September 6th, 2014
06:00 PM ET
Opinion by Matthew Paul Turner, special to CNN
(CNN) – The majority of America’s churches teach that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. But considering our country’s near-400-year history, can we honestly say that our concepts and perceptions about God haven’t evolved?
Is our contemporary American God the same as in 1629, when the Puritans began organizing a mass exodus toward their “Promised Land”?
Is our modern God the same as in 1801, when Christians at a revival in Kentucky became so filled up with God’s spirit that they got down on all-fours and barked and howled like wild dogs?
More recently, is our God the same as in 2000, when born again George W. Bush won (sort of) the presidential election by rallying America’s then thriving evangelical electorate with a Jesus-tinged GOP rhetoric he called “compassionate conservatism”?
The truth is, no. God is likely not exactly the same as God was yesterday, not here in the United States, not among America’s faithful. Here, God changes.
Our making God into our own image isn’t a new trend. We’ve been changing God since Anglo Saxons first stepped foot onto these shores. Here are five examples.
1. The Puritans’delusions.
Even before leaving England, the Puritans started reimagining God’s divine plan. And it just so happened that plan revolved around them.
Giving God’s narrative a Puritan focus may have been the only way that John Cotton, a priest in the Church of England and a somewhat closeted Puritan, was able to convince his fellow renegades that starting afresh in Boston was a good idea.
Despite the Puritans being disgusted, stifled and persecuted by England’s church, the majority of them weren’t all that excited at the thought of joining John Winthrop’s adventure to the New World.
That is, until Cotton refashioned Winthrop’s crazy idea for the Puritans into God’s ordained destiny for his new chosen people.
In a sermon called “God’s Promise To His Plantation,” Cotton used Old Testament story, imagery and prophesy and created a God narrative that put the Puritans squarely in the middle of heaven’s divine blueprint.
According to Cotton, God had not only prepared a place (America!) for his new people (the Puritans!), but God also was betting his entire future on the Puritan people becoming a religious, economic and social success in the New World.
No doubt Cotton’s holy foretelling was, at the very least, inspiration for Winthrop when he repurposed Jesus’ words as the unofficial Puritan tagline: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
The Puritans arrived in Boston intoxicated by Manifest Destiny: the idea that God had chosen them and ordained their prosperity before the foundations of the Earth.
2. God creates evangelicals.
Within two generations, the American people - including many Puritans - had lost a good bit of their piety, which sparked revivalists to inspire a spiritual revival.
One of the biggest influences of the Great Awakening was how God altered the way he interacted with America’s people.
Rather than engaging humanity through communal covenants—holy connections usually reserved for large groups —according to the Anglican evangelist George Whitefield, God was now interested in making personal relationships with individuals.
Though Americans were a century or two away from asking Jesus into their hearts, Whitefield and others began preaching that God was ready and willing to bypass the church and interact with people one on one.
Whitefield became so popular—some historians suggest 80% of America’s population heard him preach—that his core message, one centering around a spiritual relationship that he called “new birth,” became popular, too, especially among Baptists and Presbyterians.
His revivals spearheaded a shift in how Americans would interact with the God of the universe, that the spiritual drama was happening inside us.
Moreover, Whitefield’s evangelical message of liberty—a spiritual liberty that many Americans equated to also mean a national liberty—became a unifying ideal that helped ready a much divided colonial population into becoming “one nation under God.”
3. America falls in love with Jesus.
Amid America’s campaign for independence, people began gravitating toward more evangelical churches, like Baptist and Methodist.
These congregations boasted a more laid-back approach to worship and faith as opposed to the stuffy religiosity of Congregational and Anglican gatherings.
Then, in 1801, that rather strange spiritual gathering of more than 20,000 happened in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, a revival that sparked, among many things, a spiritual revolt against Calvinism’s God.
In America, with the help of preachers like Charles Grandison Finney, Peter Cartwright and Barton Stone, the God that the people favored was one who let individuals choose their own spiritual destiny.
As Methodists and Baptists led America away from the reformed doctrine, they also directed worshipers’ focus away from God the Father and toward Jesus, eventually making God’s only son the “face” of Christian spirituality.
While America’s followers had always believed that Jesus paid the price for their sins, Jesus wasn’t the core topic of discussion, at least, nowhere close to how Christians uplift, debate, and theologize Jesus today.
In the early 1800s, Jesus was much easier to relate to among everyday Americans. Jesus seemed to offer a more practical spirituality, one that celebrated Jesus’ humanity—his “manliness,” his suffering, his flesh and blood, his father/son relationship with God, his ability to understand the human plight.
The simpler approach to Christianity that Methodists and Baptists offered would eventually be tested by the nation’s debate over slavery, a conflict that divided America’s churches long before it divided a nation.
4. America’s apocalyptic obsession
In the decades after the Civil War, America’s Jesus-focused Christianity led to John Nelson Darby’s apocalyptic-heavy theology, dispensationalism.
Darby’s thoughts about the End Times only garnered moderate attention in his home country of England. But here, thanks to Darby apologists like James Brookes, D.L. Moody and Cyrus I. Scofield, America fell in love with his Rapture-ready Jesus.
Dispensationalism changed everything about America’s faith, specifically how evangelicals applied their beliefs to a variety of areas of life, including supporting Prohibition, war, fighting against the teaching of evolution, and Christianizing new immigrants as well as other nations.
Among evangelicals, dispensationalism also cultivated a culture of fear, defensiveness and carelessness about helping a “doomed world.”
5. The Billy Graham effect
As the country sought healing after World War II, Americans began searching for hope in the God-smorgasbord that Christianity had laid out, from Bible-believing fundamentalism to Holy Ghost-inspired Pentecostalism, from education-minded Roman Catholicism to progressive-leaning high church spiritualism.
One man seemed capable of connecting across church and denominational lines: Billy Graham.
Unrestrained by the limitations of a home church, Graham’s God evolved into a deity that a variety of Americans wanted to know. Graham’s God wooed conservative and charismatic believers alike, and didn’t offend most Catholic and Episcopalian believers.
Amid the large and varied buffet, Graham’s God was like a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, a divine brand delivered using books, television, radio, magazine publishing and live events.
In many ways, Graham was the first to unleash the power of GOD®. And that changed everything.
Today, most Christians can’t distinguish between God and GOD®, which has made America’s deity into a superpower, an almighty deity that can be mixed with just about anything, from enterprise to politics, from hate campaigns to promises of prosperity.
Here in America, God is constantly changing. It’s a divine story that we edit and manipulate—sometimes innocently and sometimes intentionally—into our own narratives.
We create a most powerful God who serves our own agendas, whether they be cities built on hills or presidential elections.
Matthew Paul Turner is the author of "Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity." The views expressed in this column belong to Turner.
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