Up front I want to acknowledge the debt for much of the information in this post to Walter Russell Mead, who among other things is a Professor at Bard College and blogs at The American Interest (he is actually the editor-in-chief of The American Interest as well).
As a Christian, whose citizenship is truly in the heavenly kingdom, and an American, I often find myself living with the tension that the assumptions that come with with this kind of dual citizenship. Reading the New Testament, looking at church history and the circumstances of Christians in many parts of the world today lead me to a stark conclusion. My life as a Christian in America, by any sort of comparative standard to the lives of Christians throughout history and around the world today, is profoundly abnormal. To begin with, I have experienced next to zero persecution for my faith in Christ. The worst I have experienced is ridicule (and almost all of that has been behind my back, I have very rarely been ridiculed to my face) and the occasional minor ethical quandary at work. Second, by any reasonable standard (historical or contemporary) I am wildly wealthy. I have never wondered where my next meal will come from and the only housing issues I have had were a result of my own over-spending (not a lack of income). Other than my wife’s student loans, my family is in debt to no one. Finally, I am in a thriving, incredibly healthy local church. I can only speak from my own experience here, but in my opinion this is unfortunately very rare.
The tension that I experience most often manifests itself in a lack of contentment. There are many reasons that I think this struggle is not uncommon for a person in my circumstance (that is, an American Christian with some level of affluence). But the one that I am thinking about today can be broadly categorized as the assumptions surrounding The American Dream.
At this point it is important to define what I mean by The American Dream. Before I can do that accurately, a little historical perspective is necessary. What I define as The American Dream hasn’t always been The American Dream. For much of the early history of The United States, The American Dream was wrapped up in the ideal of the family farm. For much of the 18th and 19th century the representative American owned and farmed a small piece of land. Almost all of U.S. domestic economic policy revolved around the assumptions of a society of small farming households. Westward expansion, cheap land, relations with Native Americans, the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railroad all are better understood with the perspective that one of the federal government’s main concerns was always to make life easier for family farms. This was true right up until the Great Depression. Social and technological changes that began well before the Great Depression finally reached the tipping point and The American Dream changed. The closing of the frontier and the industrialization of commerce (including agriculture), combined with the effects of the beginnings of a true global economy placed the small family farm in danger. After the crucible of Depression and World War, a new vision emerged. The American Dream 2.0 wasn’t about the ownership of land and farming. It was about an owner occupied family home, preferably with a nice little patch of lawn (which incidentally is one of the most agriculturally and environmentally useless ways land can be utilized) surrounding it. The assumption that surrounded this vision of The American Dream was debt-financed living. The mortgage, not land and the associated produce of the land, became the central economic feature of most American families. The central place the mortgage occupies is so ingrained in American life that we rarely consider life without it. If you rent (as we currently do) that is only seen as preparation for home ownership and the accompanying mortgage. When families talk about paying down debt, it is consumer credit (paying off credit cards), student loans or car loans that are the main discussion. Life without a mortgage is almost unthinkable. It is the province of the insanely rich or the retiree who paid off the mortgage after making decades of house payments. The policies of the federal government have been built around home ownership financed by mortgage. Our tax policies favor it (think of the mortgage interest deduction) and our monetary policy assumes it (the Fed manipulates interest rates with mortgages top of mind). This vision of The American Dream is in trouble, given our out of control debt problem at every level of society (from consumers through every level of government) and the breakdown of the social model of stable jobs in factories, banking and the government (think of the problems teachers are facing right now with school district and state financing budget crunches). The entitlements that generations took for granted (Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid) are also in trouble and are going to change, although it is yet to be determined what will result from these changes. And finally, the housing sector, with its built in assumptions of home values always rising, has been in free fall for the past 3+ years and the bottom isn’t really in sight. How this will play out in American society is unclear and I am certainly not qualified or visionary enough to really predict that. But that isn’t really what this post is about.
What I am really thinking about is how ingrained the assumptions around The American Dream (at least the current version) are in my life and how they have affected the way I look at faithfulness and contentment. In Philippians 4:10-14, the apostle Paul lays out the vision of Christian contentment. Paul has learned to be content in any and every circumstance. He has experienced poverty and plenty and knows that the key to contentment in not found in the amount of possessions we have. But it is amazing how much possessions and related factors (job environment and stability, income and career status) have consumed my definition of contentment. My entertainment choices often revolve around home ownership (HGTV, DIY, House Hunters, Home Makeover, etc.). Have I allowed my life to be defined by assumptions that have almost nothing to do with the biblical model of faithfulness and contentment? I am afraid that often they do.
I don’t know what form The American Dream 3.0 will take. I don’t know if there even will be one. But the model of life that is full of contentment that I find in Scripture is not so dependent on social upheavals and financial circumstances. There is a lot more to learn by looking at the way The American Dream and how our interaction with that dream shapes our thinking as American Christians. But for now I thinking a lot more about contentment. I am thinking about the peace that passes understanding and that is not dependent upon things that can and will change.
P.S. – A fuller treatment of the information regarding The American Dream is found in Walter Russell Mead’s blog “The Death of the American Dream I” found on the website of The American Interest. Pretty worthwhile reading as he also goes into the effects of divorce and fractured families on our economy’s struggles.