Baylor sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader have conducted research into people’s conception of God. They published their findings in a new book America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us. They found that Americans have four different assumptions about what God is like. They also found correlations between the kind of God someone believes in and their political and moral beliefs. Here are America’s four Gods:
•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.
Isn’t it true that none of these, in isolation, is anything like the Christian God? Surely Christians believe that God has ALL of these qualities. Christians believe that God is a Trinity, that He is complex and a mystery. (And if natural laws, such as we are seeing with quantum physics are complex and mysterious, shouldn’t God be far more so? And yet people insist on these simplistic, anthropomorphic, unitarian deities.) While each of these deities can be adapted into an ecumenical paradigm in which all religions “have the same God,” the Christian God is completely different from these four, each of which is some variation of a transcendent deity looking down on the creation. Notice that there is no category for God Incarnate.
No wonder churches are so weak and Christians’ faith is so anemic, if they don’t have the right God.