Religion in America: The Four Gods
The Baylor University Religion Study, believed to be the most-detailed study of American religion ever undertaken, released a report on Monday that is making headlines in newspapers across the country and causing waves in the blogosphere.
This study serves as both a reminder and an opportunity for Christians to engage the culture in a needed dialogue on issues of faith and salvation. To that end, I want to take a closer look at some of the study’s discoveries and conclusions.
In Four Gods We Trust.
A national survey released in 2004 indicated that over 14 percent of Americans were non-religious, up from 8 percent in 1988 (the year Brett and I were born). According to researchers at Baylor, their more-detailed survey indicates that only 10.8 percent of the population are non-religious, effectively “discovering” 10 million more religious Americans—mostly Evangelicals—than were previously known.
Here is a quick summary of some of their key findings:
Nearly half of Americans (47.2%) identify themselves as ‘Bible-believing’. Fully a third of Americans (33.6%), roughly 100 million people, are Evangelical Protestant by affiliation. Fewer than five percent of the U.S. population claim a faith outside of the Judeo-Christian mainstream. Barely one in ten Americans (10.8%) is NOT affiliated with a congregation, denomination, or other religious group. The majority (62.9%) of Americans NOT affiliated with a religious tradition believe in God or some higher power.
According to the study then, almost 92 percent of Americans believe in God. These numbers seem to argue that America has not yet slipped into secularism to the extent that some have assumed. This is encouraging news.
At the same time, however, the Baylor study paints Americans as deeply divided on the question of what God is like. Based on survey participant’s responses to two sets of questions—God’s level of involvement and God’s level of anger—the researchers identified four different views of God, dubbed America’s “Four Gods.”
The results are below, with definitions of each category:
31.4 percent were categorized as believing in an Authoritarian God, who is engaged in the world and very judgmental. 25 percent were categorized as believing in a Benevolent God, who is engaged in the world but not judgmental. 23 percent were categorized as believing in a Distant God, who is not engaged in the world and who doesn’t care what we do. 16 percent were categorized as believing in a Critical God, who is judgmental but not actively engaged.
The God of the Bible
Researchers at Baylor have drawn all sorts of interesting parallels and conclusions from their analysis of the “Four Gods,” but for now I want to focus on the fact that none of these “views of God” rightly describe the God of Scripture.
We do not serve a distant or disengaged God. Rather we serve a God who is actively involved in His creation. It is in Him that “we live and move and have our being” (Act 17:28). It is He who “upholds the universe by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3) and who works all things “for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
God is both loving and holy, and His wrath against sin is the result of His holiness. The Bible teaches that we are all by nature “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) destined to “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). And yet the glorious news of the gospel is that God “so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Christ’s perfect life and excruciating death—an expression of God’s immeasurable love—paid the price for our sins. He bore the holy wrath of God for the sins of everyone who will put their faith in Him. You see, Jesus did not die because God doesn’t hate sin. He had to die because God does hate sin.
I love how John Piper puts it in his article, Defending My Father’s Wrath:
There was only one hope for me—that the infinite wisdom of God might make a way for the love of God to satisfy the wrath of God so that I might become a son of God. This is exactly what happened, and I will sing of it forever.
Unfortunately, the Baylor study seems to confirm the sobering fact that many millions of God-believing Americans have an incomplete or inaccurate view of God, and consequently, a misunderstanding of the gospel.
A New Series: God and the Gospel
This widespread confusion in America over the nature of God should motivate us to do three things: First, to carefully examine our own understanding of God in the light of His Word. Second, to pursue a stronger grasp of biblical theology (i.e. the study of God). And third, to effectively and creatively communicate that right understanding of God to the world around us. These are hard things, but they are incredibly important, especially for those of us who call ourselves rebelutionaries.
In the upcoming week we’re going to embark on an new series titled “God and the Gospel,” that will help us do all three of those things. Using the Baylor study and others like it—including the National Study of Youth and Religion—to gain a better grasp of what our generation believes about God and Christianity, we will then respond to some of the most common misconceptions with the truth of God’s Word.
A Closing Challenge
For now, I would encourage all of you to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the attention that the Baylor study has received and actively seek to share the gospel with someone this week. Ask them if they’ve heard about the big study on religion that’s been making headlines. If they have, ask them to share what they believe about God. If they haven’t, fill them in, then ask them.
As you listen, be thinking about the verses I shared earlier in the post—they will help you identify any misconceptions the person may have about God or salvation. When they’re done talking, use the verses to explain what the Bible says. A lot of times, people just don’t know. The most important task on earth is to tell them.