I’m reading John Marks’ Reasons to Believe: One Man’s Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind, and it presents an interesting study about religious attitudes:
“The most wide-ranging study on American faith came out in autumn 2006. The Baylor Religion Survey, ‘American Piety in the Twenty-First Century,’ as it’s officially known, contacted 1,721 Americans and asked them each 350 questions. In that poll, half of the respondents called themselves ‘Bible-believing’ Christians. Another quarter identified themselves as members of mainline denominations, and yet another used the term ‘born-again.’ The most striking aspect of the survey, however, had to do with God’s identity in these various groupings. The study found that Americans worshipped four different versions of God–Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, or Distant. African American and white evangelical Protestants favored the Authoritarian, who has a ‘high level of involvement in daily life and world affairs.’ He also punishes those who don’t believe. Catholics were more likely to believe in the Benevolent, who ‘is mainly a positive force in the world, still active in daily life but not condemning of individuals.’ Mainline Protestants and some African American Protestants went for the Critical, who ‘stays mostly out of world affairs, providing a critique of them from afar.’ And most Jewish respondents and those unaffiliated with any particular faith favored the Distant, who ‘is not active in the world and not especially angry'” (49-50).
Some of this coincided with my experience, and some of it did not. I think there are a lot of African-American Christians and white evangelicals who believe in a God who is active in the world, and their God also exercises wrath every now and then. “God spoke to me” is an expression you will encounter on this end of the religious spectrum. And, if you hear a sermon on hell, it will most likely be from these kinds of churches. But my experience is that there are also many of them who view God as benevolent, and they discuss hell very rarely.
The description of Catholics meshes with my experience, for their homilies often treat God as a benevolent force in the world. I also don’t hear that much about hell in their services. The exception is that one priest at the Latin mass I attend, who has discussed hell and purgatory. But his sermons are usually very philosophical, so they are not as “touchy-feely” as the ones I often hear in Catholic masses.
The description of mainline Protestants doesn’t exactly mesh with my own experience, for I’ve heard mainline Protestants claim that God is actively involved in the stuff of day-to-day life. For them, one way God is active is that he uses his people to do good. The “Critical” view sounds to me more like Armstrongism, which holds that God presently maintains a “hands-off” approach to the world, which will change when he sends Jesus Christ to earth to establish his kingdom.
To be honest, even though I’ve attended two Jewish institutions, I really don’t know what to do with the study’s description of Jewish attitudes. Granted, the Jewish people I know do not exactly speak of God the same way that evangelicals do: as someone who is a friend on life’s journey. Rather, the Jews I know tend to focus on ritual and community. But I’m not sure if they view God as inactive in the world.