Is the American dream dead? This is the title of a condensed article sent to me by a good friend in Texas. The original article was published in The Daily Beast, an online service of Newsweek magazine. Written by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson, the article details how much more difficult it is in America today to realize the upward mobility, socially and economically, of the kind that formerly characterized this country and which still is being realized to a greater degree in some other countries.
For young people who will be entering the work force over the next few years or decades, the prospect of achieving an income better than their parents is not all that great. Once it was believed that all one needed was to work hard to reach a higher standard of living. But over the last several decades the gap between the rich and the poor has widened with 30% of the wealth in America being held by 1% of the population and the number of people classified as living at or below the poverty level increasing at the same time.
When we think about the “American dream” we are really talking in terms of material expectations and goals. Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi professor of history and Southern studies in 1999 listed these four things as making up the American dream; “Dream of Abundance,” “Dream of a Democracy of Goods,” “Dream of Freedom of Choice,” and the “Dream of Novelty.” (Wikipedia/American Dream). Each of these things relate to the material goods people expect to be available and that they expect to be able to buy and enjoy. Freedom of democracy of goods and freedom of choice in this list does not have to do with the freedom to make religious or political choices, but with the availability of products of such a variety and standard that one can purchase whatever one desires.
With the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the expectancy of more and more people is that they will have less and less of the goods that identify one as prosperous. With this reality also comes the realization that a college education is not the golden key to success it once was. Many college graduates end up in menial jobs because of a lack of the better jobs in a shrinking economy. It also means that the dream of home ownership, long a status symbol, becomes for far too many, an impossible dream.
What then is our hope – our dream? A restoration of the political, social, economic status of some by-gone golden era of prosperity? A radical mandate requiring the redistribution of wealth? Legislation guaranteeing a level playing field in which every person is given equal access to the economic pie?
Actually the problems we are facing in regard to the failure of the American dream is the natural consequence of the “dream” itself. The dream is a material one, based on the concept that more and more “things” can bring happiness. They can’t. The essential concept is that of the pleasure of owning and enjoying the things this country’s economic system makes possible.
Basically the system we have is based on greed and self interest. The system works as long as everyone is getting what they desire, but as greater and greater inequalities develop from those who are able to obtain more, these either exploit or ignore those who have less. It is an impersonal system where people are seen and people see themselves merely as consumers – the buyers and users of goods. Personal value and self esteem are keyed to what one purchases or possesses.
In such a system it is easy to see that the basic underpinnings of this nation are not Biblically based truths and values. If that were the case we would see a very different attitude among the populace and a very different kind of economy.
I am not speaking here of a shallow interpretation of Biblical morality that calls for a forced regulation of behavior as in the conservative, evangelical Christian call for outlawing of homosexual marriage or the return to “an eye for an eye” kind of mistakenly interpreted vigilantism.
Now, before anyone gets the idea that I am in favor of homosexual marriage, I most certainly am not. I am, however, realistic enough in my thinking to realize that the problem will not be solved by laws on the books in the nation but by the law of God written in the hearts of the people of the nation. And that is not going to happen as long as we are a nation of materialistic consumers. In fact, the mentality that permits one is the mentality that calls for the other – our supposed right to have what we want how we want it and when we want it.
Our problem in this nation and in western civilization as a whole is broader and deeper than the issue of the legalization of same-sex unions. Actually, the issue of the American dream comes closer to defining the issue than the same-sex question that has again so alarmed conservative Americans this week with the decision of the Supreme Court regarding a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996.
The problem is not a new one. It is not unique to the United States nor to western civilization. It goes back to the earliest days of Biblical history – exploitation by the powerful at the expense of the exploited. The neglect and oppression of the weak by the strong. The objectification and devaluing of women or the young. The refusal of the rich to share with the hungry, the poor, the sick. It can be seen in evidence throughout the Bible. And the solution is also evident within the pages of divine writ.
I saw the erroneous conclusion again the other day that Sodom was destroyed because of the sin of homosexuality. While this particular sin may have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back” of God’s patience, it was by no means the only thing that brought on the ruin of Sodom and her sister cities of the time. What were the sins that caused Sodom’s destruction? Ezekiel, in comparing the sins of Judah to those of this wicked city, tells us what they were …
Ezekiel 16:49-50 “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”
The “abomination” (homosexuality) was an evidence – a symptom – of a deeper, more fundamental problem. First there was pride which, coupled with prosperity and a luxurious lifestyle and a failure to recognize any responsibility toward their fellow man was the real problem. Their whole lifestyle was antithetical to God’s program for human life and thriving.
How much different were the sins of Sodom and the other cities of the lower Jordan plain and those of Judah from those of America? We have, as a whole, lived in luxury, having anything we wanted and when it is not readily available we talk about the dream being dead. Instead of taking responsibility for our own families and the families of our neighbors we have depended on the government to take care of the needy and when the programs that have largely relieved us of the necessity of being personally involved in the loving care of those who cannot take care of themselves are in danger of going away we cry out in anguish because we may have our lifestyle curtailed.
But God’s social security plan has always been for people to take care of people. The family is for taking care of family. Paul wrote that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). So what if this cramps one’s style? We were made to love one another and that doesn’t just mean having a warm feeling of affection. It means that we show active concern in doing what we are able to do for their good.
It even goes beyond the immediate family. Again the apostle wrote to those who had been converted from a former life that included the idea of simply taking what one wanted from another that they had the responsibility of active concern to the extent that their labor should be not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of the needy. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph. 4:28).
Maybe, just maybe it is time for the American dream to die and for people to get back to the kind of society God wants for humanity. What he desires for people is something far better than the American dream which we have for far too long confused with the divine ideal. Americans have not been able to conceive of anything greater than what we have had. But now that it is dying and we are seeing the consequences of the sin that has always plagued the human family, maybe we can by following God’s plan begin to bring some of the eternal, the heavenly, into the present.
How are we ever to do that in this world? Very simply. Love God. Love others. That will keep us busy for a lifetime and be far more fulfilling than the materialistic American dream ever could be.