A survey conducted by the Gallup Organization for Baylor University, a Baptist University in Waco, Texas, reveals that the overwhelming majority of people in the United States believe in God, but that their views of God vary widely. The survey, which is part of a comprehensive study of religion in the United States being conducted by Baylor, also examined such issues as income and educational level in relation to beliefs and the influence of religion on political choices.
The Baylor religion study concludes that belief in God and affiliation with a religious faith is deeply rooted in America.
Baylor Sociology Professor Kevin Dougherty says the study he helped produce shows that the vast majority of Americans believe in a higher being, but their images of God vary.
"While 95 percent of Americans believe in God, we find that they do not all believe in the same God. There are actually four dominant images of God that are out there."
The study found 31 percent of Americans believe in an authoritarian God, who is highly involved in people's lives and ready to punish humankind. Twenty-three percent believe in a benevolent God, who is involved with human affairs in a helpful way and is tolerant of human shortcomings.
Then there is the critical God, who stays out of human affairs, but keeps track of individual behavior and, finally, the distant God, who set the world in motion and left humans to handle their own affairs.
Professor Dougherty says these images are not limited to Christians. "America is overwhelmingly a Christian nation, but not entirely. The beauty of the four gods [concept] is that it does not matter if you are Jewish or Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian, these dominant images of God really transcend religions."
Using other data from the survey, researchers have been able to see how such things as education, region of residence and income can influence religious faith.
"Those with higher levels of income are less likely to see God as an angry God. Those with higher levels of income also tend to be, although not exclusively, they tend to be the ones that would be less likely to affiliate with organized faith communities."
The survey also shows that religious belief is not strongly linked to political views except in the case of the Christian Protestants, called Evangelicals, who believe in a God who watches humans closely and expects them to adhere to moral principals.
The study found that one-third of Americans are Evangelicals. They tend to vote for candidates who oppose abortion and gay marriage because they see this as upholding God's law. It is one group, Dougherty says, conservative politicians can count on.
"The evangelicals, as a group, have much more consistency in the way they view moral issues than do mainline Protestants or Catholics. Mainline Protestants and Catholics are more of a political mystery. They do not vote in blocs, as do Evangelicals. So affiliation is one important marker for how people may or may not choose to vote."
Professor Dougherty says Baylor researchers will be issuing further reports from the study in the months ahead.