According to the recent Baylor University study on American religious beliefs, values, and behaviors, our beliefs about God are among the clearest indicators of how we will vote in this year’s presidential election. The Baylor study argues for four different “American theologies” what I will call the engaged and malevolent God, the engaged and benevolent God, the distant and disengaged God, and the distant and judgmental God.
The engaged and malevolent God is the God who punished the Jews with the Holocaust because they were not sufficiently observant; the God who decimated New Orleans with hurricane Katrina because the people there were wicked and lax in their hatred of homosexuality; and the God who used the horror of 9/11 to punish Americans for their support of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. According to the Baylor study, people who believe in the engaged and malevolent God vote Republican. This does not mean that all Republicans believe in the engaged and malevolent God, only that the vast majority of such believers align themselves with the Republican Party.
The engaged and benevolent God is the God who helped some Jews survive the Holocaust, and who rescued some people during Katrina and 9/11. This God is forgiving and loving, rather than angry and judgmental, and is actively involved in doing good in the world. People who believe in this God lean Republican, but may vote Democratic.
The distant and disengaged God is the God who created the universe but takes no active role in it. This is Einstein’s God, or the God of the Deists. This is the Force of Star Wars, and the Tao of the Chinese Taoists. You do not pray to this God to make things other than they are, nor do you imagine that things are as they are because God is making them as they are to teach us a lesson. People who believe in this God vote Democratic.
The distant and judgmental God does not intervene in the doings of nature or of humans on this earth, but is waiting to reward and punish us after we die. This God, like the engaged and malevolent God has strict moral code to which we are held accountable, but, unlike the engaged and malevolent God, this God’s judgment is reserved for the after life not this life. People who believe in the distant and judgmental God lean Democratic but may vote Republican.
Of course not everyone believes in God. Four percent of Americans are atheists, but this number is so small as to make the impact of atheism almost negligible. I suspect that the popularity of the New Atheists reflects not the rise of atheism among Americans, but the savvy marketing strategy of believers in the engaged and malevolent God who see in these often bellicose authors the perfect foil for their own theology, and a great way to galvanize their base in what seemed to be a waning of the Culture War.
The Culture War, in fact, is not really a conflict pitting secularists and atheists against theists and people of faith, but rather a civil war among theists. The Culture War is a theological war over competing ideas of God.
Which side am I on? If these are my only choices, I would have to side with the distant and disengaged God folks, but I am not really convinced they are right. For me God is both transcendent and imminent. For me nature is that aspect of God available to us through our senses and our technology. God is not in the world, God is the world, and that which is greater than the world. I believe that natural laws and moral principles are imbedded in reality, though I limit conversations about ethics and morals to the human domain. Animals and plants are not moral or immoral, but humans can be both. And while I do not believe God consciously acts to reward or punish either in this life or after it, I do believe that most of us find more happiness when we act in accordance with divine principles such as justice and compassion than when we act in violation of them.
So, if you want to know for whom your neighbors are voting, don’t be so crass as to ask them outright; ask instead about their understanding of God. Given my theology, for whom will I vote this November? Barack Obama. It also helps that he is pro-science, pro-Green, pro-education, pro-peace, pro-justice, pro-diplomacy, and incapable of giving simplistic answers to really complex issues.