Books: American’s Four Gods

When my husband was interviewed by a church in Nebraska earlier this year, he did his neutral pulpit at a federated PC(USA)/UCC church. Notes in the church bulletin and newsletter, as well as signs and posters around the large building, indicated that the people of the church valued reading books that would challenge one’s way of thinking.

On the pastor’s desk, as we chatted after the service, I happened to notice the book America’s Four Gods. It was apparently for his own reading and not one being read by a group in the church, but in any case I found his brief comments on it sufficiently interesting that I decided to read it for myself.

The book’s basic premise is that the authors have found a better way to distinguish among Americans in terms of their differing viewpoints than those that are usually used. The lines that are usually drawn – based on political party, religion, race, economic class, geography (either rural vs urban or by region of the country), or level of education – simply do not work very well. People in any of those conventional groupings agree with one another on a number of points, but disagree on others.

According to authors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader (sociology professors at Baylor University), a much better way to categorize Americans is by their view of God. The vast majority of Americans claim to believe in a divine being of some sort, and most of those identify themselves as Christians. But their conceptions of God vary widely – and not necessarily based on the dogma of the religious organizations they are affiliated with (if any).

Froese and Bader identified two dimensions of belief about God that they think define four distinctly different views of God. One dimension is whether God is active in this world or not, and the other is whether God is judgmental toward sin. Unfortunately, the names they gave to the four different views seem to have been forced to fit with the first four letters of the alphabet, and only two of the four fit the views well, in my opinion.

People who believe God is active in our world and in our personal lives, and who see God as loving and forgiving but not angry about human sin, are said to believe in a Benevolent God. While people who do believe that God is angry toward sin also believe that God is good and generous to people, I think that it is appropriate to use this term for people who believe it defines God to the extent that the opposite characteristic (punishing sin) does not.

The other group of people who do not believe in a judgmental God do not believe that God is active in this world. For that matter, they often do not think of God as having thoughts or emotions at all. They see God as more of a cosmic force, the explanation for the existence of the universe and perhaps for our moral sense, not a Being with any interest in the behavior or future of any human being. This God seems to be very appropriately termed a Distant God.

Those who believe that God is both active in our lives and that He judges sin are said to believe in an Authoritative God. This is the God most often preached by Evangelical Christians, a God both loving and holy, who tells us how to live and disciplines those who stray, who cares about the smallest concerns in our lives and delights to answer prayer, and who will one day be the delight of believers in Heaven while unbelievers suffer everlasting judgment in Hell.

It’s not that I think Authoritative is a bad term for that view; on the contrary, Evangelicals believe that God is indeed the final Authority on everything and over everything. My problem with the term is that it’s hard to see exactly how it contrasts with the other view, which the authors call a Critical God. This is a God who is angry at sin and will judge it, but only after death, not in this life.

I would assume that believers in the Critical God do consider Him to be authoritative as to how people are to live, since they do not seem to view Him as capricious in His wrath. And they often view themselves as those who will finally receive blessings in Heaven, in contrast to the suffering they experience here and now. What is distinctive about their view is that they see little sign of God bringing about justice in this life, but I don’t see “Critical God” as being very descriptive of that.

That aside, it’s a very interesting book. I started reading a book about the English language the same weekend, and I would have expected that to be the book I found most interesting. But it turned out to be a bit dry, and it was America’s Four Gods that I quickly read from start to finish. It’s not a particularly long book, and a number of pages are devoted to graphs showing the comparison of the four views as they relate to a variety of hot button topics. A significant portion of the book turns out to be appendices, including an extensive explanation of how the surveys that provide the data for the book were conducted.

Naturally I was interested in answering the questions that would supposedly tell what kind of God I believe in. I grew up with a Distant view of God, until I accepted Christ as Savior at age 14. My mother’s view of God was as a cosmic force rather than a Person, but she also believed strongly in the power of prayer (actually, in the power of thoughts/expectations to bring about real-world consequences, whether positive or negative). I’m guessing my father’s view would have leaned toward Benevolent, but I’m not sure.

Not too surprisingly, my score indicated belief in an Authoritative God. This is only “correct” view of God at any evangelical church I have attended, and despite my lack of any dramatic answers to prayer and my doubts sometimes, this is my own view of God. I was surprised to read that, while this is the most common view among Evangelicals, there is a significant minority holding one of the other three views.

