02/22/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

God (or the Gods) and Politics

As the recent controversy over contraception makes clear, the divide between the American Catholic bishops and the Catholic rank-and-file is huge. Findings from the Pew Research Center leave little room for doubt: Only 15 percent of Catholics agree that using contraceptives is morally wrong, while 41 percent say it is morally acceptable and 36 percent dismiss it as a moral issue altogether. Moreover, the contraception flap quickly morphed into bigger issues, notably the religious rights of individuals and institutions, and even questions about President Obama's own faith. The culture wars were back as noisily as ever.

Some Americans appear surprised that Catholic views on contraception -- and lurking behind these views on God and morality more broadly -- are so diverse. But the fact is that such differences in views, especially in regard to lifestyles and personal values, have greatly expanded within all the major American religious constituencies. Just as we in cannot talk so easily about the Catholic view on contraception, neither can we describe in any simple way Jewish and mainline Protestant views on gay marriage. Even with evangelical Protestants who are more solidified in outlook, there is some increase in favorable views particularly among younger generations. Put simply, religious communities are far less monolithic in their social views and voting patterns today than they once were. The day is long past when we can speak meaningfully about the "Catholic vote" or of a "WASP culture."

Of course, we take pride as a nation of individualists, as people who form their own views and opinions. We also know that religious authorities no longer enjoy as much authority to persuade, much less to enforce views and opinions, particularly on issues of private morality in a culture that has become decidedly more relativistic and self-focused. Levels of religious choice have also expanded, creating a cafeteria-style religiosity, choosing from this or that tradition as they please. Some go so far as to say that we are now less religious and more secular than in earlier times, which is easy to say yet less easy to prove: both terms -- the "religious" and the "secular" -- yield to interpretations that support whatever argument one chooses to make.

A more persuasive argument is that our views on God have become more diverse and more bound up with our politics. The title of Paul Froese and Christopher Bader's book in 2010 makes the point: "America's Four Gods: What We Say About God -- And What That Says About Us." Using a national survey and interview data, they arrive at four major images and a breakdown for Americans as follows: the Authoritarian God, the patriarch who sets the rules, then judges and often punishes people in this life (31 percent); the Benevolent God, who nurtures and supports people in their everyday lives (24 percent); the Critical God who holds people accountable for their deeds, not so much now as in the life to come (16 percent); and the Distant God, a cosmic force that set the laws of nature in force but does not intervene in people's lives or in the world at large (24 percent), plus a remaining 5 percent of atheists. Today, the "Four Gods" reign within all the major religious traditions.

Invoking the name of God helps in justifying our own moral and political views. And invoking a God in your own ideological image makes for an even easier justification. The tragedy is when politicians manipulate those images in the interest of narrow, partisan goals. God is no stranger to the culture wars of the past three decades but now the more politically shaped Gods take on a new presence in our public life.

With regard to contraception, abortion, homosexuality and other "family values" issues, believers in the Authoritarian God are more morally absolutist than are any of the other types of believers. Between Authoritarian God and Benevolent God believers within the same religious tradition -- and across traditions -- strong differences exist with regard to fundamental views on the family: the former envision power and control, the latter warmth and support. God in the first instance reaffirms support for long-standing traditional views feared to be in decline, and in the second support for diverse family forms, for caring and intimacy in a world that has changed so drastically.

Indeed, if the family metaphor is extended to religious communities, then it would seem that in America today they are dysfunctional families, their members warring all too much among themselves and often in ways they do not fully understand. Given all that we already know about our highly-charged political season, we can expect more such outbursts like the contraception controversy and the staging of culture wars that it provoked. One can only hope for a better understanding of how we ourselves have created the Gods who now play on that stage, and a reclaiming on our part of the deeper, more integral and unifying features of our religious heritages.

Wade Clark Roof, Professor of Religion and Society, University of California, Santa Barbara.