America’s Four Gods: God, Self, and Society
Jeremiah 9: 23-24
When we sneeze, we may hear, “God bless you!”
When a politician ends a speech, he or she will probably say, “May God bless the United States of America” or something similar.
If you look any US currency, you will find the words, “In God we trust”.
The Pledge of Allegiance informs us that we are “one nation under God”.
If you drop coins in a donation box, someone may say, “God bless you” or if you read a cardboard sign held by someone asking for money, it may well say “God bless you.”
Americans report one of the world’s highest levels of belief in God. Even as we embrace technology and the benefits of modern science, our faith in God is unwavering if the polls are to be believed. Interestingly enough, the word “God” is often heard in conversations, but we tend to avoid deep discussion about God! You know the old adage, politics and religion should be avoided at all costs in polite conversation.
So, today we are starting a new sermon series on “America’s Four Gods; What We Say About God and What That Says About Us”. It is based on a book by Paul Froese & Christopher Bader. Froese is a professor of Sociology at Baylor and Bader is a professor of Sociology at Chapman University. They conducted interviews across the country about people’s images of God and how that impacted their ideas about morality, politics, economics, and relationships.
Today and for the next 3 weeks, I will be sharing about what they learned. Today, we will talk about how our ideas about God impact our concept of ourselves and society. Next week, we’ll explore how our ideas about God impact our decisions about morality. The following week how our concept of God determines our ideas about evil; and the last week how it informs our future.
Our traditional word for today speaks to how we know and understand God…
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. Jer. 9:23-24
Froese & Bader realized that Americans have many concepts of God, but that our ideas can be categorized into four types:
• The Authoritative God – Americans who believe in a God who is both engaged in the world and who is judgmental (31%)
Some of the people who believe in an authoritative God tend to think that
God allows bad things to happen to those who displease him – like natural disasters; perhaps as a “wake up call”. But they are just as likely to see God as loving and compassionate.
• The Benevolent God – Americans who believe in a God who is engaged, yet nonjudgmental (24%)
While someone who believes in an authoritative God believes that God either caused a bad event to happen or allowed it to happen, someone who believes in a benevolent God doesn’t see it that way at all. Rather, they see God’s presence in the tragedy as helping or saving people in the midst of the disaster. God inspires people, places you in the right place at the right time, or whispers in your ear and gives you the opportunity to help.
• The Critical God – Americans who believe in a God who is judgmental, but disengaged (16%)
During a visit to Brazil in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at a drug rehabilitation center about illegal narcotics. He said, “I… urge the drug dealers to reflect on the grave harm they are inflicting on the countless young people and on adults from every level of society. God will call you to account for your deeds. Human dignity cannot be trampled upon in this way.” Believers in the critical God believe that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice will not be found in this world, but justice will ultimately prevail. Ethnic minorities, the poor and the exploited often believe in a critical God because the experience they have is that justice does not always come swiftly or in this world.
• The Distant God – Americans who believe in a nonjudgmental and disengaged God (24%)
Benjamin Franklin questioned, “I imagine it a great Vanity in me to suppose, that the Supremely Perfect does in the least regard such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man. More especially, since it is impossible for me to have any positive clear idea of that which is infinite and incomprehensible, I cannot conceive otherwise than that he the infinite Father expects or requires no Worship or Praise from us, but that he is even infinitely above it.”
Those who view God as a cosmic force that set the laws of nature in motion but does not really “do” thing in the world or hold clear opinions about activities or world events are believers in a distant God. They are likely to reference objects in the natural world like a mountaintop or a rainbow as divine.
• Atheists (5%)
For atheists, the idea of God may be a false sense of security – something others cling to in the face of death and the unfamiliar. For them, the concept of God is fictional and is not useful as a metaphor for some supernatural realm or higher power. Often they are highly educated and freethinkers.
How do we develop our ideas about God? Is our God simply ascribed to us from our culture? Is God a reflection of our personal desires? Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg claims that our initial introduction to God as a lasting impact on how our brains function! He suggests that once the idea of God is introduced, it becomes an important part of the way in which our thinking develops. Our earliest childhood image of God may be crucial in determining who we ultimately become.
In fact, the authors of the book I’m basing the sermon series on found this to be true. They found that Americans with authoritative parents tend to believe in an Authoritative God. In fact, children who were spanked have a high correlation with a belief in a god who is actively involved in judging and punishing humans.
The God of our childhood is a critical factor in who we will become and the kind of religious life we will lead. We may change our image of God as we encounter new environments, and we may reject and question the attitudes we are exposed to, but our childhood has a dramatic impact on what we believe.
Nearly half of all Americans indicate that they have “felt called by God to do something”. Many of us describe seeing miracles, hearing the voice of God, and experiencing extraordinary coincidences that we attribute to God. The most memorable stories are not brief flashes of magical wonder but heartfelt testimonies of how God took hold of a person’s life. Several of these stories are in the book.
Janet, a native New Yorker, struggled with alcohol and drugs for most of her life – a struggle so severe and debilitating that she twice attempted suicide. Janet was always a believer in a Benevolent God, and she often looked to God to aid in her recovery. One night her prayers were answered. After her second suicide attempt, Janet awoke in her hospital room and immediately felt a presence she knew was God. Having been rushed to the emergency room and barely revived, Janet was struck by an epiphany that God was finally “with me that night”. For her, the fact that her suicide attempt failed and she was rescued at the last minute was clear evidence of divine intervention. At this moment of realization, Janet felt God’s hand touch her. After her powerful religious encounter, Janet entered recovery and eventually went back to school and became a nurse who now provides the same care she received when her life was in peril.
From an outside perspective, we can say that Janet was saved by the routine work of emergency technicians. Nevertheless, Janet felt God working through her rescuers and interpreted her escape from death as a miracle. Janet’s belief in a Benevolent God and her experience of God in that single moment continue to shape her years later.
While many Americans talk about dramatic experiences with God, other believers speak of a different kind of religious experience – the experience of viewing the world through “religious eyes”. For these people, ordinary encounters and objects take on religious significance. For them, God exists within all things – specifically things that are not miraculous in any sense. Leslie, a suburban homemaker and believer in a Distant God, explained that God would never literally speak to a person or lay hands on someone. Her belief in a Distant God precludes these kinds of religious experiences. Still, Leslie explains that her life is rife with religious encounters of a much different sort. She explains: “If I’m moving with God, then my eyes are open to God’s handiwork. And if not, I miss it. You blink and you miss it. I mean, look around, flowers are clear evidence of God’s perfection and a platypus is clear evidence of his sense of humor. If you can’t see it, you’ve missed it. It’s all a miracle, every bit of it.”
I would invite you to listen carefully this week to the many times the word God is used. Listen for the ways people talk about God and use the name of God. Is it casual or formal? What does the usage say about God or about the person? Look at how people on social media use language about God. Consider whether you think of God as Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, or Distant. I would love to discuss these things with you!
Froese, Paul & Bader, Christopher. America’s Four God’s; What We Say about God- And What That Says About Us. Oxford University Press: 2010