How Americans view God
Americans have vastly different conceptions of the role that God plays in their lives, Baylor University sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader write in their book “America’s Four Gods.” But there is a powerful force for civility at the core of nearly all Americans’ faith life: love.
March 1, 2011 | Editor’s note: This article originally appeared as an Ahead of the Trend column on the Association of Religion Data Archives' website.
Janet awoke in a hospital room after her second suicide attempt to the sense that “God was finally with me that night.” She entered a drug recovery program and became a nurse to care for others.
Jeremy’s moment of divine grace occurred during a long prison term, when in singing an old hymn he experienced God accepting his heartfelt remorse for his sins. It is God still, he believes, who is keeping him on the road toward redemption.
Many popular commentators try to box religious Americans into simple groups of polar opposites. But the stories of people like Janet and Jeremy and the great majority of other religious Americans just don’t fit.
Their experiences of God shape their lives in more powerful ways than terms such as liberal and conservative, or even Protestant and Jew, two prominent sociologists maintain in a new book.
In “America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God & What That Says About Us,” Baylor University scholars Paul Froese and Christopher Bader find that how people view God is one of the strongest predictors of a range of social and moral attitudes.
The good news, Froese and Bader report, is that for all the attention paid to the radical few who would burn Qurans or disrupt funerals with anti-gay hatred, there is a powerful force for civility at the core of nearly all Americans’ faith life: love, sweet love.
Taking data from the Baylor Religion Survey, other national studies and interviews with people such as Janet and Jeremy, Froese and Bader point out that Americans almost universally view God as a loving parent. The desire to emulate God’s love moderates religious disagreements among the great majority of Americans.
“Love is maybe the commonality that can help perpetuate civil society,” Froese said.
America’s ideas of God
Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in God. But they have vastly different conceptions of the divine and the role God plays in their daily lives.
Froese and Bader divide these images into four basic concepts:
- The Authoritative God: God is like a literal father, both engaged as a positive force in the world and a judge of the behaviors of humankind. Suffering can be the result of social and individual sins.
- The Benevolent God: God is mainly a force for good in the world, a being who answers the prayers of individuals and comforts the suffering.
- The Critical God: God is less likely to be concerned with moments in the lives of individuals, but will mete out judgments in the next life. This is a popular image among the poor and oppressed, the authors state.
- The Distant God: God is a cosmic force that sets the laws of nature in motion, but does not get involved in day-to-day events or movements.
Find out a person’s image of God, Froese and Bader said, and you can tell far more about that person than knowing the individual’s religious group or the house of worship he or she attends.
So a Catholic or an Episcopalian who believes in an authoritative God would be much more likely to oppose legal abortion and believe that the success of the United States is part of God’s plan than an evangelical who believes in a critical God.
At the same time, a Jewish person or United Methodist who believes in a benevolent God would be more likely to say government should have greater powers to combat terrorism or that creationism should be taught in schools than a Southern Baptist who believes in a distant God.
In separating people based on their images of God, Froese and Bader found that significant numbers of people in all denominations could be found in each of the groups. Catholics and mainline Protestants were just about equally divided among the four categories.
“Our image of God is never simply a reflection of the beliefs of our religious community,” Froese and Bader write. “The traditional method of classifying people as Catholics or Baptists or Jews tells us little of consequence about what they believe.”
Forget about Glenn Beck and Richard Dawkins.
Froese and Bader bring an academic’s appreciation of complexity to debates often cast in black-and-white dichotomies, finding substantial areas of consensus among the real differences on moral and public policy issues.
“We hope this ends up being a way people can further understand each other,” said Bader, who is also associate director of the Association of Religion Data Archives. “A lot of our labels don’t really work.”