America, in God (or gods) we trust

bart n godBefore I dash into classes today, I wanted to make a brief comment on the "Losing my religion?" survey that came out yesterday from Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. And here is what I want to say. Yes, I am going to hit you with the tmatt trio again.

All together now -- if you want to know where people who say that they are Christian believers fall on a left-to-right theological spectrum, just ask these questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

This Baylor survey is all over the place today in the mainstream media, but if you want the biggest splash of the actual data, head to veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman's package on page one of USA Today. She nails the key issue right right up front:

The United States calls itself one nation under God, but Americans don't all have the same image of the Almighty in mind. A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God -- from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind's affairs.

Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms like "Religious Right." Even the oft-used "Evangelical" appears to be losing ground. Believers just don't see themselves the way the media and politicians -- or even their pastors -- do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

What everyone will be talking about today is this survey's attempt to clump Americans into one of four different camps when it comes to definitions of God. This is very strange stuff, in part because the four definitions overlap so much.

Most of all, the survey's authors are trying to capture the dynamic that, in an age in which organized religion is spinning off into do-it-yourself movements and independent congregations, people are trying to find a way to enjoy spirituality and faith without tying themselves to doctrine and discipline.

Yes, this does remind me of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his Culture Wars thesis that the major division in religion today is between the "camp of the orthodox," who believe in the power of eternal, unchanging, absolute, revealed truths, and the "camp of the progressives," who believe truth is evolving and personal. I still think this issue is the fault line.

Meanwhile, here are clips from Grossman's coverage of these four American views of God:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity's sins and engaged in every creature's life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on "the unfaithful or ungodly." . . .

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. ...

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he's not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. ... Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. ...

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is "no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us." ... Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It's also strong among "moral relativists," those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don't attend church. ...

bushgodConfused? Me too.

It still seems to me that you end up having to ask basic questions about moral issues and doctrines and that you will end up with that pattern that we see so often -- about 20 percent strongly conservative, about 20 percent strongly liberal and the muddled "Oprah America" in the middle.

Note what happens, for example, when Grossman offers a sidebar on a crucial question: Who is going to heaven? Yes, that is a variation on one of the tmatt trio questions, about the role of Jesus in salvation.

And the answer? Welcome to the post-denominational heaven, and America is -- surprise, surprise -- split just about down the middle on the crucial question.

Americans clearly believe in heaven and salvation -- they just don't agree on who's eligible. The Baylor Religion Survey finds that most Americans (58.3%) agree with the statement "many religions lead to salvation."

Please respect our Commenting Policy