Breaking: U.S. believes in God, sort of

god2 sistine chapel 600x308This USA Today story has been in tmatt’s infamous GetReligion Guilt file for some time now, but I could not throw it away. It seems that, with the Pew Forum on such a roll, religion-beat reporters are awash in interesting poll data about religion, values, politics, etc. In other words, we are still in the aftershocks of the “values voters” and “pew gap” political earthquakes of 2000 and 2004.

Here is my request: Will someone please go ahead and do a major study of the political and doctrinal beliefs of the Religious Left and the Mushy Middle?

Meanwhile, the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion has been getting lots of ink with its concept — click here for the home page on this — that Americans basically have four different approaches to God and that, amazingly enough, which God they say they believe in tells you a lot about their lives and (gasp!) their politics. Yes, I fear that this is all linked to the phenomenon that faith is most important when it affects the ballot box.

So veteran religion-beat specialist Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today was given quite a bit of space to roll out many of the details. The key is that her package actually gives readers a chance to grasp the basic structure of the Baylor study.

Here is that heart of the story, the kind of background that reporters don’t get to offer very often. This is rather long, so here is a slightly condensed version. The key voice here is Baylor’s Christopher Bader:

• 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.” …

Those who envision God this way “are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals,” Bader says.

“(They) want an active, Christian-values-based government with federal funding for faith-based social services and prayer in the schools.” They’re also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).

• 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. …

They’re inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person. …

• 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.

For example, 57% overall say gay marriage is always wrong compared with 80.6% for those who see an authoritarian God, and 65.8% for those who see God as benevolent. For those who believe in a critical God, it was 54.7%.

• 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,” Bader says. 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, Bader says.

Only 3.8% of this group say embryonic stem cell research is always wrong, compared with 38.5% of those who see an authoritarian God, 22.7% for those who see God as benevolent and 13.2% who see God as critical but disengaged.

jesuslandagain 01I thought it was striking that people feared that Baylor University — the world’s largest Southern Baptist linked campus — would lean right in its interpretation of such a study.

That’s a riot. Baylor is in the midst of a multi-decade war over its self-identity and would not, believe me, do anything that would open a door to criticism that it is in some meaningful way “evangelical” or “traditionalist.” Heaven forbid. Also note that the research was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which is very mainstream or even mainline.

The bottom line: Grossman’s piece does a great job of underlining ways in which American culture is defined, at the moment, by camps of believers who want to believe in Truth, but not specific truths that apply to them, by believers who strongly want to believe, but fear saying that any beliefs are right and others are wrong.

Note, in particular, that this story mentions, once again, that more and more Americans are trying to shun the hot political label “evangelical,” which is the new “fundamentalist.”

Thus, the growth of the emerging evangelical left is, again, a huge story. Americans want to shape their own beliefs, picking and choosing in the open marketplace. That is not a strictly conservative or traditional reality, which the Baylor survey demonstrates.

Check out the story and the survey material. It is must reading for those charting trends in OprahAmerica. It does seem that beliefs and worldview matter. But some beliefs affect actions more than others.

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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.

  • Jerry

    The United States of Canada and Jesusland don’t, of course, match those four views of God. Perhaps the map should have 4 colors, variously intermixed, to reflect people’s beliefs about God.

    Personally I found this finding interesting. I wonder if this finding will actually change stereotypes? (Yes, I know, I don’t see any pigs flying by. But I can hope):

    …the stereotype that conservatives are religious and liberals are secular is “simply not true. Political liberals and conservative are both religious. They just have different religious views.”

    The study, as reported, also did not discuss age related views of God. I’d be interested in how 20-30 year olds fit in those categories versus 60-70 for example. And male versus female. etc. Clearly there’s more work to be done in this area.

    And when the report talks about “Christian values”, which values are “Christian” would, I suspect, depend on one’s view of God. That, of course, also implies that Christians know what those values are, and, dare I say it, wanders into the area of how much Christians know about the teachings of Jesus.

  • Roberto Rivera

    The United States of Canada and Jesusland don’t, of course, match those four views of God. Perhaps the map should have 4 colors, variously intermixed, to reflect people’s beliefs about God.

    I don’t find the categories particularly useful because my own views of God include all four categories: authoritarian, benevolent, critical and distant. What’s more, you can find support for all of these categories in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Or, to put it another way, God is depicted in all these ways in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. They are not univocular in this respect (or just about any other respect).

    Thus, trying to find useful links between these categories and where a person falls on the political spectrum is fraught with hazards.

  • HTB

    I think you could rename the four views of God thusly:

    God exists, and is mad at you.
    God exists, and wants to indulge you.
    God exists, but can’t be bothered with you.
    God exists, but might as well not.

  • Russ

    Where’s the transcendent-God-incarnate-in-human-flesh God category?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Polls like this are just so much hogwash that play to preconceived notions of certain religious stereotypes. I agree with some of the comments here. As a Catholic I find aspects of each of the 4 are part of my Faith and the political ramifications of each I find even more intermixed.
    It is interesting how the secular–massively liberal- media can, through creating negative stereotypes, make certain groups like “fundamentalists” or “evangelicals”, or Conservative Catholics into groups in our society and politics to be almost as feared as Nazis or Communists. Of course this is also a way of avoiding genuine debate on important core issues in our nation and of getting non-religious people to automatically tune out any rational, non-religious arguments religious people may make in the Public Square.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Categorizing prospective buyers is a classic Marketing technique and, when done well, can be quite effective. But it’s very difficult. A lot hinges on the classification criteria. When they are few in number, clearly distinct, measurable, and ideally based on past behavior, you’ve got a shot.

    A primary flaw in the Baylor report is that it is overreaching. Classifying people into four categories based on their views of God is an impossible undertaking. Of course, Grossman doesn’t question the report or its conclusions.

  • Maureen

    I don’t really see a lot of difference between “critical” and “remote”, whereas there seems to be a lot of unused territory in the “authoritarian” and “benevolent” categories.

    Authoritarian, for example, seems to be a mixture of what the world’s D&D gamers would call “lawful neutral” and “lawful good”, possibly even including “lawful evil”. Benevolent seems to be in “neutral good” and “chaotic good” territory.

    Critical and Distant both seem like “chaotic neutral” or “true neutral” alignments — or perhaps Distant is more like “neutral apathetic”. :)

    I demand more categories!

  • Jay

    It’s mankind’s sins. “Humanity” is when someone acts in a humane manner.


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