Do American Christians view God more as an almighty ruler or a loving creator? That could say a lot about how they vote.
A new study from the University of North Carolina finds that politics play a role in how believers picture the divine, an image also influenced by their own race and appearance.
For the study, researchers asked 511 Christians in the U.S. to compare hundreds of faces to choose those that looked more like God. From that, a composite image arose showing how they see their creator. The result? Not a white beard in sight.
The God of American Christians appeared “kinder and more approachable” than the stern sage of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, researchers said. But that precise face differed based on one’s leanings: Conservatives tended to see God as older, more masculine and wealthier, with an emphasis on power, while liberals pictured God as younger and more feminine with an emphasis on love.
“These biases might have stemmed from the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want,” Joshua Conrad Jackson, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
“Past research shows that conservatives are more motivated than liberals to live in a well-ordered society, one that would be best regulated by a powerful God. On the other hand, liberals are more motivated to live in a tolerant society, which would be better regulated by a loving God.”
Beyond politics, participants tended to picture God as a lot like them. Older people saw an older God. Attractive people saw a more attractive God. African-Americans saw God as slightly more African-American.
One exception: Both men and women perceived God as equally masculine.
The results largely align with egocentric bias, our ability to overestimate how much others — God included — are just like us, authors said. And that’s important, they argued, because how we think God looks affects how we think God thinks.
“These hidden disagreements speak to the fact that many religious conflicts are driven by the tension between believers assuming that God’s characteristics are universal while simultaneously seeing him in their own way,” the study’s authors note.
The study published this week in the journal PLoS One.
The findings do come with caveats. Among them, researchers only measured nine dimensions of appearance and did not note participant’s church denomination. And some also may have modeled their image of God on Jesus, they noted, a potentially “inevitable” overlap.
Follow Josh Hafner on Twitter: @joshhafner