America, in God (or gods) we trust

bart n godBefore I dash into classes today, I wanted to make a brief comment on the “Losing my religion?” survey that came out yesterday from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

And here is what I want to say. Yes, I am going to hit you with the tmatt trio again.

All together now — if you want to know where people who say that they are Christian believers fall on a left-to-right theological spectrum, just ask these questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

This Baylor survey is all over the place today in the mainstream media, but if you want the biggest splash of the actual data, head to veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman’s package on page one of USA Today. She nails the key issue right right up front:

The United States calls itself one nation under God, but Americans don’t all have the same image of the Almighty in mind. A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs.

Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms like “Religious Right.” Even the oft-used “Evangelical” appears to be losing ground. Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

What everyone will be talking about today is this survey’s attempt to clump Americans into one of four different camps when it comes to definitions of God. This is very strange stuff, in part because the four definitions overlap so much.

Most of all, the survey’s authors are trying to capture the dynamic that, in an age in which organized religion is spinning off into do-it-yourself movements and independent congregations, people are trying to find a way to enjoy spirituality and faith without tying themselves to doctrine and discipline.

Yes, this does remind me of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his Culture Wars thesis that the major division in religion today is between the “camp of the orthodox,” who believe in the power of eternal, unchanging, absolute, revealed truths, and the “camp of the progressives,” who believe truth is evolving and personal. I still think this issue is the fault line.

Meanwhile, here are clips from Grossman’s coverage of these four American views of God:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.” . . .

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. …

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. … Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. …

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us.” … Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church. …

bushgodConfused? Me too.

It still seems to me that you end up having to ask basic questions about moral issues and doctrines and that you will end up with that pattern that we see so often — about 20 percent strongly conservative, about 20 percent strongly liberal and the muddled “Oprah America” in the middle.

Note what happens, for example, when Grossman offers a sidebar on a crucial question: Who is going to heaven? Yes, that is a variation on one of the tmatt trio questions, about the role of Jesus in salvation.

And the answer? Welcome to the post-denominational heaven, and America is — surprise, surprise — split just about down the middle on the crucial question.

Americans clearly believe in heaven and salvation — they just don’t agree on who’s eligible. The Baylor Religion Survey finds that most Americans (58.3%) agree with the statement “many religions lead to salvation.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Maureen

    But how do they _mean_ “many religions lead to salvation”?

    Any religion is okay, because Jesus sees hearts and will save the virtuous pagan?

    All religions lead to the one true God, whose truest revelation is the one to my church?

    God doesn’t care what you do on Earth?

    No religion knows anything much about God, so He’ll take anything?

    There’s a lot of possibilities here! Survey questions are always pretty vague.

  • Rathje

    If you want an example of how weird this classification thing can get(and you have a high tolerance for ‘things that make you go – huh?’), here’s one believer’s attempt to get a handle on the variations within her own religion:

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m leery over a survey that apparently has 4 compartments or boxes and you must choose one of them (or in some surveys they do the pigeonholing based on a series of questions the answers of which suposedly define you.) God is a “Who” and it is tough enough to categorize human beings, let alone God. Yet this survey seems to wind up doing both–put God in a box and those surveyed in a box.
    My tendency when confronted by such surveys is to think “How can I answer ‘both/and’” or “all of the above.”
    Or mybe I’m an old, curmudgeon who doesn’t think most polls and surveys are helpful, accurate, or very enlightening.

  • Sandy

    There is no other way to Heaven but through faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Great I Am, the creator of all there is, the God of the universe and all beyone. Without accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord, no one will live forever in the New Heaven and the New Earth. Only faith in Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit will help clean us up so that we can have life more abundantly.

  • Sean Paton

    Jesus is The Way, The Truth, and The Light. There is no other way to Heaven and Eternal Life in the Presence of The Almighty but through Jesus Christ. And this kids is because God is indeed a Loving and Forgiving God. Read your Bible, wipe off the dust and read it. John 3:16.

  • Chris Bolinger

    OK, folks, let’s stick to commenting on the survey and its results as portrayed in the press…

    Deacon John, according to the USA Today article, the survey did not give you four choices for God’s character and ask you to pick one. Instead, the survey asked a lot of questions about the character of God. The researchers then looked for patterns in the responses. The result was four patterns to which they assigned names.

    Call it pigeonholing if you want, but creating valid surveys and interpreting the results is a tough job, especially in our increasingly fragmented U.S. society. Most Americans want to feel a part of a few groups while maintaining a fierce independence on various issues. Time will tell if the Baylor effort gives us a clearer insight into how Americans really feel about God, religion, and moral issues. For now, I applaud the effort.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Chris–you are sure right when you say “creating valid surveys and interpreting the results is a tough job…” Maybe that is why so many surveys turn out to be a joke and–frequently–are manipulated and then used as propaganda for business or political purposes –even basically “religious” surveys.
    Sometimes I think polling human beings on very personal matters (which would include religion) is like trying to catch water in a sieve. It can be a great parlor game, but shouldn’t be done or taken too seriously.

