“Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity” by Matthew Paul Turner. Published 2014 by Jericho Books. This review refers to the Kindle E-Book edition.
I’ve been somewhat familiar with Matthew Paul Turner for awhile. He hosts the podcast “That God Show” with one of my favorite authors/bloggers, Benjamin L Corey. I also follow him on social media, but even though I’ve had this book on my wishlist for awhile, I’ve never actually read anything by Turner until now. I’m not sure why I waited!
Turner begins “Our Great Big American God” by talking about a question that had been posed to him by a friend. That question was “Where would God be without the USA?” Well, if you’re like me the first thing that crosses your mind is: “That’s totally inappropriate! God is GOD. God doesn’t need the USA or any other country!” However, as you read further into the opening of the book you see the point behind the question. Nobody, at least in the Christian world, is as big of a proponent of God as the United States is. One of our major political parties is totally driven by something that passes itself as Christianity. Most Americans still self-identify as not only religious, but Christian. Many, if not most, Americans still go to church (at least on Christmas Eve and Easter). The United States is responsible for most of the worldwide Christian evangelism, as well as most of the copies of the Bible distributed in the world every year. If you ever see a group of Chinese or African folks being presented with a Bible, odds are that Bible was funded by, if not actually printed in, America. Christians hold nearly every higher government office in the country and most of the offices at the lower levels of government as well. In short, we’ve done a lot for God in the last 400 years!
But the thing is, our God–our conception of God–has changed over the years. When the Puritans stepped off the Mayflower God was a devout Calvinist. God was a hard nosed God for a hard nosed new world where those who didn’t work didn’t eat. God was kind of scary as he held the lives of all those sinners in his angry hands. He’d just as soon pull your legs off like an insect and toss you into Hell. Cranky, wasn’t he? When some people tried to challenge this conception of God they were tossed from the colony (so much for religious freedom). Think Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.
God didn’t stay that way though. He became an ardent American Patriot during the Revolutionary War. In the 19th century people like the Methodists eventually took over from the Calvinists. Now God wasn’t the angry Father anymore, he was the much more pleasant Son, Jesus, who wanted to get to know you. During the Civil War era God was a mighty soldier for the Union (The Battle Hymn of the Republic) and at the same time a rigid southerner determined to hold on to the institution of slavery (which was justified from the Bible six ways from Sunday across the Confederacy).
In the early 20th century the Pentecostal movements came about and kind of took over from the Methodists and the Baptists, and God became the fiery Holy Spirit who would help you speak in tongues, handle serpents without dying, and above all make your minister a very rich man. Then came the fundamentalists, who eventually had a nasty break up with the evangelicals when folks like Billy Graham became not quite fundamentalist enough. However, they got back together in the late 70s when they decided that they should actually attempt to dominate the political landscape and get that God-forsaken Democrat, Jimmy Carter, out of the White House. After that God became a gay hating, woman bashing, uberpatriotic mascot of the “Moral Majority” which has finally faltered in recent years.
Whew! Take a breath man!
Those couple of paragraphs just scratch the surface of Turner’s history. As someone with a minor in history I can vouch for the fact that the book is very well researched and annotated. It brings together two of my favorite subjects: Christianity and history, and does a stellar job. Anyone who is interested in these subjects should really enjoy this. Turner doesn’t come across as some dab, dry history professor but scatters his own insights and humor throughout the book, making it a truly enjoyable read.