Tuesday, October 19, 2010

America's Four Gods

I recently read through the book America's Four Gods: What We Say About God--& What That Says About Us by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader. It was a helpful book and very informative in a number of areas. Like any book there were something things that were not so helpful. 

The data these sociologists collected breaks down into four general views of God held my Americans.

The four views are with the rough percentages are:

1. Authoritative God. 31%
2. Benevolent God. 24%
3. Critical God. 16%
4. Distant God. 24%

Roughly 5% of the population is an atheist.

The 'Authoritative God' views God as active in the world and actively engaged in judging the world. They hold that God is loving in his being but that he is willing to judge and punished and that "the bad and good things that happen to us are likely of his making" (p.29). 

The 'Benevolent God' view holds that God is less likely to punish and judge human behavior (p.29). He is "mainly a force for good in the world and less willing to condemn individuals" (p.29). The main message is "everything comes up roses if we only care to look and believe" (p.31). This view has trouble or cannot conceive of anger as coming from God.

The 'Critical God' view sees that God critical of us when we do wrong but he is not active in judging the world. So while He views certain things unfavorably he is largely inactive in the world. 

Finally, the 'Distant God' view thinks of God as largely unjudgmental and uninvolved in the world. They consider Benjamin Franklin as a good summation of this view when he says, "I cannot conceive otherwise than that he the infinite Father expects and requires no Worship or Praise from us, but that he is even infinitely above it" (p.33). So essentially God leaves us alone and we leave Him alone.

The book does not critic these four views but like a news reporter they simply recount what the views are. They organize them in this chart:
So the horizontal axis is a spectrum from less judgmental to more judgmental. The vertical axis is more to less engaged. The four quadrants illustrate the differing views in relation to each other. The authors are clear that the precise distinctions about what God is like are infinite and there four part typology is somewhat artificial in an attempt to organize the spectrum (p.149).

Overall the data and the presentation is helpful and the book leads to fruitful discussion.

However, as with everything, there are problems.

1. One potential problem is that the labels "Benevolent" and "Authoritative" can potentially bias the reader. The authors are clear "Such labels are not meant to imply that a person who views God as Authoritative imagines him as having no Benevolent qualities. Indeed, as noted before, almost everyone imagines God to be a loving being and in our interviews, people with an Authoritative image of God provided many stories of demonstrating his benevolence" (p.166).

Yet the survey questions make no attempt to ascertain if there are difference in the way people view God's benevolence. Why label one side as "Benevolent" when each of the other categories a quadrant  is distinguished largely by the absence of its category? So a critical God does not see God as engaged. A distant God does not see God as engaged and does not see God as judgmental. 

So on the x-axis everyone is loving but the distinction is over God's judgment. The survey assigns no calculative weight to the question of whether or not God is loving (p.162). Yet again labeling one side "benevolent" when authoritative view sees God as loving is simply not helpful in marking the distinction.

One wonders how the results would have differed had the survey probed the nature of God's love. Perhaps they would have found some number of people who emphasize the loving nature of God and His grace without minimizing God's judgment. Perhaps they would have found some without hardly any notion of God's love with a strong conception of God's judgment. Would the results have differed?

The survey does not probe the nature of God's judgement for those who believe God judges and is active and so the survey is not much help in this area.

2. Although not a large portion of the book, one thing that raises questions for me: why do the authors go and conduct interviews at the infamous Westboro Baptist Church [WBC] (p.77-80) as part of their profile on the "Authoritative God" view? They are clear that there are "moral extremists" and "in these atypical cases, God can often play a dominant role" (p.77). This church is infamous for having strong views of God's hate and God's wrath. They are so strong that they protest at the funerals of soldiers and are notorious for brandishing inflammatory signs in protests of all types.


Why not find a case where a church or group of church holds strongly to moral standards without being extremist or atypical? Certainly there are moral relativists and certainly their are those who have strong moral values and then there are indeed atypical extremists. Part of the argument is to show that people who are hateful have a hateful view of God (77). Is that really novel? I believe the case would have been better served by avoiding an atypical example and focusing on a common example of someone hold to moral values against relativism. What about a person or church who see God as judging sin but it makes them more gracious and loving because they know they are accountable to God for their behavior? While the authors never make value judgments, we might note that this would be a more Biblical portrait that one would find refreshing when illustrated.

