September 13, 2006

Baylor: Is Your God Authoritarian or Benevolent?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:55 pm

Baylor University in Waco has just published their survey on religion. It follows the Pew religion survey by a couple weeks, but I found the Baylor survey questions far more intriguing. For people like me (okay, nerds like me) who enjoy poring through tons of data, this survey is like Christmas morning.

I’ll probably have more to say on the survey, but what jumps out at me (and USA Today) is Baylor’s definition of the four conceptions people have of God. From the USA Today article, the first two “Gods”:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly,” Bader says.

Those who envision God this way “are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals,” Bader says.

“(They) want an active, Christian-values-based government with federal funding for faith-based social services and prayer in the schools.”

They’re also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).

•The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values.

But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, Froese says.

They’re inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person.

This is the group in which the Rev. Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor and communications director for his father’s 5,000-member Southern Baptist congregation in Overland Park, Kan., places himself.

“God is in control of everything. He’s grieved by the sin of the world, by any created person who doesn’t follow him. But I see (a) God … who loves us, who sees us for who we really are. We serve a God of the second, third, fourth and fifth chance,” Johnston says.

(The article goes on to describe the Critical God and the Distant God, both of which are interesting, but beside my point here.)

For those who have read my past posts on John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience, you’ll understand why the word Authoritarian in the description of the first conception of God jumped out at me. The explanatory power of the psychological model Dean discusses seems to have gotten some validation from a Baptist university.

What fascinates me is the contrast between the Authoritarian and the Benevolent Gods. (I am clearly and solidly in the Benevolent God camp, in case you hadn’t guessed.) Of course in the Bible, God has both natures. Even in Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, both the wrathful and the merciful God are present. However, the resurrection points to God’s mercy taking precedence over God’s judgement. The Christian story is one of redemption, not of damnation.

But there is the question of those who reject Jesus’ saving grace — what is to become of them? Those of us believing in a Benevolent God are content to spread the Word and let the fate of each person’s soul rest between them and God. We believe that God is merciful. We don’t worship a legalistic God ready to cast souls into the eternal lake of fire just because they didn’t have just the right born-again experience, or weren’t baptized as an adult, or voted for the wrong presidential candidate. We don’t surrender ourselves to God because God is just looking for a reason to damn us, but because God is doing everything possible to save us.

Apparently, believers in an Authoritarian God are more taken with God’s readiness to smite the ungodly than to forgive them. Instead of a faith in a God who has forgiven them, their faith is in a God who will damn their enemies. Is this really the essence of our God, as revealed to us through Jesus Christ?

Jim Wallis says that the Christian right is the victim of bad theology, and that our response to bad theology needs to be good theology. A theology that sees God as an authoritarian figure ready to validate our hatred by punishing the people that don’t go to our church is bad theology. It needs to be replaced with a better, truer theology, a theology of mercy, forgiveness and redemption, even for the “other” that we’d rather not see share our eternity. God’s love isn’t just for us. It is also for the prodigals that God embraces, while we stand off and stew about their unworthiness. That is the God we see in Christ.


  1. One thing that struck me from the USA Today article was that there are actually four fairly common images of God in our culture. However, it seems to be human nature (or at least U.S. cultural nature) to divide people into only two groups. This might explain why, for example, those in the “authoritarian” camp tend to accuse everyone outside their group of being moral relativists. In reality, this designation best fits those who fall into the “distant God” group. But it’s easier to dismiss the rest of us by lumping everyone into the same category.

    Perhaps it would be better to have a four-way conversation, if that is possible. Maybe then we could sort out our differences while perhaps finding some surprising common ground.

    Comment by BruceA — September 14, 2006 @ 4:28 pm

  2. So, tell me where I fall if I think God is like this:

    Angry when His people sin (ex: 1Kings 8:46ff)
    Involved in our lives (Matt. 21:22) For us to receive what we pray for, he has to be listening. Not to mention that since He is all loving, and loves all of His people equally, He must be involved in all of our lives. And if not, why do we pray? And that’s not to say He’s orchestrating every moment, but He’s involved.
    Longing to forgive us and receive us home (the Prodigal Son, as you mentioned)
    Giving endless opportunities to come to Jesus, no matter what we’ve done (Saul’s Conversion)
    Ultimately righteous, God will judge everyone, according to their choice to follow Christ (Matt. 11:20-24; 12:36-37; John 5:24-27, etc.)

    I’ll assume that looking at my list you’ll quickly drop me in the authoritarian bucket as a black protestent or white evangelical. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know I’m a black ELCA minister.

    You mention in another post that one reason you don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy is that the Bible contradicts itself. I think, however, the contradictions speak to the full nature of God.

    Jesus was fully God and fully man. That’s 100% of each, which is something we can’t comprehend. So why is it surprising that the 200% son of God calls us to total acceptance of people and total rejection of sin at the same time? In the same way you can’t be 200% anything, you can’t have people without sin. But we’re called to love people, and hate sin. So we try. We fail, but we press on.

    We’re also called to confront sin, and love our neighbor. But if we confront a person’s sin, they’re probably going to be offended and hurt when called on it. Some say that if we hurt them at all, we aren’t loving them; but loving another person means leading them to the truth. We can’t do that if we posit that loving them means accepting everything they do. The Bible is God’s Truth passed through a seive, leaving behind what we are capable of understanding. We should take what He’s given us and rely on it, knowing full well that it isn’t the Tome of the Full Knowledge of God, but a love story, a biography, and a guidebook.

    Comment by Elmo — September 29, 2006 @ 10:56 pm

  3. Personally, I find it a little sad and maybe even scary that nearly a third of the American people believe in an Authoritarian God.

    Comment by Mystical Seeker — October 4, 2006 @ 9:36 pm

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