Conflicting visions of the American Dream. Does Jesus like either of them?

Posted on October 31, 2013 by


Much of our current political polarization is explainable by the conflicting visions underlying each side; visions that Thomas Sowell suggests reflect a basic understanding of the way the world works.  In  many cases, people with similar values will nevertheless disagree with each other because they view the world differently.  Yet there are also questions of values which underlie our differences.  What is the good life, what is it that we want to achieve collectively, and what should a good America look like?  These values are continually being contested in the public arena, and are therefore necessarily not fixed.

The “American Dream” represents one of the largest differences in our collective values, and the social consensus of what it means has dramatically changed over time.  Without defining terms, many theologians decry the American Dream; at our own University I hear calls to forsake the American Dream, since its implicit materialism stands condemned by God.  I cannot disagree with those calls, and yet, is that the American Dream?  Unfortunately the current image of the American Dream (vision #1) is one of the Middle Class home, white picket fence, large 401k, and early retirement with life on the beach.  While owning a middle class home with a white picket fence is not necessarily bad, it is a dream that is self-focused.  This dream has been embraced by politicians as worthwhile, and one that we need to help all American’s achieve.  Indeed, it is this foolish view of the American Dream which is the genesis of much of our nation’s housing policy and the perverse policies that have led to the financial crisis from which we still suffer. If achieving the American Dream requires a home, and a large 401k with a good retirement, shouldn’t the government support the housing market and take action to keep the stock market high?  Is it any wonder that we have a Federal Reserve keeping interest rates low to stimulate the housing and stock markets?  And if the American Dream is pursuing all these materialist outcomes, are not the theologians correct in condemning it?  It is certainly hard to see Jesus in this version of the American Dream; after all He told us not to worry about any of the material things in this dream, but rather we are to seek him First.

While increasingly out of vogue, there is another vision of the American Dream, an older vision (vision #2), which has much to offer.  In this earlier vision, the American Dream is distinctively and uniquely American–it is an opportunity dream.  In America, almost alone in the world in much of the 19th and 20th centuries, someone could come with nothing but the shirt on their back and make something of themselves.  It was a vision of an equal opportunity society, where one’s heritage and family tree were not the limiting factors.  Yes, coming from an impoverished background made success harder, but it was possible through hard work, prudent living and just a little bit of good luck (or more accurately, a little bit of positive Providence!).  In this vision, the role of public policy would be to ensure that no artificial constraints were added to the natural inequalities that are necessarily present in life (whether initial social standing or natural endowments of talent).  From a Biblical perspective, there is much good in this American Dream vision, although much to be concerned about as well.  A society that allows individuals the freedom to become what their God-given talents allow seems to be consistent with the freedom that God gives each of us, and accords with a Christian view of human dignity.  Yet even this earlier vision can be perverted, if the pursuit of this dream is for individual glory, rather than God’s glory.  This dream seems more in accord with the freedom we see in the Bible, where we are given opportunities by a providential God–opportunities that allow us to serve our self or serve God.

From this Berean’s perspective, our American Dream should be a dream of walking in obedience to the call of God in our lives, which requires the freedom to pursue our calling.  While vision #1 has nothing in common with this view, vision #2 is more congruent.  We need to take back the American Dream.

(For a video summary of Dr. Sowell’s excellent book, A Conflict in Visions, see Dr. Sowell outline it himself: