I remember my first-grade teacher asking the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. “A firefighter!” “A nurse!” “A baseball player!” my hopeful classmates shouted. I forget how I responded, but I’m pretty sure it was something no less ambitious than walking on the moon.
But this is how we’re taught to think, right? We are special. We can be anything we want to be. We can change the world. From the time we learn the alphabet, we are trained to envision our successful future selves, and we go through the rest of grade school dreaming of becoming something great, something big, something important.
We grow up dreaming the American dream.
The American dream is an ideal woven deeply into the American subconscious. Our country was born out of the belief that with honesty and hard work, anyone can succeed; and, as our Declaration of Independence affirms, because all men are created equal, all men have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The recent presidential election has brought the American dream to the forefront of conversations in both the media and our everyday lives. The uniqueness and importance of this national ethos took center stage in many speeches and debates during the presidential campaigns. Earlier this year, in a speech at the University of Chicago, Mitt Romney said that the dream is “essential to the genius of America.” Six months before election day, NPR labeled President Obama “a living example of the American dream” as he praised the country for giving “opportunity to everybody,” for that’s “what the American dream was all about.”
An article in OpEdNews claimed that even the president’s re-election speech was “all about the American dream and the American myth.”
No doubt, the race to the White House was driven by a reclamation of an American ideal—an attempt to reawaken our American exceptionalism.
But in a struggling economy with high unemployment rates and a slumping stock market, many young Americans like myself are seriously concerned about our country’s economic future. The jobless ask, “Where’s the opportunity?” Distraught investors and business owners ask, “Where’s the pay off?” Low-income families ask, “Where’s the prosperity?” We’re wondering if the pillars of free market enterprise will crumble in the coming years or if the hard work and innovation that built our great nation will thrive and restore its economic powers. We’re wondering if we still live in a land where a first grader can grow up to become anything he wants to be.
Is the American dream dead?
Recently, the power and promise of the dream have been called into question. In just the past six months, critically-acclaimed books like Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele’s The Betrayal of the American Dream, Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream?, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream have reexamined the facticity and future of the idealistic expectations engrained in the American psyche.
A few years ago, in a specifically religious context, megachurch pastor David Platt, in his popular book Radical: Taking Back your Faith from the American Dream, questioned whether or not the pursuit of happiness is compatible with Christianity.
Indeed, the relationship between the American dream and Christian faith is a complicated one. After all, the capitalistic principles of risk and ambition that Platt critiques enabled him to publish and market his book, right? Would he have become such an influential shaper of Christian thought and culture without the very freedoms and opportunities that the American dream provides and promotes?
To be sure, the Western values of equality, opportunity, and freedom are good things, ideals I think anyone of my faith would defend. And I don’t know anyone who believes that working hard to ensure your family’s safety and well-being is amiss. To want comfort and stability is to be human, so we mustn’t think the dream’s offerings of success and security are evil in and of themselves. Indeed, like money, the American dream is amoral. As the apostle Paul rightly teaches, we must distinguish having wealth and worshiping it; money is not evil, but the love of it is. So, when selfish human beings idolize the pursuit of happiness as an end in itself, the dream becomes destructive.
A powerful illustration of this is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a play that attacks a perversion of the American dream. This perversion idolizes status and material wealth but ultimately results in spiritual poverty. The play’s antihero Willy Loman, an exhausted and disgruntled traveling salesman, equates his identity and self-worth with material success, and thus his version of the dream is devoid of all transcendence. Ultimately, Willy’s obsession with the wrong kind of success destroys his relationships and sense of human dignity.
But does Willy fail or does he fall victim to false promises? The answer to this question, I think, is key to understanding the relationship between our Christian identity and the American dream.
One of Willy’s flaws is his lack of self-awareness. He does not have an accurate perspective of his limitations and talents. Throughout the play we learn that, despite Willy’s claims, he isn’t a good salesman. Instead, he’s better at working outside and building things with his hands. He’d be much more content living a modest life in the country than trying to “keep up with Joneses” in a crowded New York borough. But rather than finding purpose and personal fulfillment in fatherhood and manual labor, Willy seeks approval and success according to societal standards. Thus, at the age of sixty, working on commission and struggling to make ends meet, a delusional Willy kills himself because he’s lost all sense of who he really is.
