FroAmer 11-01-001

America's Four Gods

What We Say About God - And What That Says About Us


Paul Froese & Christopher Bader

Oxford University Press, 2010, 258 pp.  ISBN 978-0-19-534147-8


Froese and Bader are professors of Sociology at Baylor University. They search for a sociological perspective on Americans' perceptions of God They interpret their research surveys and interviews to show that Americans see God as either engaged or disengaged with the world and either (primarily) judgmental or benevolent.  This leads to "four Gods:" 

  1. The Authoritative God, who is both engaged with the world and judgmental
  2. The Benevolent God who loves and aids us in spite of our failings
  3. The Critical God, who catalogs our sins but does not punish them (at least not in this life)
  4. The Distant God, who stands apart from the world


If God is the foundation of our worldview, then the kind of God we believe in is incredibly important.  Our view of God affects how we view everything else, including society, morals, science, money, evil, and the future.  The book provides insight on why Americans have such divergent perspectives.  I felt like I got the main thrust in the first 100 pages.


We tend to spontaneously segregate ourselves into enclaves of people like us and therefore tend not to interact with many people who appear different.  (3)  "Religious illiteracy increases the odds of misunderstanding and conflict." (3) 


"The extent to which we believe that God interacts with us and offers us blessings has a profound effect on what we think is right and wrong and what we feel we should be doing with our lives." (5)


"Some tell stories in which God offers boundless love, forgiveness, and charity.  Others describe a God who rains fire and brimstone down upon sinners and commands followers to destroy the heathens.  Others feel that God is wholly removed from human concerns, a distant force lacking personality.  A few find the whole idea of God absurd." (13)


"Nearly all Americans (85 percent) feel that the term 'loving' describes God well." (15)  "Most Americans sense that God cares deeply for us and warmly invites us into a nurturing one-on-one friendship." (16)  But they are divided on whether God is a firm or indulgent parent.  "And whether God is strict or forgiving proves an important distinction." (17)  [It seems to me that, in general, people are weak in their understanding of how God's judgment and forgiveness relate to one another, hence they tend to come across as being on one side or the other, leading to a dichotomy or bifurcation that they perhaps do not really believe.  I wonder if this may be at least partially a false distinction exacerbated by the research method.  Dlm]


"For most Americans, God is somewhere between harshly judgmental and absolutely forgiving."  [In fact, God is not "somewhere between" but both!  Dlm]  "Many Americans conclude that God severely rebukes the most heinous of sinners yet feel certain that God has no anger toward them, their friends, and their families." (19)  [Yes!  We see this all the time. Dlm]


"…believers in an Authoritative God do not focus on the judgmental aspect of God's character to the exclusion of more caring or compassionate characteristics.  Believers in an Authoritative God are just as likely to see God as a loving being as those with other conceptions of God.  The difference is that these believers…show a greater tendency to think that God is also willing to judge and punish and that the bad and good things that happen to us are likely of his making." (28-9) 


The Benevolent God is mainly a force for good in the world and is less willing to condemn individuals." (29)  "Many Americans…see the handiwork of God all around them and attribute their happy accidents or good fortune to divine intervention." (30)  "This God rarely chastises his followers, and in turn, they cannot imagine that he would ever inflict harm on them." (31)


"For believers in a Critical God, divine justice exists but mainly in the afterlife…a divinity who may be slow to act now but is still all-powerful and all-knowing.  Ethnic minorities, the poor, and the exploited often believe in a Critical God." (32) 


Believers in a Distant God view God as a cosmic force that set the laws of nature in motion but does not really 'do' things in the world or hold clear opinions about our activities or world events.  They may not conceive of God as an entity with human characteristics and may be loath to refer to God as a 'he.'  A Distant God does not require offerings or praise and does not respond to our personal wants and desires.  (33-4)  Many nonbelievers and agnostics believe in a supernatural realm but are troubled by traditional religion.  (35) 


About 5% of Americans indicate they are atheists, certain that God does not exist.  (35)


"Relatively few Americans, about 13 percent, were raised by families who attended church on a weekly basis."  [If this is true, I find it astounding! Dlm]  "Even fewer (7 percent) were raised in families who skipped church altogether." (41)


"Nearly a third report that they read the Bible, outside religious services, weekly if not more often.  As many as 38 percent of American Christians attend monthly Bible study meetings." (45) 


"As expected, evangelicals tend toward belief in an Authoritative God.  African American evangelicals are the most likely group to believe in an Authoritative God.  By contrast, Americans who report no religious affiliation favor either Critical or Distant Gods." (51)  "By knowing where you live, what you look like, and how much money you make, we can begin to guess your image of God." (57)


"A moral absolutist feels that certain activities are wrong no matter what the circumstances.  A moral relativist wants to know the circumstances before making such a decision." (65) "And whether his God is loving, forgiving, or wrathful indicates the extent to which a believer is a moral absolutist." (67) 


With regard to the specific moral hot-button issues (adultery, gay marriage, abortion, premarital sex, stem-cell research), "no matter what kind of God a person believe in, he ranks the comparative immorality of behaviors in exactly the same order.  Adultery is always considered the most unforgivable, while stem-cell research always ranks last in terms of its perceived immorality." (67)


"In the end, most Americans are careful to point out that they do not 'hate' homosexuals.  Even the most conservative Christians tend to express compassion and forgiveness toward homosexuals and state that they have as good a chance at salvation as anyone else."  "The phrase 'hate the sin, love the sinner' perfectly reflects most Americans' views of homosexuality." (72-3)


"While the issues of homosexuality and abortion are quite divisive, we also see that there is more agreement on those moral issues than cable news would have you believe.  Namely, when we scratch the surface of the polemics, we find that most Americans are moral relativists and, more important, behave civilly toward one another even when moral disputes arise." (77)



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