Feel like inner demons are driving you toward drugs? Anxious about your wayward child? Worried that the world is twisting off its moral hinges? Those troubles might lead you to a church that draws bright lines between right and wrong, preaches fiercely against the powers of the world and stands angrily against sin.
A congregation like that could strengthen you to fight wickedness within your soul and the world. Just being in the pew shows you’re on the side of the right. And Way Up There, God is noting your presence.
But a new Baylor University survey suggests such a congregation may not provide a strong peace of mind, after all. The third installment of the Baylor Religion Survey shows believers in a judgmental God have more, not fewer, anxieties than believers in an engaged, loving God.
According to Baylor’s researchers, those who believe in a very judgmental God have 45 percent more concerns related to social anxiety. They have 37 percent more concerns related to paranoia. And they have 33 percent more concerns related to compulsions.
The degree of anxieties among such believers contrasts sharply to the lesser worries found among those who draw upon a loving, warm relationship with God and are more likely to attend churches that reflect those ideas. In those congregations, you won’t hear claims about God, say, sending hurricanes to punish nations. Nor will you encounter many sermons about the Almighty separating the good from the bad. And you won’t get much about Judgment Day.
Instead, you’ll hear about God’s embrace of his creation. You’ll learn about his love for each of his children. And you’ll be reminded about God’s concern for those who are poor and outcast.
The results evidently pay off, at least in terms of mental health. Baylor’s team found:
l Respondents who strongly believe they have a warm relationship with God report 31 percent fewer mental issues, on average.
l Those who strongly believe God knows when they need support report 19 percent fewer mental health issues, on average.
l Those who strongly believe that God is responsive to them report 19 percent fewer mental health issues.
l Respondents who strongly believe God’s love never fails report 17 percent fewer mental health issues, on average.
These findings are fascinating because they seem so counterintuitive. Turning to an authoritarian God who will protect you against hostile forces may seem the way to control your anxieties. But preachers who pound the lectern about evil and God vanquishing opponents may heighten your worries.
The Baylor data are timely given that Americans’ fears are on the march. Look at the headlines, or listen to the political conversation. The economy’s going nowhere. Incomes are stagnant. Illegal immigrants, even their aspiring children, are demons.
The latest manifestation of our frustration is the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Economist captured its spirit in the magazine’s latest cover story “Rage Against the Machine.”
America occasionally goes through anxious periods. Some then turn to religious leaders with a strict view of God. They draw clear contrasts and clarity is appealing.
This isn’t only an American phenomenon, either. The Psalms are full of slewing and slaying. And, coming from a long line of Scots, I can say my people have done fierce views of God quite well.
But maybe all that anger doesn’t help. Maybe we’re better off moving down the continuum toward what Baylor sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader call “an overwhelmingly forgiving God.”
The pair has participated in their university’s surveys. In their 2010 book, “America’s Four Gods,” they report on a tug-of-war between Americans’ views of God. On one side, there is the severely judgmental God. On the other, is that loving, forgiving God.
Of course, churches that espouse a loving, warm God can turn him into a pal, not a majestic force behind the universe. They need to guard against watered-down theology.
But, surprisingly, they may best allay our worries.
McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.