Image taken from "Our Great Big American God" - courtesy of Jericho Books

Image taken from “Our Great Big American God” – courtesy of Jericho Books

If you play a word association game with “God,” Americans might respond with “unchanging,” “eternal,” or “forever.” But what if America’s perception of God is always changing with their whims and wishes and cultural proclivities?

Matthew Paul Turner, popular blogger and author, is raising this question in his new book, Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing DeityHe argues that we have made God “like a naked paper doll, one that free individuals could and would dress up into whatever Americanized deity they liked.” Here, we discuss this concept, who he believes has shaped it, and why he predicts God will “grow” in America.

RNS: What is the “American God,” and how is it uniquely American?

MPT: The American God is God as perceived by Americans. Which means America’s God comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and doctrines and his Americanized traits vary according to individuals, groups, denominations, sects, even geographies. This isn’t a new trend, rather our historical narrative suggests it is something we’ve been doing since the very beginning. Americans’ habit of affecting, reimagining, shaping, and changing God’s story started with the Puritans. And it has evolved according to the needs and events happening among America’s people.

Matthew Paul Turner is author of more than a dozen books and former editor of CCM Magazine. Image courtesy of Matthew Paul Turner (Credit: Lee Steffen)

Matthew Paul Turner is author of more than a dozen books and former editor of CCM Magazine. Image courtesy of Matthew Paul Turner (Credit: Lee Steffen)

RNS: Who are some of the people who’ve most shaped the American perception of God?

MPT: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Pheobe Palmer, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield just to name a few.

For example, Whitefield, the father of evangelicalism and likely America’s first “celebrity,” was known for his savvy, almost performance-style, preaching and for also introducing Americans to God’s desire for them to be reborn. The popularity of Whitefield and his “new birth” gospel, specifically his love of liberty, became a mighty foundation, some believe by accident, on which to build an American revolution. Palmer, though criticized by many for being a woman who preached, blazed her own trail–one that became known as America’s Holiness Movement. And as the Mother of Holiness, Palmer set the groundwork for another movement, one that began thirty-something years after her death, one that, in the early 1900s, aroused the streets of Los Angeles with Holy Spirit fire. That “fire” was Pentecostalism.

RNS: What do you think makes the American God problematic?

MPT: God was never meant to be a nationalized deity. The very idea that God would showcase geographical favorites or advance the kingdom of one at the expense of another or several others goes against many of Jesus’s basic teachings. Moreover, our relationship with God has caused a large majority of America’s Christians to posses an elitist attitude or worldview, at times even imperialistic. Rather than humility, mercy, and redemption, God seems to have made us controlling, know-it-alls, materialistic, and far too certain of what God thinks about political, social, and spiritual issues.

Throughout our history we’ve branded God into a deity that works for us, one that mixes well with American values, one that agrees with our wars, and one who not only adheres to our way of life, in many cases, our way of life is God’s ideal, which we often suggest is one of the reasons he blesses us with prosperity. The biggest issue perhaps is that many of us are so comfortable with our American God, so certain of his ways, that to believe that we might be wrong is impossible.

Image courtesy of Jericho Books

Image courtesy of Jericho Books

RNS: I quoted you in an article I wrote recently on the Christian music industry’s shifting views on sexuality. Do you think American evangelicals have done a poor job articulating their position in the past?

MPT: No, not at all. Evangelicals have articulated quite well exactly what they think about homosexuality. We’ve preached it, put it on billboards, theologized it. Evangelicalism’s rage against homosexuality is probably one of their more successful campaigns. I doubt you could find too many Americans who couldn’t recite word for word the slogans that Christians have boasted toward the LGBTQ communities. For fifty or more years, much of America’s Church has gone to great lengths to push an entire group of people out of the church, out of God’s story. We’ve communicated little more than “You do not belong.”

RNS: Do you think American Christians are homophobic or hateful?

