Americans and the God question

"In God we trust"... but what kind of God? Most Americans (85 to 90 percent) believe in God. A large majority prays and almost half attend church or other services at least monthly. But how do they view God, and does it affect social and political attitudes?

A new survey from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, called "American Piety in the 21st Century" probes this subject. Conducted by Gallup pollsters, the survey is receiving deserved praise for its depth of questioning.

While some critics point to a degree of bias – Baylor is a Baptist university – religion pollsters say the survey is generally sound and especially revealing about people's concept of deity.

The use of religion in politics has helped drive polling on faith. But understanding how Americans think about God is also important in gauging how they approach the moral issues of the day, and how they relate to each other.

The most innovative aspect of the Baylor study is how its questions turned up four ways in which people conceive of deity.

The survey offered 16 words to characterize God, such as motherly, wrathful, and severe. It supplied 10 descriptions relating to God's involvement in the world, including "a cosmic force in the universe," "removed from world affairs," and "concerned with my personal well-being."

About 5 percent of the 1,721 respondents were atheists, but the rest had a view of God that fit one of four basic "types":

Type "A" is authoritarian, metes out punishment, and is highly involved in world and personal affairs (the view of about 31 percent).

Type "B" is benevolent, also active in the world and individual lives, but more forgiving (23 percent).

Type "C" is critical, not engaged but still passing judgment – which individuals will discover in a later life (16 percent).

Type "D" is distant, neither active nor judging – but a force which set the laws of nature in motion (about 24 percent).

The study found that even people within the same denomination hold different concepts of God – which may explain schisms over dogma. Evangelicals and black Protestants, however, hold the most uniform views (a majority sees God as authoritarian).

It also found that the "four Gods" track more closely with political and social attitudes than do traditional indicators such as church attendance. The study found, for instance, that the closer one moves toward the authoritarian model, the more likely one finds abortion and gay marriage are "always wrong."

Baylor plans more such surveys, and there's still much to plumb. Some religion experts, for instance, suspect a certain superficiality in Americans' religiosity. How might they weigh in on the import of the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments? And then there's the growth in nontraditional and nonJudeo-Christian faiths, especially among young people.

Americans know theirs is a religious country. This, and future studies, can help act as a mirror to help them better appreciate common bonds as well as differences in what they worship. The more people know how God is reflected in individual lives, the more understanding they will have toward others.

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