Breaking: U.S. believes in God, sort of

god2 sistine chapel 600x308This USA Today story has been in tmatt's infamous GetReligion Guilt file for some time now, but I could not throw it away. It seems that, with the Pew Forum on such a roll, religion-beat reporters are awash in interesting poll data about religion, values, politics, etc. In other words, we are still in the aftershocks of the "values voters" and "pew gap" political earthquakes of 2000 and 2004. Here is my request: Will someone please go ahead and do a major study of the political and doctrinal beliefs of the Religious Left and the Mushy Middle?

Meanwhile, the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion has been getting lots of ink with its concept -- click here for the home page on this -- that Americans basically have four different approaches to God and that, amazingly enough, which God they say they believe in tells you a lot about their lives and (gasp!) their politics. Yes, I fear that this is all linked to the phenomenon that faith is most important when it affects the ballot box.

So veteran religion-beat specialist Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today was given quite a bit of space to roll out many of the details. The key is that her package actually gives readers a chance to grasp the basic structure of the Baylor study.

Here is that heart of the story, the kind of background that reporters don't get to offer very often. This is rather long, so here is a slightly condensed version. The key voice here is Baylor's Christopher Bader:

• 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." ...

Those who envision God this way "are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals," Bader says.

"(They) want an active, Christian-values-based government with federal funding for faith-based social services and prayer in the schools." They're also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).

• 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. ...

They're inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person. ...

• 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.

For example, 57% overall say gay marriage is always wrong compared with 80.6% for those who see an authoritarian God, and 65.8% for those who see God as benevolent. For those who believe in a critical God, it was 54.7%.

• 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," Bader says. 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, Bader says.

Only 3.8% of this group say embryonic stem cell research is always wrong, compared with 38.5% of those who see an authoritarian God, 22.7% for those who see God as benevolent and 13.2% who see God as critical but disengaged.

jesuslandagain 01I thought it was striking that people feared that Baylor University -- the world's largest Southern Baptist linked campus -- would lean right in its interpretation of such a study.

That's a riot. Baylor is in the midst of a multi-decade war over its self-identity and would not, believe me, do anything that would open a door to criticism that it is in some meaningful way "evangelical" or "traditionalist." Heaven forbid. Also note that the research was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which is very mainstream or even mainline.

The bottom line: Grossman's piece does a great job of underlining ways in which American culture is defined, at the moment, by camps of believers who want to believe in Truth, but not specific truths that apply to them, by believers who strongly want to believe, but fear saying that any beliefs are right and others are wrong.

Note, in particular, that this story mentions, once again, that more and more Americans are trying to shun the hot political label "evangelical," which is the new "fundamentalist."

Thus, the growth of the emerging evangelical left is, again, a huge story. Americans want to shape their own beliefs, picking and choosing in the open marketplace. That is not a strictly conservative or traditional reality, which the Baylor survey demonstrates.

Check out the story and the survey material. It is must reading for those charting trends in OprahAmerica. It does seem that beliefs and worldview matter. But some beliefs affect actions more than others.

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