Rethinking the Criticism of the American Dream

If you were to do a short cursory study of what people mean when they talk of the American Dream, you would get a few different answers. Some would speak in terms of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Others would look at the term as coined by Historian James Truslow Adams from the book, Epic of America, which he wrote in 1931. In it he wrote,

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Changes in the culture have altered the connotation of the term in question and made it a term of derision as well as a term of continuing endearment.  But no matter what you read, you would continually see the American Dream as summed up with three ideals even if the words themselves were not used. These three ideals pursued are freedom, prosperity and success. Other ideals could be added but these are a sufficient enough portrait and are generally what is pictured when the American Dream is celebrated by those who want to pursue it; foreign or domestic. It is also what is so roundly criticized by American evangelical pastors.

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There was once a time when, as a youth pastor, I would often tell my students to not fall for the lie of the American Dream.  My desire was for them to want something far more rich than what the world had to offer. So that is what I would say to them. And then I would get in my car and drive home to my house of either 3 or 4 bedrooms, and at least 2 baths. Usually I would then sit on a couch and relax with my wife, watching a movie or just talking. I might even walk over the yard if the air was cool and crisp. Usually I would look up in the sky shining bright over the physical manifestation of a mortgage.

In other words, I was telling my students to not pursue the very thing I had already achieved.

Actually, it was worse. I probably scared them when I talked about the dangers of the American Dream. I made it sound like if they went after the American Dream, they were compromising their faith. You don’t have to say it to communicate it. I painted a picture of filthy lucre which looked suspiciously like the people who gave the most to keep the ministries of the church afloat and would usually be the most generous at Christmas to my family.

It sounds awful because it was. And I wish I could go back and temper my language a good bit. But that’s impossible, so this little essay. This is not a penance so much as a pointing and saying, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes.” Or as you will see, the Emperor has plenty of clothes.

When I say, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes”, it is not a reference to any particular person. I do not dislike those preaching this message so much as I hate the memory of my own voice preaching and teaching it. I am talking about the criticism leveled against the pursuit of the American Dream. It is leveled in books, sermons, conference messages, blog posts and throughout social media. And yet I have seen very little in the way of questioning the message. So here is my small attempt to speak into the present milieu. Here is my attempt to not only defend the pursuit of the American Dream but critique the lesson that says the American Dream is in opposition to the Christian life.

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The criticism of the American Dream fails on multiple levels. Not just one. The following is not comprehensive but I hope it is a beginning in bringing some sober reflection on how we motivate people and what our message really is. Here are two reasons why we, evangelicals need to temper our criticism of the American Dream and those who may be pursuing it.

First, it fails because it assumes if you are in pursuit of the American Dream you are compromising – you are choosing one thing over another. Not only does this assume the worst of people who want freedom, prosperity and success but it fails logically. Our faith is not static. And you do not have to baptize the American Dream to say the American Dream is not evil and compatible with Biblical Christianity. The problem would be if someone said ‘no’ to Christ because of their pursuit of the American Dream. This is, of course no peculiar position the American Dream holds. Anything sought over and against the Christ can be detrimental. Even ministry. Our problem is never the American Dream, it is the heart that would pursue anything over Christ; whether it be food, sex or money. But food, sex and money are great things that Christians can pursue and still be faithful, which is why this criticism fails.

We have now become so accustomed to the guilt we harbor regarding our relative wealth that we can only read the story of the Rich Young Ruler as a manifesto against the American Dream. When in actuality it is a statement against seeking justification in anything other than Christ. This is the great mistake of so many thousands of pulpits throughout our land. Mistaking the problem. The problem was not his wealth. It was his attachment to it. Wait. No, the problem was that he sought to justify himself. He did not walk away merely because he was wealthy. He walked away because he rejected Jesus. Even the poor can do such a thing. Cue the thief on the cross who mocked Jesus.

My guess is we, who are married, would not tell single people to quit dreaming the marriage dream. That would be cruel. Nope. But we might say, ‘In your pursuit of the marriage dream do not neglect the dream of a life of faith in Christ alone.” Good? I thought so. What stops us then from saying the same in regards to the American Dream. Maybe it will be hard and require some nuance and explanation but it just might be worth it. Just as we would not want to be hypocritical about the marriage dream and push an unnecessary discouragement, the same is true for freedom, prosperity and success. And this brings us to our second reason the evangelical criticism of the American Dream fails.

