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American Christians keep reinventing God — one author tries to explain why

'Our Great Big American God' by Matthew Paul Turner
'Our Great Big American God' by Matthew Paul Turner

Where would God be without America?

That's the question Matthew Paul Turner sets out to answer in his new book, Our Great Big American God. To answer this question, Turner, who has written several books on religion and blogs frequently, tells the story of both Christian America's God and the Americans who invented and reinvented him. His book isn't an academic tome, and some might disagree with a few of his historical interpretations. But overall, it works as a nice introductory guide for all of those who have ever wondered: How did God influence America — and how did America influence God?

I recently chatted with Turner about some of the key ideas from his book.

Brandon Ambrosino: Where did the idea for this book come from?

Matthew Paul Turner: A while back, I got fascinated with the Puritans, and I was reading several books about them. The ideas of manifest destiny, and being a city on hill — I became consumed with it. So I started studying it and putting the framework of a narrative together.

The other side of it was, I had this blog for seven or eight years called Jesus Needs New PR, where I'd talk a lot about American versions of Jesus. And I blogged a lot about it, and poked fun at it. I don't believe that too many of us know exactly where and how and why this particular American Jesus came to be. Other books have covered it in such a heady, philosophical manner that a lot of people just don't engage with it. I wanted to do the research and history and throw in some opinion, but I also wanted it to be accessible to people.

BA: So where does the story of America's God begin, generally?

MPT: With the Puritans. The Puritans came over with a grandiose vision: they were New Israelites, and they were on their way to the Promised Land. Reverend John Cotton presented a sermon to them called "God's Promises to his Plantation" a few days before many Puritans started to leave for the Americas. It was a deep sermon, heavy theologizing of why this was not just the right move for them — it was "God's ideal move" for them.

Cotton borrowed the story of Israel, specifically II Samuel, and began to create a narrative about where God was planning to take them. So that's where we start: a very in-control God who is, in some ways, repositioning his entire way of doing things around this small group of Puritans. They believed God was uprooting them and he'd plant them in a new land, and take care of anything in their way. They were appointed for a time such as this. This Puritan God was very strict and rule-oriented and had right ways and wrong ways of doing things.

BA: You talk a lot about how influential Calvinism was to the founding of America. Why is that?

MPT: In Calvinism, there's the doctrine of predestination: God elects you to spend eternity with him. There's also total depravity, that there's nothing good that men and women could do to make God happy. So that caused a lot of depression. There were a lot of angry, dark ideals about God, which leant themselves to different ideas, like limited roles for women. However, because the theology was so rigid, it really held the community together. Many suggest without Calvinism, early America would not have happened as successfully as it did.

BA: The Puritans were very strict, which is why someone like Roger Williams butted heads with them.

MPT: Williams was kind of the first hiccup in the Puritan experiment. He was a separatist, much like the Pilgrims. He came over and joined the Puritans in Boston and started raising hell. He started talking about how Puritans needed to be open-minded about their ideas about God. He told them to be open-minded to Anglicanism, Quakerism, etc. Williams witnessed persecution in the old world. It affected him. He'd grown to dislike the control that religion had. So he got into a war of words with Puritans he disagreed with, and that eventually led to him being shunned from Boston Colony. He went on to found Rhode Island and become an early influential voice for the separation of church and state, and for the freedom of religion. He was definitely an influential guy.

BA: But he's perhaps not as well known as Jonathan Edwards, whom you have some very strong opinions about.

MPT: Within two generations, the Puritans made a bunch of mistakes — witch hunts, crimes against Native Americans, hangings for sexual sin — and the concept of God in America started to dwindle. Then rose the career of Jonathan Edwards, who is considered the last Puritan. He's considered one of the greatest theologians not just of America, but of the world. There are certain aspects of our theology that come from Edwards's ideals: God's glory — he glories in us, we glory in God — and the image of God as grandiose and magical, that all influences us.

He also influenced our concepts of hell. Hell was already an idea that was believed in before Edwards, but he sort of brought it to life. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was one of the sermons he preached on hell. In the book, I suggest that he put a trademark on it. He made hell an American ideal. He made it so that you would not be able to believe in God without believing in hell. For some people, if you take hell out of the Christian religion, there's no use for God. Hell, on some level, is bigger or more important than God. Edwards certainly played a role in that.

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BA: When many people think about American conceptions of God, they think about the culture wars. When did those ideological battles really start?

MPT: American Christians were feeling really high on the hog in the early 20th-century, so they decided to tackle what they considered their next big issue. In 1925, that was evolution, which led to the Monkey Trials in Dayton, Tennessee. And that was really the creation of the culture wars. Shortly after 1925, we see a really defining split between Fundamentalists and mainstream Christians, all built around what you believe to be true about the Bible.

Billy Graham was actually one of those who split from the Fundamentalists. Graham had a more open-minded view and, over time, realized he had to split away from the independent fundamentalist Baptists and take a more evangelical approach.

BA: What's the takeaway from your book?

MPT: What is your story of God saying about God — and what's it saying about you? We should remember that so much of our God story is as much a human story as it is a God story. Not that we shouldn't believe that God is involved in our human stories. But we shouldn't take them so seriously. We should approach God not with certainty, but with concepts of belief: like faith, doubt, and ideas. And we shouldn't be afraid of what others' ideas are. God does not come down to an issue, to a worldview. God can't be copyrighted.

When we think about what our personal and national stories suggest about God, we should ask: Is that holy picture of God? Is that a pretty picture of God? A humble picture of God? I believe in God, and I follow Jesus. So this isn't me trying to poke holes in anything. This is me wanting to showcase a certain picture: Let's all look in the mirror and see what 400 years of history has created. Is the real God the Puritan one, or the Universalist one, or another one? It's not about coming up with answers to those questions, because, really, it's the answers to those questions that sometimes get us into trouble. It's just about, let's ask these questions.

BA: What do you think about the future of America's God?

MPT: People always ask me about the future of God — I'm not sure. For me to put an idea out there of who God's going to be in 2025 would be, really ... well, I'd be guilty of doing what others do.

We're beginning to see conservative and progressive ideas about God morphing together. We're seeing younger Christians shift their ideas about God's thoughts on homosexuality, and other social justice issues. We're seeing, perhaps, more understanding of how God come to be. On the flip side, there's this Tea Party God: they've dug in their heels, and created this God. It's like they're saying, 'You didn't like our evangelical God? OK, then wait until you get to know our Tea Party God!' In some ways, this God is an asshole.

But again, what you're seeing — is it God that you're seeing or just reflections of people? We change, and God changes with us. We should be careful about what our actions and words suggest about God. Rather than forcing God to be in politics, or to be the middleman on social issues, we should bring God back to our communities, and invite everyone to the table.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.