Why, I wondered, would anyone with a Distant view of God call themselves Evangelical? Then it occurred to me that the authors probably identified people as Evangelicals based on church affiliation, and there are a variety of reasons why someone might be identified with a church without heartfelt agreement with its views.

My mother attended church with my father for years despite not believing in the theology they preached. She enjoyed singing in the choir, and until she found Unity Church it was a matter of going to my father’s church or none at all. Later, when I was a teenager, she attended a Lutheran church because the people were warm and welcoming and did not mind that she did not believe as they did.

It’s hard to imagine my mother as typical of any group of people (she was as determinedly nonconformist as anyone I’ve ever met, but she would have hardly fit in with a stereotypical group of nonconformists, if there is such a thing). But I’m sure there are many people who go along to church with their spouses for the sake of family harmony (at least on the outside) or as an example for the children, or simply because that is where their friends go.

In reviews I read of this book, I noticed that a number of people point out that none of the views of God expressed in the book matches the reader’s own view of God. And some evangelical Christians claim that the book leaves out the one true God – I’m not sure if that is because they think Authoritative is an inadequate way to describe God or because it does not specify faith in Jesus Christ as an essential component. But the authors are writing from the perspective of sociology, not theology.

There does seem to be fairly good correlation between belief in one of these for “Gods” and certain views regarding morality, economics, science, and the presence of evil in the world. Without having read anyone else’s in-depth critique of their research and analysis (because I haven’t yet found such a critique online), I don’t know whether that correlation is genuine or a result of methods used by the researchers to make it seem that way. I have no particular reason to question their work, but I’m sure it’s always tempting to make one’s work seem more conclusive than it may really be.

So is the book useful? I doubt it is much help in predicting people’s views unless you already know their view of God, and as the authors point out, these are views that are strongly held but rarely talked about, at least not directly. The book’s value is rather in gaining a greater understanding of why it is that Americans disagree so strongly about certain issues. It’s been obvious for well over a decade that the country is divided, and the dividing line is often assumed to be between liberals and conservatives, but that particular division only works for certain issues. Froese and Bader show that their four-way division explains the differences better.

I would hope that many if not most of us do want to understand why people think and feel so differently from us. There are many anecdotes in the book that illustrate those differences. If for nothing else, the book is valuable for learning what a lot of different people think and feel, both about God and about the various issues they are asked about. Each of us is limited in the number and kind of people we encounter personally – even with the greater communications abilities brought about by the internet. This book opens to us the viewpoints of people we would never encounter on our own (including interviews with people at the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.)

Finally, if you are an evangelical Christian and want to share your faith with people who have very different views, it is important to understand their views. I have had classes on evangelism that assume people have certain views and offer arguments to counter those views – which is not very useful if you don’t find people who actually have those views. It’s not useful, either, to assume that someone’s views neatly fit the schema described by Froese and Bader, but I think it’s a helpful framework to start with.


2 Responses to Books: American’s Four Gods

  1. I really like what you wrote because it’s pondering real things.

    I think if anyone did a real poll about people attending church that they would find a great variety of reasons for people attending.

    It’s the minster’s job.
    The blue-haired old lady is lonely.
    Mom wants her kids to grow up right.
    Dad wants to be a role model.
    The teenage boys are looking to meet the teenage girls.

    Life is complex and people do things for many, many reasons. I believe in a Benevolent God. I did go to church today though I don’t go all the time.

    A good and classic book to read for those that really are interested in religious and spiritual matters is: “Your God Is Too Small” by J. B. Phillips

    Thanks, Keep Blogging, Keep Writing.

  2. modestypress says:

    You may erase this comment. There is no empirical evidence God exists. It is most likely humans–discovering that each of us will die and that life is unfair (virtuous are not always rewarded; wicked not always punished) invented the idea of God. Historically speaking, religious belief was often quite wicked and violent, but religious belief has gradually evolved toward kindness and generosity and less frantic struggles with empirical evidence about the universe.

    We are slowly inventing a better kind of God, but it is very late in the day for humans to start growing up as a species. With our knack for developing weapons, such as hydrogen bombs and tailored viruses, we are, as a species, the equivalent of a five year old child who discovers a loaded pistol in the attic and starts playing with it.

    Pauline I know you are very wedded to the evangelical point of view. Perhaps you can help with evolving it.

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