Depending on which poll you read (and trust) it appears that upwards of 90% of Americans believe in God. These are significant numbers, especially when compared to Europe. Despite state-supported churches throughout Western Europe, the continent is largely secularized. America, on the other hand, lacks a state-sponsored religion, but is almost “God-intoxicated” in comparison, at least, on the surface (some polls and studies suggest that the United States isn’t as far behind the Europeans when it comes to secularism).
We can argue about how many Americans really do believe in God, but a more important question concerns the kind of God Americans believe in. The answer(s) isn’t a monolithic one. We may believe in a higher power, but we embrace a broad spectrum of definitions.
You could try to discern the nature of America’s God by checking the yellow pages, but this could prove misleading. Reading the Yellow Pages would lead you to conclude that most “believing” Americans belong to one of many Christian denominations, but using this criterion might cause you to leave out a growing portion of the American population that has embraced a non-institutionalized and often undefined deity. Even if we’re religious on Sundays, many of us are practical atheists the rest of the week. That is, many Americans either ignore God or don’t think God is very interested in their daily lives. We may turn to God in times of crisis, but when things are going okay we’d rather go it alone. So, while few of us are true atheists, many are functional atheists.
A Baylor University study released in 2006 and entitled “American Piety in the 21st Century” has provided us with a unique look at America’s theologies. It not only confirms that Americans believe in God, but it also offers significant details about the god(s) we embrace. Although a plurality of Americans embrace Christianity, there are significant differences even among Christians. In fact, there are four distinct views of God that cross religious and denominational lines. The definitions relate to our perception of God’s engagement with creation and God’s anger.
The most popular God among Americans, with 31% of the vote, is the Authoritarian God. This God is definitely engaged in our lives, but “he” is also angry and in control. Smaller numbers of us embrace a Benevolent God (23%). This deity is also engaged but not as prone to anger as the Authoritarian God. At the other end of the spectrum are the gods who remain aloof from human experience. The Critical God (16%), for example, is angry with us, but is inclined to postpone justice until the next life. And then there’s the Distant God who is almost as popular as the authoritarian one (24% of the vote). I can see why many people find this God appealing. This deity could be benevolent and yet is likely to leave us alone so we can do our own thing.
Women prefer an engaged divinity, with a slight preference for the Authoritarian God, while men prefer deities who are either detached or authoritarian. The male predisposition toward the Distant or Critical God may help explain why fewer men than women belong to religious groups. What surprised me was that younger people (18-30) are more likely to prefer an authoritarian God than do older people. Middle-aged folk like me seem to prefer a Benevolent God. Coastal dwellers like non-engaged deities, while Southerners vote overwhelmingly for an Authoritarian God. This may sound like Red State/Blue State politics, but the reality is that even within ethnic, gender, or geographic groups, there is little unanimity.
When it comes to religious identification, Evangelicals, biblical literalists, and African-American Protestants go for the authoritarian God, while a plurality of Jews, Mainline Protestants and Catholics choose the distant one. And not surprisingly, the more you pray or attend religious services the more likely you are to prefer an authoritarian deity.
Because I’m interested in the relationship between religion and public life, I was intrigued by the political implications of these four theologies. Apparently, the more we pray, read the Bible literally, or go to services, the more conservative we are politically, and the more likely we are to support increased military spending, harsh punishment of criminals, funding of faith-based organizations, and prayer in school. The more we embrace a benevolent or distant God, the more likely we are to oppose the death penalty, support business regulation, and be concerned about protecting the environment. Again this is all a matter of degree, but it does suggest that what we believe about God influences our behavior and our political convictions. This is assuming that we’re one of the 90% who believes in God.
Excerpt from Faith in the Public Square, (forthcoming from Energion Publications)