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Thursday, November 25, 2010

America's Four Gods

Some of you may be aware of the new book by Paul Froese and Chris Bader, America's Four Gods, in which they argue that Americans picture God in four basic ways, and the way that we picture God is largely predictive of what we believe, value and do. These four understandings of God reflect the intersection of two distinct dimensions: (1) the degree to which we believe that God is engaged with the world and (2) the degree to which we believe God is judgmental:
  • 31% of Americans believe in a God who is engaged with the world and judgmental -- Bader and Froese refer to this God as the Authoritative God. 
  • 24% of Americans believe in a God who is engaged with the world but is nonjudgmental -- they refer to this God as the Benevolent God. 
  • 16% of Americans believe in a God who is judgmental but is not engaged in the world -- they refer to this God as the Critical God. 
  • 24% of Americans believe in a God who is nonjudgmental and disengaged -- they refer to this God as the Distant God. 
What groups are associated with these images? Black Protestants are the most likely group to believe in the Authoritative God (~70%) with Evangelical Protestants coming in a distant second (~50%). Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics are remarkably similar in how they see God: approximately 25% of both groups believe in an authoritative God, 25% believe a benevolent one, 20% believe in a critical one, while 30% believe in a distant one.

Are certain individuals more likely to embrace one image over another? Yes. For example, individuals with a college education and who earn more than $100,000 per year are more likely to believe in a distant God, while those who are married and older are more likely to believe in an authoritative one. People who were spanked when they were children are less likely to believe in a distant God but are very likely to believe in an authoritative one. And males tend to believe in a critical God, while females tend to envision a benevolent one.

What difference do these understandings of God play themselves out in our everyday lives? Here's a sample of their findings: 
  • Individuals who believe in an authoritative or benevolent God are much more likely to say that they are religious than are those who do not 
  • People who believe in a distant or critical God are more likely to identify themselves as politically liberal 
  • Believers in an authoritative God are much more likely to think that abortion is wrong and that homosexuality is a choice 
  • And believers in a distant or critical God are more likely to think that religion and science are incompatible 
What is interesting is that one dimension of belief that doesn't play much of a role in how we picture God is the degree to which we believe that he or she is loving. This is because while 85% of us believe that God is "love," we don't agree as to what that means. Thus, it is unhelpful as an analytic concept, and, I would argue, as a theological one because it needs to be embedded in a much larger moral context or narrative in order for it to have any practical substance (I plan to return to this topic in a later post).

Obviously, this brief summary doesn't capture all that Froese and Bader discovered. Another helpful review of the book can be found in David Briggs's "Ahead of the Curve" column. Of course, if your interest has been peaked enough, you may simply want to pick up the book.

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