MPT: Not as a rule, no. None of us are born homophobic, though many have likely met a few people who make us question that. But I don’t believe that it should be assumed that Christians are homophobic or hateful, not until those things are experienced. That said, there is seemingly something about the homosexual topic that makes many Jesus-loving people turn into angry, mean, insensitive people incapable of treating those with whom they disagree with respect and kindness.

RNS: You predict that God will “grow” in America. Explain.

MPT: I predict that God will grow because God is always growing here in the United States. We’re constantly adding new ideas, new connecting points, new theories, new practices, and new product lines to the God equation. These ideas and products don’t necessarily become universally accepted among all of America’s Christians, but they do find a following and add to the story of God, often fattening up Americans’s perceptions about the divine. And because of the Internet and social media, God is growing faster than ever before. We not only hear about these new and sometimes strange ideas that people have about God, but if we like them, we can actually connect with and find a community of people who like and believe them, too. So I suspect this trend will continue.

41 Comments

    • I don’t understand your comment. Matthew said next to nothing about his understanding of God in this post; what he spoke about is how Americans view God. So why are you saying he’s clueless? The post want about his own view on Good, it was about others’.

      • “Matthew said next to nothing about his understanding of God in this post.”

        Matthew did say this about God.

        “God was never meant to be a nationalized deity.”

        I presume he means the God of the Jewish and Christian traditions, in which case the God depicted in the most ancient Jewish texts (before the Babylonian Exile) was meant to be a nationalized deity — that is, a deity specifically for the nation of Israel.

        • Define “nation.” I think you and MPT are using the word “Nation” quite differently.

          Israel was never intended to be a nation with borders and kings and weapons of death. They were intended to be a holy nation, or what we might instead phrase as “a holy people.”

          But nation? No – when God called Israel out of Egypt, they were nomads. Underdogs. They were nothing like a nation of today.

          When MPT talks about Nations, he’s not talking about Israel. He’s talking about modern nations.

          • “Israel was never intended to be a nation with borders and kings and weapons of death.”

            Exodus 23.23-33 (NRSV):

            “When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods, or worship them, or follow their practices, but you shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces. You shall worship the Lord your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from among you. No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfil the number of your days. I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send the pestilence in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will hand over to you the inhabitants of the land, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”

    • Frank,

      We were made in God’s image to reflect some of the qualities of his personality such as love, wisdom, and justice. However, humans these days are not showing much of these qualities, especially love, as foretold would be prominent in the last days of an era (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

      As to your reference to the Old Testament, when you look at God’s dealings with the ancient Israelites, through their corrupt ways, they made God feel hurt (Psalm 78:38-41). He did not immediately cast them off but mercifully extended opportunities, time and time again, for them to change their course.

      God pleaded with them: “I take delight, not in the death of the wicked one, but in that someone wicked turns back from his way and actually keeps living. Turn back, turn back from your bad ways, for why is it that you should die, O Israel ?” (Ezekiel 33:11).

      Viewing life as precious, God repeatedly sent prophets so that the Israelites might turn back from their bad ways. But that hard-hearted people refused to listen and repent. For the sake of his holy name, Yahweh/Jehovah, and all that it stands for, God gave them into the hands of their enemies (Nehemiah 9:26-30).

      God’s way of justice is: firmness where necessary; mercy wherever possible (2 Peter 3:9).

      God has made it possible for humans to soon enjoy perfect, endless life in a world where righteousness is to dwell (2 Peter 3,13). But the time left for all wicked ones to repent and turn around their lives, as God admonished the Israelites to do above, is now short.

      • I think you’ve asked the right question, so Where do we go from here?

        I think that we must fight to identify what is truly Christian and what is only American in our churches. Looking long and hard at this for years even would see political stances diminish, and hopefully would diversify churches beyond same skin color, same political affiliation, and identical theologies.

        There are other things, but that is a big one.

        • Scott Johnson

          Dave,

          I think you have given a very worthy answer to the question “where do we go from here?”