WBC is a powerful but skewing illustration of people who see God as hateful. One wonders how extensive is the view of  this group summarizes their message is "God loves us and hates you" (p.79). It seems highly suspect to me that this is anything near representative of the "Authoritarian God" view. If for example "the phrase 'hate the sin, love the sinner' perfectly reflects most Americans' view of homosexuality" (p.73) but WBC clear shows hate, including hating homosexuals--why then are they even interviewed for the book?

I would guess that most serious Christians who hold that according to the Bible God hates sin, would not embrace the radical views of WBC. In fact, Froese and Bader's own data on the "Authoritative View" says that they widely accept a conception of America where God's favor rests on America. "Christian who believe in an Authoritative God firmly believe that the United States is favored by God" (p.137). This is clearly not something embraced by WBC. One cannot help but again question why WBC is surveyed since we are told "they are atypical." 

Even more, why in a book that mentions no serious theology other than recounting general difference do the authors spend a full footnote outline that WBC is "Calvinistic" (p.206 n.12). We are told they are a "very strict version of five-point Calvinism" this citation marks the words "There God is a nastier version of the Authoritarian God" (p.78).

We are not told that WBC does not represent main stream Calvinism, including the majority of five point Calvinist who are clear on the greatness of God's mercy and benevolence. Countless five point Calvinists today would reject the methods and statements made by WBC. We are not told if the authors see a difference between "five-point Calvinism" and what they call "strict five-point Calvinism." There is no background to this statement. We are not even given a picture of churches that are hateful and reject Calvinism. With a book that makes no real theological distinctions why even mention WBC's so-called Calvinism?

The inclusion of WBC seems odd and out of place if we are trying to gain an accurate picture of an authoritative God. We are told WBC is an extreme version of the spectrum but we get no perspective on their rarity. We get a hint that they are extreme and fringe but there is no qualitative or quantitative evaluation. One cannot help but wonder if Calvinism is maligned or labeled as the cause of this extreme view but even more one cannot help but wonder why this church is discussed under "Authoritative God" when it runs the risk of creating a pejorative evaluation of the category. In the end it is good to know from the authors that  "few Americans imagine a God with such hateful qualities" (80).

3. One last set of statistics that is both troubling and sobering is the close association between a large portion of the "Authoritative God" and Civil Religion. Civil Religion is often the designation of the idea that God blesses America and America is God's chosen nation to be used in a spiritual war. Thus American national policy, particularly her extension of military power, is seen as part of God's cosmic battle in this world. 

While I do believe that "just war" theory is historic to Christian theology, this is never to be applied today to say that all America's wars are just because of some special divine favor we have. They tend to associate a religious aspect to the Iraq War.

If we are to think Bibilically, this is dangerous and deadly. We should be clear that Froese and Bader only report what they find. But I believe sober minded Christian need to evaluate their views of God and America. Clearly in the Bible God judges sin. But America is never God's chosen nation. It is unbiblical. It may be true that our heritage has a strong Christian background. It is true in the early days of America, Christian churches have been prominent and our citizen have been in majority either in true profession or at least moral values. 

One should however think that there is anything inherent in believing God is authoritative that should cause one to hold America as unique in God's plan for history. The Bible warns against such arrogance. The only truly chosen nation was Old Testament Israel, and now God's electing grace extends to the church down through the ages.

Conclusion:
America's Four Gods is a helpful book. The statistics are useful at point even if the organization is at points somewhat artificial. There is much to learn from this book about where Americans stand in their views of God. The critical reader will in turn be more reflective on where his views align in relationship to other America but hopefully the wise reader will go beyond the purpose of the book and ask: am I deriving my views from the Word of God?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of the problems in the book, America's Four Gods. What I found very helpful was that Foese and Bader concluded that there were variations of views of God even within conservative Christian churches.

I gave the survey to my adult sunday school class to kick off a series I am doing on the doctrine of God. The results are very helpful. All but 4 out of 17 view God as authoritative. 2 viewed God as "benevolent" and 2 viewed God as "critical". When I viewed the surveys of those 4 results, I found some things that I will definitely be addressing in my teaching now.

It would have been interesting if I could have asked some of the interview questions alonside of taking the survey to inform me if in fact the worldviews aligned with the survey results or if any of the 4 were just extraneous data points to be ignored.

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...