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When Your Belief in God Doesn’t Align with the Manuscript

James 2:19 observes, “It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear.”

Rather than using the more commonly translated – “Good!” or “Good for you!” – the Common English Bible renders as the middle line in the well-communicated English term as “Ha!”

That verse came to mind when reading results from a recent Pew Research Center survey about belief in God in the U.S.

Pew concluded “nine-in-10 Americans believe in a higher power, but only a slim majority believe in God as described in the Bible.”

Of course, those of us with a theological bent would note quickly that God is described in a variety of ways in the Bible.

Based on a sampling of more than 4,700 U.S. adults, Pew found that one-third claim to not believe in the “God of the Bible,” but in some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe.

A slight majority (56 percent) of U.S. adults say they believe in God “as described in the Bible.” And one in 10 holds no belief in any higher power or spiritual force.

Almost half (48 percent) of those surveyed say the divine determines what happens in their lives all or most of the time. And another 18 percent say this happens “just some of the time.”

But nearly eight in 10 believe God (in some form) protects them, and just slightly fewer think they are divinely rewarded. And six in 10 expect to be judged for their lives.

This study clarifies a common misconception that those who identify as religiously unaffiliated – often called “nones” and sometimes “dones” (because they are “done” with organized religion) – are nonbelievers.

Not so. In fact, according to the survey, 72 percent – nearly three-quarters – of religiously unaffiliated persons believe in a higher power of some kind.

And, I’m guessing here, a good number of those believe in God revealed in Jesus Christ; they just don’t find that reflected well institutionally.

Surveyors left it up to the surveyed to interpret what is meant by “God as described in the Bible.”

Pew explained, “The survey questions that mention the Bible do not specify any particular verses or translations, leaving that up to each respondent’s understanding. But it is clear from questions elsewhere in the survey that Americans who say they believe in God ‘as described in the Bible’ generally envision an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving deity who determines most or all of what happens in their lives. By contrast, people who say they believe in a ‘higher power or spiritual force’ – but not in God as described in the Bible – are much less likely to believe in a deity who is omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent and active in human affairs.”

One has to wonder how much the concept of God – and, therefore, whether one affirms belief – is shaped by the way God is represented in U.S. Christianity and culture.

When most self-identified evangelicals ignore the moral standards they’ve long trumpeted in favor of political influence while displaying disregard for (and even fear of) marginalized minorities, then the “God of the Bible” morphs into the image of a nationalistic god of U.S. culture.

Such a misrepresentation of God as a self-serving, discriminating deity is unattractive and worthy of rejection.

Hence, one of my common refrains, “I don’t believe in the god that people who don’t believe in god don’t believe in.”

Actually, belief in God is no big deal. At least James, a most practical voice within the Bible, thought so when with a chuckle he wrote, “Good for you! You believe in God. Ha! So do the demons and they tremble.”

Surveys showing the degree to which U.S. adults claim belief in a divine presence are interesting.

But those of us committed to both protecting religious liberty for all and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ have a higher purpose than setting a national goal for belief in a deity of some form.

Sadly, U.S. Christianity is quite guilty of advancing – intentionally or unintentionally – concepts of a civil religion attuned to an Americanized god or portraying the “God of the Bible” in ways that don’t align with the fullest revelation of God in holy text: Jesus Christ.

Belief in the divine or even a profession of faith in Jesus Christ requires more than a simple affirmation on a survey – or even a muttered prayer.

So, my greater interests are in how Christians are presenting and representing the “God of Bible” in U.S. culture.

And how much of that projected image aligns with the life and teachings of Jesus, who called us to more than mere belief, but to self-denial, love of enemies and the embrace of those who suffer.

The question on our survey is singular and simpler: Do you love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself?

According to Jesus, that is the greatest question – because it answers our faithfulness to the greatest commandment.

John D. Pierce is executive editor of Nurturing Faith Journal & Bible Studies (formerly Baptists Today). A version of this column appeared previously on his blog and is used with permission.