The Divine Divide
More than a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche, the depressive and depressing German philosopher, pronounced the death of God, but most Americans have yet to hear the message. The four horsemen of the New Atheist apocalypse—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel C. Dennett—have done their best to carry on the movement that Nietzsche heralded, but their achievement has been largely monetary. Some 90 percent of Americans are still content to believe in God.
Or gods, rather. According to Baylor University professors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, the real war in American society is not between atheists and theists, but between people who have differing conceptions of the divine. In 1991, James Davison Hunter introduced the concept of the culture wars, which he said were grounded in different conceptions of moral authority. In America's Four Gods: What We Say about God—and What That Says about Us (Oxford University Press), Froese and Bader take the sociological examination one step further. Views of "moral authority" are notoriously difficult to study empirically. Few people, after all, are equipped to explain the differences between moral relativism and moral absolutism. So Froese and Bader examine our conception of God to determine whether and how our theological ideas matter for politics and culture.
The American religious landscape is admittedly as varied and complex as the geographical landscape. This makes any taxonomy of religious beliefs necessarily artificial, as the authors note. So they start with what American religious believers have in common: namely, the notion that God is loving. This is something some 85 percent of Americans affirm.
Beneath that superficial similarity, though, is a range of conceptions about God's character. Those conceptions dramatically alter our understanding of the shape his love takes in our world. Froese and Bader examine two questions whose answers, they contend, determine more about a person's cultural and political worldview than any other sociological factor. First, to what extent does God interact with the world? Second, to what extent does God judge the world? As the authors put it, "The answers to these questions predict the substance of our worldviews much better than the color of our skin, the size of our bank account, the political party we belong to, or whether we wear a white Stetson or faded Birkenstocks."
Respondents' answers lead the authors to identify four conceptions of God among the American religious public: (1) the authoritative God, who both judges and is closely engaged in the world; (2) the benevolent God, who is "engaged but nonjudgmental"; (3) the critical God, who happens to be judgmental but disengaged; and (4) the distant God, who is neither engaged nor judgmental, and could care less about how humans muck about.
The rubric is helpful. It moves beyond the binary culture-war characterizations of "Left and Right," "progressive and conservative," and so on. Our over-dependence on such characterizations became clear when black evangelicals in California voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, as expected, but also voted to ban homosexual marriages. The outcome reminded everyone that the culture wars aren't always fought along partisan lines.