Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — and What That Says About Us (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 258pp.
Review by W. David Buschart, Associate Dean and Professor of Theology and Historical Studies at Denver Seminary.
What do you believe about the morality of adultery or stem-cell research? To a greater degree than you might think, your views on these and other issues are largely determined by your theology — that is, by your view of God. Indeed, supporting and shaping our political, social, and economic beliefs are our beliefs about God.
This theological phenomenon is the subject of a fascinating book by two sociologists. Paul Froese and Christopher Bader teach at and conduct research from Baylor University. They present a portion of their recent research in America's Four Gods, based on their findings from the Baylor Religion Survey, which was administered to over 3,300 people and supplemented by in-person interviews.
Believing that the so-called “culture wars” may be, in fact, “a war over who God is” (page 4), Froese and Bader pose two major questions to discern Americans’ views of God: to what extent does God interact with the world?, and, to what extent does God judge the world? Each of these questions then creates a continuum along which the authors map people’s views of God. The result is — admittedly much simplified here — four dominant types of views of God:
View A: God is engaged and judgmental — an authoritative God
View B: God is engaged and not judgmental — a benevolent God
View C: God is not engaged and is judgmental — a critical God
View D: God is not engaged and is not judgmental — a distant God.
So, how do these views relate to our views on social and ethical issues? The authors devote four chapters of the book to detailed explorations of this: “God and Morals” (Ch. 3), “God and Science” (Ch. 4), “God and Mammon” (Ch. 5), and “God and Evil” (Ch. 6). For this review, one illustration must suffice: gay marriage.
According to their study, people who view God predominantly as “authoritative” (View A) believe that gay marriage is always wrong; those who view God predominantly as “benevolent” (View B) believe gay marriage to be wrong most of the time; those who view God predominantly as “critical” (View C) are less likely to believe gay marriage is wrong most of the time; and those who view God predominantly as “distant” (View D) believe gay marriage to be wrong sometimes. There is a clear progression of varying views about the morality of gay marriage, and other social and moral issues, which appears to correspond to a progression of varying views of God. For a more detailed analysis of this and other issues addressed in their study, you can consult the website for this project at www.Americasfourgods.com.
Though not surprising, it was disappointing to read the authors’ observations about many Americans’ inability to describe and explain their own most basic beliefs. “[M]any of us,” they write, “cannot concisely express our own deepest moral and philosophical assumptions” (page 9).
In a society where the pursuit of “spirituality” shows no signs of decline, but where mainstream media often avoid the spiritual dimensions of societal issues, the authors offer the provocative and constructive suggestion that “… the country is not divided into the religious and the irreligious but rather by specific images of God” (page 55).
Finally, anyone who reads this book with even a moderate degree of attention will be invited to reconsider — or thoughtfully consider for the first time — important questions, such as:
- whether God is both “other” (transcendent) and near at hand (immanent)—the Christian tradition says “Yes”;
- whether God is Lord over and involved with the affairs of this world—the Christian tradition says “Yes”;
- whether there is “right” and “wrong,” and whether human beings are accountable before God for “right” and “wrong”—the Christian tradition says “Yes”;
- and whether God lovingly provides a way for forgiveness and redemption—the Christian tradition says “Yes!”