By: Andrew Whitehead
Recently the United States Postal Service pulled a planned ad campaign before it ever made it to many local post offices. The offending slogan? “In Priority We Trust.” Apparently, they received backlash for its close approximation to the sacred American motto, “In God We Trust.”
For many in the United States, belief in God is a necessary component of what it means to be American. Our Declaration of Independence references the Creator, our money reminds us of where we place our trust, and our politicians invoke God’s blessing after every major speech.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find that a majority of Americans believe in God. The 2012 General Social Survey, the largest and most representative survey of Americans, reports that over 90 percent believe in at least some form of a higher power.
This finding begs the question: While belief in a God or a higher power is widespread, what do people imagine God to be like? When people say, “God bless you,” does their picture of God differ from yours?
Sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader explore this puzzle in their 2010 book America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God – and What That Says About Us. Using a national random sample of Americans they find that there is considerable variation in what Americans believe God looks like. Froese and Bader tell us that, yes, the person saying “God bless you” in the supermarket probably does not view God in the same way you do.
But what about the people in the pews? Data from the 2008-09 U.S. Congregational Life Survey tells us that even within our congregations there appears to be considerable variation in how Americans view God.
In an average congregation in the United States almost three-quarters of worshipers view God as actively involved in world affairs. This leaves 25 percent who do not view God as actively involved. So, when a congregant who believes God is actively involved in the world shakes hands with three other people on Sunday morning, odds are one of those people holds an opposite view of God’s involvement in the world.
There is even more variation regarding belief that God is angered by human sin. In an average congregation, less than two-thirds of worshipers view God as angry at human sin, leaving over 35 percent of the average congregation disagreeing with that view of God.
These graphs demonstrate the considerable variation in views of the divine within American congregations. Bars at either end of the horizontal axis represent widespread agreement within congregations concerning each image of God, with bars in the middle representing more disagreement. The height of each bar represents more congregations with a particular degree of agreement among worshipers.
We find that there are very few congregations with greater than 90 percent agreement among worshipers that God is either active in the world (or not), or judgmental of it (or not). Most congregations have between 70 percent and 80 percent agreement that God is actively involved in world affairs, with 60 percent to 70 percent agreement that God is angered by human sin.
While pastors and religious leaders may be happy to hear that most of those within their congregations still believe in God, it might be a bit unsettling to realize that what that God looks like can vary from person to person.
Such variation, found even within religious communities, brings new perspective to the meaning of “In God We Trust,” “God Bless America,” and “God Bless You” during Sunday morning conversations. Clergy and worshipers who assume those next to them hold an identical picture of God may elicit a passionate reaction.
Just ask the Postal Service.