Monday, September 18, 2006

The Four Gods of America

[Crossposted from Street Prophets]

The most interesting (to me) of a number of interesting stories at World Magazine Blog is about how Americans view God:

The Gallup survey reveals that Americans hold four distinct views of God's personality and involvement in their lives: Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, or Distant. Says Baylor's Christopher Bader, "You learn more about people's moral and political behavior if you know their image of God than almost any other measure. It turns out to be more powerful a predictor of social and political views than the usual markers of church attendance or belief in the Bible."
From the USA Today article, "View of God can reveal your values and politics":
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.

Pastordan dealt with one aspect of this poll in "God Really Is Winning?"; but I think the interesting part of the poll was the breakdown of how people viewed God into four types:
  • 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," Bader says.

    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, 28.8% 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, Froese says.

    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.

    This is the group in which the Rev. Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor and communications director for his father's 5,000-member Southern Baptist congregation in Overland Park, Kan., places himself.

    "God is in control of everything. He's grieved by the sin of the world, by any created person who doesn't follow him. But I see (a) God ... who loves us, who sees us for who we really are. We serve a God of the second, third, fourth and fifth chance," Johnston says.
  • The Critical God (16% overall, 21.2% in the East):
    has his judgmental eye on the world, but he's not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort.

    "This group is more paradoxical," Bader says. "They have very traditional beliefs, picturing God as the classic bearded old man on high. Yet they're less inclined to go to church or affiliate seriously with religious groups. They are less inclined to see God as active in the world. Their politics are definitely not liberal, but they're not quite conservative, either."

    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.

    "I still believe in God," says Joanne Meehl, 56, of Barre, Mass., who wrote a book in the mid-'90s called Recovering Catholics. "But to me God is the universe, not as small as a `He' or a `She' but bigger than all of that." Humanity is on its own, she says. "People who do wrong are punished in this world, not in the next. This world is it."

About the Baylor survey:
The Baylor team will spend two years digging through the findings and releasing reports on subtopics such as civic involvement and volunteerism, then repeat the core questions in fall 2007 to track trends. The research is funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, calls the analysis "intriguing. Baylor was able to ask many more probing questions than the usual surveys."

Others agree.

The Four Gods breakdown is helpful "if you are trying to understand religion's impact on society by how people see themselves from the inside, not by observations from outsiders," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Baylor researchers determined the Four Gods breakdown by analyzing questions about God's personality and engagement.

The survey asked respondents to agree or disagree with any of 10 descriptions of their "personal understanding of what God is like," including phrases such as "angered by my sins" or "removed from worldly affairs." They could check off 16 adjectives they believe describe God, including words such as "absolute," "wrathful," "forgiving," "friendly" or "distant."

Some other reported statistics:
  • "Though 12.2% overall say abortion is wrong in all circumstances, the number nearly doubles to 23.4% for those who see an authoritarian God and slides to 1.5% for followers of a distant God."

  • "45.6% of all Americans say the federal government "should advocate Christian values," but 74.5% of believers in an authoritarian God do."

    Sociologist Paul Froese says the survey finds the stereotype that conservatives are religious and liberals are secular is "simply not true. Political liberals and conservatives are both religious. They just have different religious views."

  • About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%. The Baylor survey, unlike others, asked people to write in the names and addresses of where they worship, and many who said "none" or "don't know" when asked about their religious identity named a church they occasionally attend.

  • The paranormal -- beliefs outside conventional organized religion -- is immensely popular. Most people said they believe in prophetic dreams; four in 10 say there were once "ancient advanced civilizations" such as Atlantis.

  • *"Evangelical" may be losing favor as a way Americans describe themselves. About one in three Americans say they belong to denominations that theologians consider evangelical, but only 14% of all respondents in the survey say this is one way they would describe themselves. Only 2.2% called it the single best term. Top choices overall: "Bible-believing" (20.5%) or "born-again" (18.6%).

    "Any politician who really wants to connect with Christians should be looking at those terms, not vague abstractions like evangelical. ... They need to tap into labels that have salience," Baylor sociologist Kevin Dougherty says.

  • Most Americans think their nearest and dearest are going to heaven. The pearly gates open widest for family (75.3% say they'll get in) and personal friends (69.3%). The survey did not ask whether people expect to go to heaven themselves.

  • Religion-themed movies and books have a vast reach: 44.3% of those polled saw Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. More than one in 10 of all surveyed say they spent $50 or more in the past month on items such as religious books, music and jewelry.

    A closer look at what people read finds that 28.5% of Americans say they've read The Da Vinci Code. Baylor also found 19%, including 25% of all U.S. women, have read the Rev. Rick Warren's Christian handbook The Purpose-Driven Life, and 19% overall have read at least one of the novels in the Left Behind apocalyptic fiction series.

What kind of God do you see? While I think God can be Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant in HIs nature at times (and for periods of history) - my own responses to the poll would have put me in the Benevolent group. Of course, that is only a guess since I haven't seen the questions.


  1. All I know is that MY God is a kind and loving God who died for my sins because he loved me so much. That is all I really need to know.

  2. The problem with this survey is that any endorsement of one of these views of God as distinct from one of the others will turn out to be reductionistic in the views of most evangelicals. Doesn't that really taint the data, since we can never know if someone was 40% leaning toward benevolent but chose authoritative out of being 45% leaning toward it (and the 15% maybe is critical)?

  3. They gave people a number of questions (and not these choices) and did the "scoring thang" to place you in the general category.

    Certainly, I cannot view God - in general - as sitting back, while caring and judging, but not being involved. Distant (the wind it up and let it go view) certainly isnt a Christian perspective.

    As worded, I think for me it comes down to a God in control and active - which is either Authoritative (if primary motivation is obedience and judgement) or Benevolant (if primary motivation is grace and mercy).

    While I believe God is both Authoritative and Benevolent - I think Christ is proof that His primary (not only) motivation is grace and mercy.

    I do not know what the many pages of questions actually read - but I am guessing I would have fallen into Benevolence.

    I think trying to boil people into four general categories is probably pretty tough - which may be what you are saying.

  4. Not having a list of the questions makes reading the results of the survey rather an excercise in frustration... especially when they list things as contradictory that are nonesuch. An authoritative (righteous creator) God who benevolantly acts (sacrificially sending his son)... well, anyway, His is never 'distant' except from sin.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly