Four Gods’ Sake

AmericasFourGodsStatistically speaking, most people don’t like statistics. I’m one of those. Numbers can do funny things to a person’s perception of things, nevertheless, I appreciate those who can work with them and make sense of them. When I saw the title America’s Four Gods, my disappointment engine kicked in. Is this book going to be about numbers? It was written by a couple of sociologists after all (and even a couple is a number). I’ve read enough of Christopher Bader’s work, however, to trust him. Paul Froese should be the same. Subtitled What We Say about God & What That Says about Us is an appropriate introduction to the book. Based on the Baylor Religion Survey, this study looks at what one of the most religions nations on earth believes about God. Since God is a key political player these days, that’s not a bad idea. Their conclusions are well worth noting.

Froese and Bader find that belief in God is highly idiosyncratic. It is likely the case that, similar to sacerdotal snowflakes, no two ideas about God are precisely the same. Categories, however, help to analyze things, and America’s Four Gods does just that, suggesting four main images of God that have very different characteristics. The Authoritative God we all know well. This is Jonathan Edwards’s deity that dangles spiders above the fire—active and angry in the world. The Benevolent God is also active, but more avuncular and kind. The Critical God is not very active, but is still annoyed with us. The Distant God tends to be kindly, but is rather remote. Using these four kinds of God, Froese and Bader examine what people believe about all kinds of issues, from war to social reform to adultery. When Americans say “God bless America” they mean very different things.

When it comes time to troop to the poles, we listen to what our candidates say about the Almighty. It is a virtual certainty that an atheist is unelectable in these religious states, so we want to hear what the candidates have to say about God. What they say and what their listeners hear, however, are clearly different things. Still, religious conviction is one of the most important variables when it comes to selection a President, Governor (at least in some states), or congress-person. Some candidates, with God off the plate, have nothing left to commend them at all. So it is in one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world. A basic truth that we choose to ignore decides our fate for us. Mired in a Gulf War? Who you gonna call? Chances are we all know the answer to that. Chances are equally as high that we all mean something different by it.

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