Though it’s easy for us to criticize Willy for his misguided life goals, he does what most of us do. Willy’s attempt to define himself by his achievements is similar to how we often find our identity and self-worth in our careers and fancy job titles. So our obsession with the American dream might really be an obsession with the concept of the occupation.
Up until the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation of the late sixteenth century, with the rise of capitalism and individualism, the act of “choosing” an occupation or career path was quite foreign. For centuries, human beings gave little or no thought to what they would be when they “grew up.” Frankly, they didn’t have a choice. The socio-economic structure of Europe and the Middle East was feudalism, a system made up of two classes: the lower class (the peasant farmers and tradesmen) and the upper class (nobility and landowners). Consequently, the son of a blacksmith became a blacksmith. The son of a nobleman became a nobleman.
I think looking at how people in past centuries viewed careers can help us reconsider the value we place on occupational pursuits today. These days, not all sons inherit the family business, so the career options seem endless. In the first half of our lives we’re pressured into choosing the perfect job (preferably a practical and lucrative one), and the second half we’re pressured into pursuing that job. Between the two halves, our career—“what we do with our lives”—dictates our biggest decisions and plans. Where we live. Where we go to college. When and whom we marry. Next to our name, our occupation defines us.
We even see this modern phenomenon in everyday conversation. “Hello, Jane. Nice to meet you. So what do you do for a living?” “Oh, you’re getting your degree in Philosophy? That’s cool. What’re you going to do with that?” The “what do you do?” question comes up quite early on when meeting new people. To make strangers more familiar to us, we characterize them first and foremost as the “thing they do”: if you teach, you’re a teacher, if you sell things, you’re a salesman, if you work at a bank, you’re a banker. And thus we unintentionally view a means of making a living as a means of making an identity.
Several years ago I was working at a summer camp in California. During orientation, the camp director talked about how the apostle Paul was a businessman; he worked in the tent-making industry, a very honorable and lucrative occupation in his nomadic culture. Today, we know Paul as the most influential Christian theologian who ever lived; he wrote nearly half of the New Testament. Following the traditional format of first-century letter writing, the camp director explained, Paul begins his letter to the church in Rome with a greeting, a short biographical introduction. Paul states his name, his title (a bond-servant), and his credentials (called by God). Paul mentions nothing about his occupational title—a tent manufacturer. Instead, he spends the remainder of his greeting outlining the good news of Jesus. So, by attaching his name to the message of Jesus, Paul equates his very identity to a proclamation of the Christian gospel.
Paul calls himself a bond-servant of Christ. He belongs to Jesus before anyone or anything else.
The camp director wanted the staff (counselors, lifeguards, custodians, cooks, etc.) to view their jobs the same way. He said to forget about titles. They don’t matter. He explained that regardless of our day jobs that summer, whether we were praying with kids or cleaning their toilets, our real mission was the same because we all belonged to the same employer—Jesus.
The difference between belonging to a profession and belonging to a person is a distinction we don’t often make. But I think that constantly remembering to whom (not to what) we belong can reshape the way we live. Understanding that we ultimately belong to a person and not a profession reminds us that the Christian life is relational. It’s about the people around us and who they are, not “what they do.” Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with associating ourselves with a particular occupation or discipline, but when we view our job title as the essence of who we are, we alienate ourselves not only from other people, but also from Jesus himself.
Like Willy Loman, we seek fulfillment and personal meaning in money and status rather than in being a faithful spouse or parent.
I hope that none of us look back on our lives and find that we’ve been consumed only in becoming that thing, that successful person we dreamed of as first graders. Because honestly, many of us will find that we spent our entire lives failing to become that thing. The dream didn’t come true.
This brings me back to my earlier question: Is the American dream dead?
Honestly, I’m not sure this is the right question to ask. Perhaps the question worth asking is why we’re so inclined to ask new acquaintances, “What do you do for a living?”
Sure, we need jobs to make money, buy food, and survive. But perhaps the real cause for our anxiety during times of unemployment and economic difficulty is not that our financial security is threatened, but that our very identity is. If a career goal or employment status defines us, then our self-worth stands or falls on our success in reaching that goal or status. If our employment doesn’t exist, we don’t exist.
The American dream is not evil. Human beings are.
The American dream has not failed. Human beings have.
We’ve failed to find our identity, purpose, and self-worth in something more than our day jobs. Perhaps a recession is a good thing if it points us to something beyond job security for our source of meaning and fulfillment.