          And I think you have made some very astute and accurate observations about where the course you suggest might take us.

          I would welcome this.

          But it seems like many modern Americans somehow enjoy the current and increasing hyper partisanship and contentiousness.

  1. I agree that there’s been a lot of “Americanization” of our concept of God. Where do we go from here?
    I have read about George Whitfield and have read a number of his sermons and even read in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography in which he recounts his friendship with Whitfield (sometimes spelled “Whitefield”). He seems to me to be mainly a British minister who visited the colonies a number of times, whatever.

    • Scott Johnson

      Norm Martin,

      This is the course I took. I exposed myself to various historical Christian traditions upon the nature of God, and I adopted what was coherent and backed by scripture. Then I deliberately chucked the rest.

      The other thing I started doing was to make sure that when I worship Him, I pray “I adore you for who and what you know yourself to be, not my imagination”

    • Whitefield is the correct spelling…not Whitfield…but it is pronounced ‘whitfield’…
      Whitefield was the main evangelist during the Great Awakening in the US and was a citizen of the US originally from Britain…he was also a slave owner.

      A great preacher who was a traveling preaching and who preached more times a day than any today…zealous for God

  2. I cant tell by the interview that he has anything new or different to add to the conservation. Evangelicals and Liberals alike…we all build God in our own image. The only solution is deep humility, listening and dialogue.

  3. Scott Johnson

    Many, if not most of the people I go to church with seem to be convinced that God is a Republican and a free market economist who believes almost everyone should have a gun.

    They also seem to quite literally believe that the Bible teaches that God has endowed everyone with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    As a European style progressive Christian Democrat who is unwilling to remain silent when the topics I am interested in come up, I can tell you from experience that my points of view have caused my friends over and over again to worry about the genuineness of my relationship with God.

    It is often frustrating to socialize and fellowship with these American Christians.

    • Scott Johnson

      Well, I just found out that the author of “Our Great Big American God”, Matthew Paul Turner, does not believe that homosexual behaviour is sinful. Some “Christians” are taking this point of view, it seems to me, in order to appear to be courageous, independent thinkers.

      Conforming ones view of sin to that of society doesn’t seem courageous to me, but more like seeking the approval of the world, which is anything but. And being independent in one’s thinking from God on the question of sin may indicate that one is on a trajectory towards an eternity of independence from Him and His holy people.

  4. The Bible warns that people will depart from the faith and not stick to sound
    doctrine. Preachers started watering down the Truth/Bible and bad mouthing
    religion backfired. If you say you love Jesus then don’t follow the Bible/religion
    no Truth is in you! Bible says that man shall perish because of their lack of knowledge and we see it everywhere with people not living according to the
    Bible and it’s because all people seem to want to talk about are gay marriage
    and/or abortion so they don’t have to face their own sin. People today seem
    to forget that Jesus said you are one of Mine only if you follow Me and that
    many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! Ephesians 5:18 says
    don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that all drunkards go to hell
    along with mean people,gossips,coveters/the greedy/gamblers,fornicaters,
    those who practice adultery/sex outside of marriage,liars unless they Repent!
    The wine that Jesus made was new wine/diluted and the Bible says don’t get
    drunk on strong wine so people who get drunk with wine are also wrong!
    The whole Bible/Truth needs to be preached again! 1 Corinthians 5 and 6
    the whole chapters shows us that all of us in the church also need to Repent!
    It doesn’t matter how spiritual people are if they aren’t Biblical they are still
    lost/headed for hell. The Bible says Repent or perish! We all must Repent!

