Sunday, October 17, 2010

Does Your Perception of God Determine Your Politics?

The cover story of USA Today about ten days ago was "How America Sees God," and certainly if so august a journal elevates this to its main front-page feature, it must be factual and important.

The piece was basically a publicist's dream, touting America's Four Gods: What We Say About God--and What that Says about Us, a new book by two sociologists at Baylor University.  The authors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, have often mined Baylor's annual religion surveys, packaging the idea that how one sees God determines one's political and social positions. I actually read the survey from their 2006 report, which asks everything from belief science will find Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, to whether God is "a 'He,'" to agreement that "The U.S. must establish democratic order in the Middle East."

The survey shows a bias in its Christian-centric construction (as a Jew, I was confused by some terms and would be at a loss to answer some queries).  In 2005, Gallup contacted 3,702 potential participants, and got a 46% response rate. Once the results were in, the professors interpreted the material--by deciding that views of God fall into (only) one of four types, "Authoritative," "Benevolent," "Distant" or "Critical."  The first two include an active, engaged God; the latter two, a God who started it all, but now doesn't interfere.

According to the USA Today summary, the 24% of Americans whose God is "Distant" think since creating the world, He stands back and watches. The 21% whose God is dubbed "Critical" also think God "rarely acts on earth," but might judge in the afterlife.  This is the deity of "ethnic minorities, the poor and the exploited," says the article, mainly because their lives are so hard (and therefore God must be "critical").

The "Benevolent" God of 22% of the respondents see Him as mostly a "positive influence on the world."  These folk don't blame God for tragedies, but credit Him for the good stuff in life.  The final 28% of respondents see an "Authoritative" and judgmental God, who, while loving, "can become angry and is capable of meting out punishment to the unfaithful," such as natural disasters or illness.

Basically, Froese and Bader take James David Barber's four constructs describing Presidential character, and apply them to Americans' views of God.  Barber sees some presidents' personalities as active (like the Authoritative and Benevolent God) and others as passive (like the Distant and Critical God).  At the same time, some presidents have a "positive" affect (corresponding to the Benevolent and Distant God) and others a "negative" perspective (Authoritative and Critical God).  Barber uses these to categorize Presidents (or candidates) to predict how they'll perform in office.

Presidents like Thomas Jefferson, F.D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy are "active-positive" presidents, adaptive and self-confident.  John Adams, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are "active-negatives" who compulsively but joylessly achieve.  James Madison, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are "passive-positives" whose need to be loved makes them compliant and reactive, while George Washington, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower exemplify the "passive-negative" withdrawn style that acts out of principle.  Just as you'd expect, the best bet for president is active-positive, then passive-positive.  Active-negatives were termed "dangerous" choices by Barber.

So, who are USA Today's poster boys?  Glenn Beck is their Authoritative God icon (who prefers the "dangerous" active-negative God), with his "warnings about losing God's favor."  Their Benevolent God guy?  Why, Barack Obama.

And how does this play out in political views?  "People with an Authoritative God are about three times more likely to say homosexuality is a choice, not an inborn trait...affecting their views on gay rights, particularly marriage and adoption."  (Notice that reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman uses the word "rights" rather than "issues.") Yep, active-negative, all right.

Glenn Beck's Authoritative God, book author Bader says, likely caused tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, "directly punishing us for a society's sinful ways."  The Benevolent God fans, though, are relentlessly upbeat, and "focus on a fireman who escaped, or the people who rebuild homes..."

Says the newspaper piece, "When President Obama says he is driven to live out his Christian faith in public service, or political satirist Stephen Colbert mentions God while testifying to Congress in favor of changing immigration laws," they're expressing a deity author Froese says "cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all."  (How active! How positive!) But Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck represent those who "divide the world by good and evil," whose actively negative God "appeal(s) to people who are worried, concerned and scared."

I think I'll take care and comfort over worried and scared.  And active optimism over active negativity.

By the way, the Distant God (who's passive-positive, like Bill Clinton) gets good press too.  Quoted is Rabbi Jamie Korngold, since Distant is "the dominant view of Jews."  She says Distant appeals to her because "that gives me more personal responsibility. There's no one that can fix things if I mess them up. God's not telling me what I should do."  (Notwithstanding those pesky commandments in the Torah.)

So, Froese and Bader offer a paradigm where two views of God appear to be pessimistic, and two appear to be optimistic.  Two reflect the active vitality of self-determination, and two reflect passive powerlessness and resignation.  Authoritative and Critical views of God correlate with conservative (bad) political views; Benevolent and Distant views of God correlate with liberal/progressive (good) political views.  Surprise!

The research assumes--without evidence--that like one's character, shaped in childhood, views of and feelings about God are well-defined character traits, not subject to change.  That people don't hold conflicting and sometimes confused thoughts at the same time. That such variables as mood, weather and public or personal events don't influence connection or inspiration.

I'd speculate that even the most faithful have doubts, various levels of clarity, and frequent revision in their religious perspectives.  And those perspectives are a complex amalgam of views on all sorts of spiritually-related subjects--not a single concrete block of simple beliefs.  Similarly, political views cover a range of topics--and views on any given subject can change.  (Can a conservative be a tree-hugger or condone first-trimester abortion?  Can a liberal favor second-amendment rights or oppose the death tax?) And how does God-perception predict the political views of the third of the electorate self-identifying as "independent?"

Just look at Barack Obama's polling--the country was overwhelmingly supportive in January, 2008, when his approval rating was 69%; Gallup's ratings for this month (Oct. 2010) show his disapproval rate higher than his approval, 48-46%.  Does that mean the electorate changed its views of God?

Could it be that these academics have a political agenda?  Oh no, the pristine halls of ivy are populated only by seekers of truth, who would never overlay personal perspectives on research outcomes.  Maybe they're just hoping to copy James David Barber's literary success.  And perhaps if God is truly Benevolent, they will.


  1. I've always thought that liberals who believe in God viewed him as "passive or Distant" and it is up to them to fix this mess or hell on earth. They stick their dirty finger in the petri dish of life to "fix" the frog eating the fly. 'That's terrible that the poor fly has to die!' which causes a bigger problem for them to "fix" when there a flies everywhere.
    Conservatives tend to stand back in amazement of the whole process of life that God has created and leave things alone and trust a higher power. Liberals think since they are on the cusp of time from old and ignorant to new and enlightened, it is up to them to figure all life's problems out. Obama is doing it with this mess call The United States of America.
    Obama could not say "by our creator" TWICE when quoting the Declaration of Independence which I think shows that God is out and he is in.
    I say STOP.

    David Marks
    Newnan, GA

  2. I just finished listening to Albert Mohler's interview with Robert Putnam, and he seems to think the opposite is the case: people adapt their religious views to match their politics.

    This struck me as counterintuitive until I considered just how far people will go to feel better about themselves and pretend they have external validation for their beliefs.