America's Four Gods

What We Say About God--And What That Says About Us

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Paul Froese, Christopher Bader
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2015.
     288 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190248857.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God—And What That Says About Us, readers get exactly what they should expect from the subtitle of the book, an exploration of “what we say about God,” and “what that says about us.” Authors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader propose that “how a person talks about God will reveal something crucial about how she understands her world and her life” (xiii), and this insight, they suggest, is useful for understanding the contours and divisions of contemporary American society. Drawing on an impressive set of empirical data, including national surveys, in-depth interviews, and visits to multiple religious communities, America’s Four Gods peeks underneath the monolithic stereotypes informing so much of our public discourse in, and scholarship on, the US. As the title suggests, they identify four different modes—the Authoritative God, the Benevolent God, the Critical God, and the Distant God—through which Americans imagine and articulate the relationship between God and the world. Moreover, these modes, Froese and Bader argue, describe, and perhaps even predict individual attitudes towards a myriad of concerns, including sex, science, economics, and nationalism more accurately than conventional taxonomies that emphasize such things as class, race, and gender. For the updated edition (2015), they offer some consideration for how these linkages have shifted in recent years, with particular attention paid to the economic crisis of 2007-08 and its wake. 

Some of these connections—for example the similarity between the images one holds of one’s parents and God—may seem obvious and expected, but the “four-God” model also uncovers some counterintuitive insights that, while not necessarily novel for scholars, non-specialists will find refreshing in today’s polarizing climate. For instance, Froese and Bader employ fairly straightforward language to dismantle the characterization of religion as a phenomenon. It is not that liberals are irreligious, but rather they hold distinctly different images of God, which informs how they publicly signal their faith differently from conservatives. The model rearranges how we should perceive other seemingly polarizing issues, like abortion, which too often manifests as a struggle between two diametrically opposed camps. Their analysis reveals the fact that the vast majority of Americans recognize abortion as morally ambiguous, and fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Additionally, they push against the perception that religion and science are irreconcilable, showing that one views science favorably—or unfavorably—according to how they imagine God. America’s Four Gods pursues these insights in a straightforward manner, making it accessible for the intellectually curious, yet non-scholarly reader.

For scholars and researchers, America’s Four Gods makes it most significant contribution in the quality, and sheer quantity, of the sociological data it amasses and distills to its readers. Researchers in need of a compact and comprehensive statistical repository will find this edition a crucial addition to their bibliography, and true to the best traditions in the sociology of religion, Froese and Bader cleverly weave their scholarly analysis into stories of ordinary people and their lived experiences. It would work well alongside the works of Robert Wuthnow, Robert Bellah, and Robert Orsi for an introductory undergraduate course on contemporary American religion and society. 

As much as this book yields a wealth of information about American attitudes towards salient social concerns, it nonetheless is somewhat wanting in theoretical clarity. The authors overtly explain their operative theory that “a person’s God is a direct reflection of our attitudes” (143) as a helpful rubric for parsing and making sense of the diversity of American life. While their map might elucidate important patterns of belief and attitudes, it is merely an analytical framework, and should not be mistaken as the data (i.e., reported attitudes of individuals) itself. Yet, at times, the authors risk overstating the authority of their model, as if their extrapolations echo real, fully articulated images of “God” held by individuals, rather than their own scholarly inventions used to reveal cultural processes. This is most evident at particular points in the text where they explicitly suggest that “images of God influence our beliefs and behaviors” (63), attributing causal power to these four images of God. As a note of caution, therefore, scholars using America’s Four Gods as a resource should not confuse the “Four God” map as the territory it purports to describe. Overall, and aside from this equivocation, the model explored in this updated edition of America’s Four Gods is certainly theoretically illuminating, as it sheds light on otherwise obscured ways that religion takes shape in and through American culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Dennis LoRusso is Associate Research Scholar in Religion at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Froese is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Baylor University and fellow of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. His book The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization won the 2009 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Christopher Bader is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Baylor University. He is co-director of the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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