11/09/2010 03:31 pm ET Updated May 26, 2011

Americans' Images of God: Love May Keep Us Together

Forget about Glenn Beck and Richard Dawkins. Religious Americans do not fit into simple groups of polar opposites such as liberal or conservative, secular or fundamentalist, or even Protestant and Jew.

What does tell a great deal about the social and moral attitudes of people of faith is their image of God, according to a new study by Baylor University scholars Paul Froese and Christopher Bader.

And that can be a good thing. For all the attention paid to the radical few who would burn Qurans or disrupt funerals with anti-gay hatred, Froese and Bader report, there is a powerful force for civility at the core of nearly all Americans' faith life.

Love, sweet love.

Taking data from the Baylor Religion Survey, other national studies and interviews with people across the country, Froese and Bader point out that Americans almost universally view God as a loving parent. The desire to emulate God's love moderates religious disagreements among the great majority of Americans, they state in their just-released book, America's Four Gods: What We Say About God & What That Says About Us.

"Love is maybe the commonality that can help perpetuate civil society," Froese says.

America's Ideas of God Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in God. But they have vastly different conceptions of the divine and the role God plays in their daily lives. Froese and Bader, who is also associate director of the Association of Religion Data Archives, divide these images into four basic concepts:
  • The Authoritative God: God is like a literal father, both engaged as a positive force in the world and a judge of the behaviors of humankind. Suffering can be the result of social and individual sins.
  • The Benevolent God: God is mainly a force for good in the world, a being who answers the prayers of individuals and comforts the suffering.
  • The Critical God: God is less likely to be concerned with moments in the lives of individuals, but will mete out judgments in the next life. This a popular image among the poor and oppressed, the authors state.
  • The Distant God: God is a cosmic force that sets the laws of nature in motion, but does not get involved in day-to-day events or movements.

Find out a person's image of God, Froese and Bader say, and you can tell far more about that person than knowing the individuals' religious group or the house of worship he or she attends.

So a Catholic or an Episcopalian who believes in an authoritative God would be much more likely to oppose legal abortion and believe the success of the United States is part of God's plan than an evangelical who believes in a critical God.

At the same time, a Jewish person or United Methodist who believes in a benevolent God would be more likely to say government should have greater powers to combat terrorism or that creationism should be taught in schools than a Southern Baptist who believes in a distant God.

"Our image of God is never simply a reflection of the beliefs of our religious community," Froese and Bader write. "The traditional method of classifying people as Catholics or Baptists or Jews tells us little of consequence about what they believe."

Surprising Similarities

Yet there are also substantial areas of consensus among the real differences on moral and public policy issues, Froese and Bader found.

For example, in evaluating attitudes on several hot-button issues, the authors find believers in an authoritative or benevolent God, a divine being engaged with daily events, are far more likely than believers in a distant or critical God to say adultery, gay marriage, abortion, premarital sex and stem-cell research are almost always wrong.

But in placing the issues on a moral hierarchy, believers in all four types of God listed concerns in the same order, with adultery as the offense that is nearly always wrong, followed by gay marriage, abortion, premarital sex and stem-cell research.

In the case of religion and science, believers in a God who is active in the world were more likely to say the nation relies too much on science and not enough on faith.

But the idea that transcendent ideals should guide scientific advances does not indicate a basic hostility toward science, the authors found. Only 11 percent of believers in an authoritative or benevolent God said science and religion are incompatible. And 63 percent said, "Science helps to reveal God's glory."

And then there is that crazy little thing called love.

Eighty-five percent of Americans say that the term "loving" describes God well. This overwhelming appreciation of God's love cannot be underestimated.

"A morality directly related to a loving God fosters respect for one another and charity and ensures that our differences will not spiral out of control," Froese and Bader conclude. "A perfectly harmonious existence is clearly a dream, but at least it is a dream common to all of our Gods."
David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.