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?