Second, it fails because the ones who decry those who would pursue this dream have homes and cars and jobs and cell-phones and furniture and money to eat out. The pastors who rail about your pursuit of the American Dream take their wives out for dinner and go on vacation. They have mp3 players, DVD players, computers and microwaves. They have central heat and air. They pay for their house to be repaired. They have degrees from educational institutions. They have more than one pair of shoes, plenty of clothes and machines to wash them. If any of the above is lost or stolen or worn out they can use their savings account or insurance to replace the above. They are respected in their profession and are invited to conferences based on their abilities and success. And they are free to do so under the laws of this land. Some send their kids to private school. Some have cable. None go hungry.

They are living the American Dream.
Please understand, this is no criticism of those things listed above. Almost all of those who are reading this enjoy a great deal of these which are the accoutrements of the American Dream and do so with thankfulness to God. No pastor or Christian is necessarily wrong in doing so. What is wrong is to enjoy these things – these results of the American Dream – and then rail against some abstract notion of it for others. What is wrong is to stand in front of a group of people having achieved the American Dream and then tell others how wrong they are for pursuing the same. Just as it is wrong to rail against the wealth of Americans from an iPhone, it is wrong to rail against someone’s pursuit of the American Dream from the comfort of being right in the middle of it.

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Maybe pursuit is the wrong word. Our language in all of this is may be faulty. Since we are certain we should not idolize the American Dream, maybe we should use that language so their is no confusion. “The Christian should not idolize the American Dream.” That works. And it works on two levels. First it makes the heart the issue and not some outside thing. Second, it frees us from an unnecessary guilt due to what you have. You could call it the pursuit of the ‘Edenic Dream’ that our first parents bequeathed us. It is nothing new.

You must see, the heart has always been the problem.  Not freedom. Not prosperity. Not success. The American Dream is not the problem. And it is strange. Strange, because everyone would admit there are men and women, who reject the American Dream and have black hearts. This should tell us something. Our hearts – you know, where the problem lies – is always looking for something else to be the problem. The American Dream. Alcohol. Education. Sex. Dancing. Tobacco. Choose something…anything, and we will turn it into the problem.

So this is not a call for you to pursue the American Dream. Almost every reader has seen the dream become reality and has known nothing else since birth. No, this is a call to make the heart the issue. To stop distracting from the real issue. This is a defense of what all of you already have but what you call everyone else to reject. To stop heaping unnecessary guilt on the faithful. This is simply a pointing and saying, “The Emperor has plenty of clothes.”

5 thoughts on “Rethinking the Criticism of the American Dream

  1. michael January 18, 2011 / 1:18 pm your main point is that Jesus is concerned first and foremost about our heart, i agree. but i think the issue with the american dream is that many have assumed that their Christian faith will lead them to a full "american dream" kind of life, and of course the gospel never makes these kinds of promises. and when our american dream ship does not come sailing in we become angry, disillusioned, wonder where God is…money is not evil, the love of money is evil. so reflecting on what it is that we are truly pursuing here on earth (what our heart craves) is a critical exercise if we want to be living for the kingdom of God and opposed to the kingdom of agree?

  2. Matthew B. Redmond January 18, 2011 / 4:51 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with all you have said except the following statement:"…the issue with the american dream is that many have assumed that their Christian faith will lead them to a full "american dream" kind of life…"Certainly, there are those who assume this to their detriment. But the problem is not the American Dream. The problem is the assumption and the one doing the assuming. For the American Dream to be the problem, it would need to be shown that it is in itself immoral and at odds with the Christian life.

  3. michael January 18, 2011 / 10:16 pm

    OK, I see your point. It comes down to how we define the American dream, and that is a bit arbitrary. For me the issue is that a pursuit of comfort, health, wealth, safety and comfort will sooner or later collide with the gospel which bids us to come and die.As we have said, it comes down to a person's heart. If a person is living the "American dream" are they still sold out for the gospel of Jesus Christ? If so, awesome!Thanks for letting me chime in!

  4. Marcie January 19, 2011 / 3:24 am

    Good thoughts that are timely for me. Thanks, Matt.

  5. Woody April 22, 2011 / 8:08 pm

    Timely for me on good Friday.

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