sharp. There was no moralistic “we can’t judge” nonsense. She judged. She was God—not a tailor-made “I’m sure she will empathize with why I shoplifted” deity.
District Court isn’t very comfortable either. The focus is on justice, not therapy. The judge is addressed as Your Honor. No one used inappropriately familiar language like, “Hey judge” (I’m thinking of how often I hear Christians describe God as “the man upstairs”). Every appeal to the judge was prefaced with: “We respectfully request.”
This made for a few head-on collisions with reality. Not fun to watch. Most folks summoned to court have had a hard life. Homeless. Unemployed. Some feel ripped off by the system, entitled to a break. They’ve grown up in a moralistic therapeutic world. Then they break the law and are summoned to court. Here’s one exchange between the judge and a man who ignored the previous court summons.
Judge: “You twice didn’t respond to the court summons.”
Accused: “I felt like I did.”
Judge: “You didn’t.”
He went to jail. Others, if they showed a degree of remorse, got probation.
I realized I was watching a scene straight out of the future judgment of believers. Yes, believers. The Apostle Paul wrote: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Cor.5:10).
We don’t hear much about this judgment in a Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic world. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, however. I was reminded of this when a court-appointed lawyer was careless in addressing the judge. She upbraided him. He snapped to attention—the same response I bet Jesus is looking for when he warns “you will give an account for every careless word you speak” (Mt. 12:36).
I also saw how probation is very much like purgatory. A young woman, a college student, was charged with shoplifting. Appearing in Court snapped her to attention. She was crying, shaking. The judge noticed. Showing mercy while upholding truth, the judge gave her one-year probation. It was to purge the woman’s record, to clear it.
I’m not Roman Catholic but I remember Jesus repeatedly warning us about being unprepared as his bride. At the wedding banquet, the unprepared are cast aside. Not entirely sure what that means, but probation sure looks like purgatory—purging what we didn’t purge in this life so that we’re prepared—eager—to be wed to Jesus.
Mark Twain noted that the essence of education is what is unlearned. Coming to faith is only the beginning of being undeceived of the false categories that guide our lives. They have to be purged. You can do it now or later, on judgment day. Purge now, and you’re a prepared bride, equally yoked to Jesus, our groom. Purge later and face a head-on collision with reality. If you’re a Christian, you don’t want that.
I recognize realities like believer judgment are largely unknown today or feel rather abstract. If that’s the case for you, spend a morning in District Court. It’s perhaps one of our last Religious Orders. It might grab your attention. It did mine. It might make you consider whether new Orders are the best way forward in our scattergories age.
 Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005)