  • Martha

    Well, any newspaper survey is a blunt instrument, but a little bit of fine-tuning would help here.

    Apparently “mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews” see a God who is both “primarily a forgiving God” and “a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own” – at one and the same time, engaged *and* distant.

    Yes, I see… are these all the one lot of “mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews” or are they, y’know, maybe, oh, slightly different from one another? Like, oh, I dunno – ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’? Or ‘reasserters’ and ‘reappraisers’? And how is the Critical God all that different from the Distant God?

    And while I’m at it – Rathje, what on earth is a liahona? And why would you hold it in your hand? And should I be worried or pleased if I see someone coming at me with one in his hand? :-)

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    Surveys are only as thoughtful, accurate, and productive as their creators work at making them be. They are not objective indicators of public opinion, either in their questions or in their predetermined and limited answers. These questions and their answers are, if they are done well, designed particularly towards the answering of a specific, limited set of questions.

    If, in taking a survey, a person has any “but…” in answering any of the questions at all, then he or she should stop taking it right there and then and register an exception, telling the survey-taker, who would ideally appreciate it and alter the survey. But if the goal is a quick and dirty, easily analyzed generalization of religious sentiment, the carefulness of planning and designing a survey that is likely to be more truly representive of complex concerns will always be lacking.

    To belabor the obvious, in surveys the people always give you the answers you expect. Where’s the truth, or the reality, or even the fun, in that?

  • Robert Mildown

    A national survey gives an accurate reflection of “Losing my Religion” with a pitiful mere 1,721 responses??
    And how many people are in America, at last count? 270-280 some million people?
    Think about this for one minute, see if it’s absurdity doesn’t slap you in the face.

    Also I agree with Deacon John M. Bresnahan comments. Since I’ve been alive for the last 48 years, I’ve seen over and over again that surveys are not to be sources of trusted or accurate information. The voting exit polls (surveys) are defect (even on national TV) and even the weatherman would do better to just “look” into the sky and prognosticate.

    Surveys like this just give humans one more thing to disagree about.

  • Opie

    I was a little surprised by tmatt’s third question, the one about sex outside of marriage. This is slightly off-topic, but am I the only one who has an increasing number of friends that attend evangelical churches, are excited to tell you about their experiences with Christ, but also happen to be living in unmarried cohabitation? I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately.

  • Andy Crouch

    I am inclined to trust and respect the PIs of this survey, yet I have to say that some things seem a bit fishy. According to USA Today, 44.3% of respondents say they have seen The Passion of the Christ. According to IMDB, Passion grossed $370MM and change in the US. Now, at $6/ticket (which seems low for gross, yes?), that would be 61MM paying customers. That is certainly not 44.3% of the US adult population.

    I suspect we will have to wait at least until after the SSSR convention to start to get some really informed commentary on the methods and assumptions behind this survey. For the moment what we have are press accounts that are suggestive but also somewhat frustrating in their broad (yet also selective) sweep.

    I also find the ABCD categories for God of pretty dubious interpretive or probative value (though you have to give them points for the alphabetical order! very Baptist! Go Baylor!).

  • Chris Bolinger

    While I agree that the majority of surveys are done by people with an agenda and are invalid from the start, I don’t agree that polling people on personal matters such as religious beliefs and practices is doomed to failure and shouldn’t be attempted. Religious beliefs shape how people interpret their world. Well-done surveys can help us understand why people who seem to be very similar in some ways can interpret the same event or even statement very differently.

    As Andy wrote, it is impossible to tell from the press accounts how well this survey was constructed. Here’s hoping that we get to see the complete survey and more details on the results.

    As for how many people have seen the “Passion”, I suspect that some who didn’t see it in theaters have rented the DVD or caught clips of it at church or elsewhere. If 44% is close to accurate, then that is a phenomenal reach. I wonder if someone will follow up on that. Good catch on the ABCD categories, Andy.

  • M. Everest

    For what it’s worth, I appreciate coverage of surveys. I’m much more suspicious of articles that try to make sweeping claims about what people think based on one pro and one con interview.

    Claims made based on only a couple of interviews are highly dependent on the individuals the reporter chose to interview.

    I remember eating lunch with friends while in grad. school. A local TV reporter came up and asked us what we thought about the big game. Apparently, none of us had the answer she had already written into her report, because she moved on to another table…

  • Jonn Mick

    Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah. And we all go away with the same opinions we came with feeling righteous in our individual righteousness.

    Jonn Mick

  • Joe Hootman

    One of the more undercovered pieces of the new Baylor survey is that it up-ends the “rise of secularism” theory touted by so many based on General Social Survey data. GSS found a striking rise in non-affiliated folks from the 60s to the 2000s, where they’re supposed to represent 15% of the American population, up from a much lower percentage than earlier. GSS assumed that folks who refused to affiliate with a broader Christian identity were secular. The Baylor survey asks some further questions of that group and found that there were many who professed no affiliation, but actually attended a non-denominational evangelical church. See:

    These results unhinge a major piece of various “rise of secularism” theories by suggesting that the U.S. may be growing more localized and non-denominationally evangelical than it is secular.