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 Deity. He 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.
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.
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.