  5. As long as Christians refer to the Bible as their source text
    Religion will continue to die off.

    The internet has revealed the Bible
    to be this religion’s Millstone
    and it is going down, down down…

    “Kill homosexuals” – (Lev 20:13)
    “Genocide is a good solution to problems” – (JER 13:14)(1 Samuel 15:3)
    “Save the virgins for RAPE” – (Num 31:18)
    “enslave people who surrender” – (Deut. 20:10)
    “Marry your rapist” – (Duet. 22:28)
    “Raping your neighbor’s wife is a good way to punish your neighbor” – (2 Sam 12:11)
    “Sell your daughter for sex money” – (Exodus 21:7)
    “Do some raping and stealing” – (Zech 14:1-2)
    “stop ignoring god’s wonderful slaughter” – (Zeph 3:16)
    “Kill babies joyfully” – (Isaiah 13:15)
    “More genocide just for you” – (Ex 23:23)
    “Kill without mercy” – (Jer 15:1-7)
    “Kill your neighbor” – (Jer 48:10)
    “Let us abort all of the babies” – (Hosea 9:11-16)
    “I am a bigot, I’m only for the Jews” – JESUS (Matt 15:26)
    “Ok, to whip your slaves severely” – JESUS (Luke 12:47-48)
    “Kill them even if they are sorry” – (Jer 15:1-7)
    “Never make peace with them” – (Exod 34:15)
    “Why aren’t you following the stoning laws!?” – Jesus (John 7:19)
    “Execute my enemies” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    “Kill unruly children” – JESUS (Matthew 15:3)
    “Kill unbelievers” – (2 Chronicles 15:12-13)
    “Die for me” – JESUS (Matthew 16:25)
    “Ignore the future” – JESUS (Matthew 6:34)
    “Make slaves of those around you” – (Lev 25:44-46)
    “Be a good sex slave, don’t run to freedom” – (1 Peter 2:18)
    “Make slaves permanent property” – (Ex 21:5)
    “Judge them, Remove your PEACE” – JESUS (Matt 10:14)
    “Prepare for battle, buy a sword” – JESUS (Luke 22:36-37)
    “I made Evil for humanity” – GOD (Isaiah 45:7)
    “I shall NEVER forgive you” – JESUS (Matthew 25:46)
    “I have no power against IRON” – God (Judges 1:19)
    “Eat my body, drink my blood, or else no heaven” – JESUS
    “Women, expect to be raped to save your husband” – (Judges 19:25-28)
    “Lesbians and Gays will go to hell” – (romans 1:27)
    “Kill your loved ones for me,” – God” (Judges 11:30-1, 34-5)
    “Kill your son for me” – god (Genesis 22:2)
    “No rights for women” – (Eph 5:22)
    “Women should not lust for PENIS” – (Ezekiel 23:20)
    “Rape is the women’s fault” – (Ezekiel 23:17)
    “conquered people must become your slaves” – (Deut 20:10)
    “Rape the pretty slaves” – (Deut 21:10-14)
    “Mass rape commanded by god” (Numbers 31:18)
    “I came to burn up the world” – JESUS (Luke 12:49-51)
    “I did not come to bring peace, but division.” – JESUS (Luke 12:49-51)

    Jesus agrees with all of it, “The Lord and I are ONE” (John 1:17)

    :-(
    Shame on the priests, pastors, nuns
    :-(
    and others who
    still argue in favor of this barbaric, inhuman garbage!

    RELIGION MUST BE ABANDONED.
    There is a better way to live than pretending this garbage is good
    or that god is real.

    • Max,

      Yes, I agree that FALSE RELIGION must be done away with; but the good news is that it will be destroyed by God, which it claims to represent but totally misrepresents and is responsible for so much bloodshed on earth (Revelation 18:24).

      The world empire of false religion is described as a harlot (Babylon the Great) who commits fornication with the kings of the earth (man’s political systems), and she meets her fate at their hands (Revelation 17,18).

      The world’s political systems will then meet their fate of destruction by God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) at the war of Armageddon and God will be the victor (Revelation 16:13-16).

      Then will start the righteous and peaceful 1,000-year rule by God’s son, Jesus, over meek mankind on earth!! (Revelation 20:4-6) :-D

        • @ Atheist Max

          I suggested some time ago that your comments should be collected for study or review.

