NINE in 10 Americans believe in God but how they vote, or see the Iraq war, depends on the very different views they have about His personality, according to the most detailed survey of religion in the US.
It found that Americans hold four different images of God – Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or Distant – and these views are far more powerful indicators about their political, social and moral attitudes than any of the traditional categories such as Protestant, Catholic or Evangelical.
The study also suggests that America is more religious than previously thought, with only 5,2 percent of respondents calling themselves atheist and 91,8 percent saying that they believed in God.
In Britain, by contrast, 20 percent say that they hold no belief in a higher power and only 38 percent claim to believe in a traditional God, according to a 2005 survey.
The American survey, conducted by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion in Texas, broke new ground in asking respondents how they viewed God's personality.
Researchers found that Americans hold four distinct views, and these "Four Gods" are remarkably accurate diviners of how an American thinks about everything from politics to abortion, taxation and marriage.
"You learn more about people's moral and political behaviour if you know their image of God than almost any other measure," says Christopher Bader, one of the researchers.
Nearly a third of Americans, 31,4 percent, believe in an Authoritarian God, angry at earthly sin and willing to inflict divine retribution – including tsunamis and hurricanes.
People who see God this way are religiously and politically the most conservative. They are more likely to be less educated and have lower incomes, come from the South and be white evangelicals or black Protestants.
At the other end of the scale is the Distant God, seen by 24,4 percent as a faceless, cosmic force that launched the world but leaves it alone. This is seen more by liberals, moral relativists and those who don't attend church. This God has most believers on America's West Coast.
The Benevolent God, popular in America's Midwest among mainstream Protestants, Catholics and Jews, is one that sets absolute standards for man, but is also forgiving – engaged but not so angry. Caring for the sick is high on the list of priorities for these 23 percent of believers.
The Critical God, at 16 percent, is viewed as the classic bearded old man, judgmental but not going to intervene or punish, and is popular on the East Coast.
African Americans believe overwhelmingly (53,4 percent) in an Authoritarian God.
Women tend towards very engaged images of God – Authoritarian and Benevolent – while men tend toward the Distant God, and are more likely to be atheist.
Over 80 percent of those who see an Authoritarian God believe gay marriage is wrong, compared to only 30 percent who view their God as distant.
Only 12 percent of Authoritarians want to abolish the death penalty, compared to 27 percent of those who see a Distant God. On Iraq, 63 percent of Authoritarians see the war as justified, compared to 47 for Benevolent, 37 for Critical and 29 for Distant.
Nearly 54 percent of Authoritarians believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks, compared with 23 percent of those who believe in a Distant God.
"This is a very powerful tool to understand core differences in the United States," says Paul Froese, a professor at Baylor. "If I know your image of God, I can tell all kind of things about you. It's a central part of your world view."
Only one-fifth of those surveyed believed that God favoured the US. The researchers found one-third of Americans are evangelical Protestants, about a quarter are mainstream Protestant, one-fifth are Roman Catholic and five percent are black Protestant.
A majority said they believed in prophetic dreams, and four in ten say there were once ancient civilisations such as Atlantis. More than four in 10 have seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.