Americans’ views of God shape attitudes on key issues

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY 

If you pray to God, to whom — or what — are you praying?  When you sing God Bless America, whose blessing are you seeking?  In the USA, God — or the idea of a God — permeates daily life. Our views of God have been fundamental to the nation’s past, help explain many of the conflicts in our society and worldwide, and could offer a hint of what the future holds. Is God by our side, or beyond the stars? Wrathful or forgiving? Judging us every moment, someday or never?  

Surveys say about nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, but the way we picture that God reveals our attitudes on economics, justice, social morality, war, natural disasters, science, politics, love and more, say Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, sociologists at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Their new book, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us, examines our diverse visions of the Almighty and why they matter.

Based primarily on national telephone surveys of 1,648 U.S. adults in 2008 and 1,721 in 2006, the book also draws from more than 200 in-depth interviews that, among other things, asked people to respond to a dozen evocative images, such as a wrathful old man slamming the Earth, a loving father’s embrace, an accusatory face or a starry universe. 

Researchers from the USA to Malawi are picking up on the unique Baylor questionnaire, and its implications. When the Gallup World Poll used several of the God-view questions, Bader says, “one clear finding is that the USA — where images of a personal God engaged in our lives dominate — is an outlier in the world of technologically advanced nations such as (those in) Europe.” There, the view is almost entirely one of a Big Bang sort of God who launched creation and left it spinning rather than a God who has a direct influence on daily events. 

Froese points out: “You can’t really ask people directly about their moral and philosophical worldview. But if you know their image of God, it could give you insight into why they get upset when you break the rules, or you stand up for a certain politician. Or, how they will react when bad things happen or whether they see personal morality or foreign policy in stark right-or-wrong terms.” 

Four views of God  

Froese and Bader’s research wound up defining four ways in which Americans see God: 

•The Authoritative God. When conservatives Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck proclaim that America will lose God’s favor unless we get right with him, they’re rallying believers in what Froese and Bader call an Authoritative God, one engaged in history and meting out harsh punishment to those who do not follow him. About 28% of the nation shares this view, according to Baylor’s 2008 findings. 

“They divide the world by good and evil and appeal to people who are worried, concerned and scared,” Froese says. “They respond to a powerful God guiding this country, and if we don’t explicitly talk about (that) God, then we have the wrong God or no God at all.” 

•The Benevolent God. When President Obama says he is driven to live out his Christian faith in public service, or political satirist Stephen Colbert mentions God while testifying to Congress in favor of changing immigration laws, they’re speaking of what the Baylor researchers call a Benevolent God. This God is engaged in our world and loves and supports us in caring for others, a vision shared by 22% of Americans, according to Baylor’s findings.

“Rhetoric that talks about the righteous vs. the heathen doesn’t appeal to them,” Froese says. “Their God is a force for good who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all.” 

Asked about the Baylor findings, Philip Yancey, author of What Good Is God?, says he moved from the Authoritative God of his youth — “a scowling, super-policeman in the sky, waiting to smash someone having a good time” — to a “God like a doctor who has my best interest at heart, even if sometimes I don’t like his diagnosis or prescriptions.” 

•The Critical God. The poor, the suffering and the exploited in this world often believe in a Critical God who keeps an eye on this world but delivers justice in the next, Bader says.  Bader says this view of God — held by 21% of Americans — was reflected in a sermon at a working-class neighborhood church the researchers visited in Rifle, Colo., in 2008. Pastor Del Whittington’s theme at Open Door Church was ” ‘Wait until heaven, and accounts will be settled.’ ” 

Bader says Whittington described how ” ‘our cars that are breaking down here will be chariots in heaven. Our empty bank accounts will be storehouses with the Lord.’ “ 

•The Distant God. Though about 5% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, Baylor found that nearly one in four (24%) see a Distant God that booted up the universe, then left humanity alone. 

This doesn’t mean that such people have no religion. It’s the dominant view of Jews and other followers of world religions and philosophies such as Buddhism or Hinduism, the Baylor research finds.  Rabbi Jamie Korngold of Boulder, Colo., took Baylor’s God quiz and clicked with the Distant God view “that gives me more personal responsibility. There’s no one that can fix things if I mess them up. God’s not telling me what I should do,” says Korngold. Her upcoming book, God Envy: A Rabbi’s Confession, is subtitled, A Book for People Who Don’t Believe God Can Intervene in Their Lives and Why Judaism Is Still Important. 

Others who cite a Distant God identify more with the spiritual and speak of the unknowable God behind the creation of rainbows, mountains or elegant mathematical theorems, the Baylor writers found. 

This distant view is nothing new. Benjamin Franklin once wrote that he could not imagine that a “Supremely Perfect” God cares a whit for “such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man.”

The Baylor researchers’ four views of God reveal a richness that denominational labels often don’t capture. They found that Catholics and mainline Protestants are about evenly divided among all four views, leaning slightly toward a Benevolent God. More than half of white evangelicals identify with an Authoritative God; that view is shared by more than seven in 10 black evangelicals, they said.

 How we see daily life and world events…..  Continue reading at:  USA Today

Read more of this article and others by Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today

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