          And so they have been — http://www.suzyspellcheck.com/atheist-max-says/#sthash.Ii4Z9U4M.dpuf
          Very interesting.

          Your comments would make good bible study material because it would cause much head scratching and then a deeper search for the best possible meaning of the verses mentioned.

          But, as a compliment to your efforts, I would say that we rank and file should ‘not’ have to engage in lengthy, long winded Bible studies in order to know what the creator has given us as his wisdom or instruction in what we should ‘do’ and ‘be’ with our lives

          I would think that an intelligent God or creator would keep things as simple and easy to understand as possible. It’s obvious he has not.

          But, there are some good, simple things that can be found in scripture that you and I have commented on many times before. Thank God for that.

          • @Billysees,

            “there are some good, simple things that can be found in scripture”

            Yes.
            I have some favorite passages from the Bible – though I don’t call it ‘scripture’ anymore:

            “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
            (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

            “first take the plank out of your own eye,
            and then you will see clearly to remove the speck
            from your brother’s eye.” – Jesus (Matthew 7:5)

            “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”
            – (attributed to Jesus but does not appear in the gospel until 400 C.E.)

            “Do as the Good Samaritan” – Jesus (a nice re-play on the morality of the ancient Golden Rule)

            “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do”
            – (attributed to Jesus though it appears in the crucifixion chapters of Luke)

            “Blessed are the peacemakers” – Jesus (Sermon on the Mount)

            —–

            For me, these passages confirm that Jesus (if he existed) had some good moral teachings. But they contradict – very directly – other things attributed to Jesus which endorse violence and other profoundly immoral behaviors. The command to ‘have faith’ is itself immoral – we owe it to ourselves to be skeptical of any claim until we are convinced of its truth.

            ‘Faith’ is not a method to arrive at truth, otherwise the Islamic Suicide Bomber is just AS correct as a little old lady counting her Rosary beads.

            The gospel record is embroidered by the influence of dozens of writers who had their own reasons to put certain words in Jesus’ mouth is too corrupted.

            Life would be worthless and joyless without love and decency. God cannot have left such a corrupt book for his message. Either God does not exist, or he is so uncaring about his message he is evil.

            There are at least 80 Holy Texts
            from various religions of the world
            and some are full of beautiful passages.

            The ancient ‘Diamond Sutra’ texts
            speak to the importance of seeking understanding first
            and not wasting time on the futility of mindless faith however well-intentioned:

            “Subhuti, if a good and faithful person, whether male or female, has, for the sake of compassion and charity, been sacrificing their life for generation upon generation, for as many generations as the grains of sands in 3,000 universes; and another follower has been studying and observing even a single section of this Sutra and explains it to others, that person’s blessings and merit would be far greater.”
            (Diamond Sutra, Ch. 13)

            How much wiser is this?
            Than the silly nightmare of ‘End Times’ return of Jesus to separate those who masturbated from those who didn’t?

            Learn more if you want:

            http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/sacredthemesall.html

          • @Billysees,

            “Love is patient….it keeps no record of wrongs.”
            (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

            Then God’s love must not be true:

            “REPENT…!” (Acts 3:19)

  6. I heard a good and brilliant Unitarian minister declare one Sunday, “God created man in his own image and likeness, and man, being the gentleman that he is, returned the favor.” It engendered a lot of prompt thought and laughs from the congregation. Peter Samsom was the minister’s name, long, long ago.

    I’m not sure he wasn’t quoting something to which he gave no attribution, but when one reads the hateful misdeeds of God in Scriptures and when one considers the hateful behavior of so many people in the name of religion, one cannot question the wisdom and truth of the observation.

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    […] Have Americans made God in their image? These ideas and products don't necessarily become universally accepted among all of America's Christians, but they do find a following and add to the story of God, often fattening up Americans's perceptions about the divine. And because of the Internet … Read more on Religion News Service […]

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