In Response To ... America's Regional












  More Writings by Bruce Gourley 


Note: This essay first appeared in the September 2006 Baptist Studies Bulletin.

            Rather than one nation under God, America is one nation under four Gods according to a newly-released, hallmark study of religious beliefs and attitudes throughout the nation, conducted by Baylor University and the Gallup organization and entitled, “American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights into the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the United States.”  The study, although intriguing, offers little context in the way of today’s Baptist scene or in regard to the history of Christianity in America, a shortcoming which I have taken it upon myself to remedy.
           The God of the South, for example, is the Authoritarian God, a deity who is personally involved in the lives of individuals and the nation, but is ever ready to unleash thunderbolts of judgment on the unfaithful and the ungodly.  This God, worshipped by 43.5% of all southerners from Kentucky to Texas, is the God for which Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Richard Land and Albert Mohler act as spokespersons.  9/11?  God’s wrath on America because of homosexuals and liberals, according to Falwell and Robertson.  A war against Iraq based on lies?  The lies don’t matter, according to Land, as the southern God is a God of war.  Should America be a democracy or a theocracy?  How about a 20% theocracy, Mohler suggests.  In short, in this land of revivalism, biblical inerrancy, gender hierarchy, poverty, racial tensions and political and social conservatism, the Authoritarian God allows no (sexual) sin to go unpunished and no other Gods to have even half as many followers as He.  (As if to prove the point about the South's judgmental God, a separate study has determined that American life expectancy is lowest in the South.)
           Speaking of New England, according to the Baylor/Gallup survey, today’s Easterners from West Virginia to Maine have the most balanced view of the American Gods.  All four of these Gods – Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical and Distant – are nearly equally represented in the East.  The one-fourth who pay homage to the Authoritarian God represent the remnants of 17th century New England Puritanism and the First Great Awakening; the one-fourth who believe in the Distant God (an indifferent cosmic force) reflect the influence of 18th century Deism, itself a product of the Enlightenment; the one-fifth who worship a Benevolent God (a forgiving God who is quick to forgive and expects his followers to lend a helping hand to the oppressed and needy) have roots in the social conscious movements of the 19th century and the the Social Gospel of the early 19th century; and the one-fifth who believe in the Critical God (a somewhat judgmental yet very distant God) likely reflect the world of academia that characterizes Ivy League New England.
            In the Midwest, on the other hand, the Authoritarian and Benevolent Gods dominate, vying for allegiance in a region that stretches from Ohio to the Dakotas.  Here was the birthplace of fundamentalism in Baptist life in the early 20th century, yet here also is the industrial heart of America that symbolized the promise and perils of capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  Headquarters (until recent years) of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Midwestern religion is nonetheless rooted more in the faiths transplanted by 19th century European immigrants than traditional Baptist views North or South.  In the “heartland of America,” the tug-o-war between the Authoritarian and Benevolent Gods has yet to be resolved.
            Finally, the far West embraces a God that seems befitting of the wide open spaces of the lower West and eastern Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, the progressive views and technological savvy of the West Coast, and the independent mindset of the Rocky Mountain region – the Distant God.  Nearly one-third of Westerners prefer this cosmic force of a deity who is otherwise disengaged with the world he created.  Just over a fourth of westerners embrace the Benevolent God, perhaps reflecting the rural western understanding of the need of community in order to survive the harsh elements and loneliness that marks much of the region.  Ironically, Mormon theology contributes to both understandings of God – although founded upon a belief in multiple gods hovering over far-away planets, Mormonism places great emphasis upon community here on earth.  Finally, the Authoritarian and Critical Gods have much smaller followings, although the former presumably claims many adherents in the Colorado Springs region under the guidance of prophet James Dobson.
            So there you have it: one nation under four Gods.  And if you don’t like the God of your region, you can always pack up the U-Haul and relocate to the land of one of those other Gods.