The Fall of the American Dream

April 16th, 2012

The term “American Dream” is only eighty years old.  In the grim and turbulent atmosphere of the Great Depression in 1931, historian James Trunslow Adams published The Epic of America and coined the American Dream as:

. . . a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save the American Dream from the forces which appear to be overwhelming it.

Adams’ words, true in 1931, are still true today; there is the need for “an uprising of ordinary Americans to save the American Dream.”  Dating back to mid-1980s, there has been a sense that the American Dream is slipping away or beyond reach of the average citizen. Given the recent near collapse of our economic system, the taxpayer/government bailout of financial institutions thought heretofore to be virtually invincible, painfully high unemployment and the persistent jobless recovery, one-quarter of American homes “underwater,” such that people owe more than the home is worth, the expansive and expanding economic gap between the rich, middle and permanent underclass, the inability of the political system to offer an relevant solutions, the nagging effects of globalization, and the increasing sense that the nation is moving in the wrong direction, there is a hue and cry across the land as to whether the American Dream can deliver “a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Some have even concluded that the American Dream is dead.

Maybe the challenge is in reevaluating what has become the conventional wisdom and interpretation of the “American Dream” itself. The American Dream has come to be exclusively defined from a materialistic perspective, with economic benefit its chief aim and the primary measure of human happiness. When we define the American Dream singularly in terms of economic benefit, a better, richer, and happier life for all is not possible without domination and exploitation of subjected people. What we need is a re-conceptualization of the American Dream, to, in the words of Langston Hughes, “Bring back our mighty dream again.”

In light of widescale concerns about the uncertainty of the American Dream, what is the response of the American Church? Historically, the American Church has had four primary responses.

  1. The first is to deny the truth and validity of the American Dream, and, as a follower of Jesus Christ, embrace an ascetic form of discipleship. In this response, the disciple pulls away from the values of the culture into Christian community that offers true meaning and value in life.
  2. The second response is to completely support and endorse the American Dream through avowed patriotism, often co-mingling the Bible and the American flag. This true believer advocates American exceptionalism and promotes America’s destiny as the greatest nation on earth and God’s light of the world.
  3. The third response is to embrace some form of prosperity gospel, which is, in effect, the church’s support of the rags to riches Horatio Alger cultural myth, where anyone can prosper and become a millionaire. In this response, America, like nowhere else on earth, is the land of opportunity. Prosperity gospel is a message of wealth and success, where people change their individual consciousness in order to take advantage of vast and unlimited opportunity.
  4. The final response, the one I advocate, is the church as transformer or corrector of a flawed American culture. The church does not deny and pull away, or uncritically endorse patriotism and prosperity gospel, but offers a prophetic critique of the American Dream and seeks to move the American Dream and a flawed culture into alignment with the values of the reign of God. This is social gospel that seeks to engage and transform culture. America needs an upgraded version of the American Dream that will move us beyond the values that resulted in the Great Recession.

I want to cause an uprising of ordinary American citizens, particularly pastors, their congregations, and all people of goodwill, to reclaim the American Dream from its exclusively economic stranglehold on the nation.  Our challenge is to re-develop America without the exploitation or domination of subjected people. This America will look more like what Jesus would call the “reign of God,” or what Martin Luther King, Jr. might call “the Beloved Community.”

In these hours of national turbulence similar to the upheavals during the Great Depression of the 1930s, we find the wonderful opportunity to reclaim America and, as King once said, “make America what it ought to be.” I am encouraged by Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 5:3, “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and God’s rule.”America is at the end its rope, and I write this such that there will more of God and God’s rule.

excerpted from: American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession, by Frank A. Thomas. Order information below.

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