The American Dream has seen more popular days. Not only has government expansion gradually crowded out the promise of the American Dream, but certain strains of Christianity have challenged it on a moral and theological level. But is the American Dream really at odds with Christianity? Not necessarily. In some cases the American Dream corresponds with Christian ideals, and in other aspects it depends on how it is approached on the individual level.
At the most basic level, the “American Dream” provides opportunity; it leaves the door open for people to pursue their dreams as far as their hard work and responsibility can take them. In its perfect form, the American Dream does not distinguish between race, nationality, gender or religion, but provides equal opportunity for all to pursue their dreams, none of which is anti-Christian in itself. In the modern context, however, the American Dream is often negatively associated by Christians, such as mega church pastor David Platt, with individualism, materialism and status. Platt argues that Christians should rebel against the American Dream, giving away potentially everything we have instead of simply striving for success. There are two problems with his argument. First, it does the very thing it claims to oppose. If prosperity is viewed as incompatible with Christianity, then why give money to the poor in India or the needy in our communities in order to increase their prosperity? The ultimate goal is the same. Assuming, then, that the goal is to increase others’ well-being, the question must be asked: What is more effective, or more sustainable if you will: giving away all you have in a moment of fervent radicalism, or working hard your entire life to be successful in order to be able to continually contribute to the needs of your community and the world? There is a much stronger biblical case for the latter. Second Thessalonians chapter three recounts how Paul worked and toiled to avoid being a “burden” to anyone.
By working hard and taking responsibility for himself instead of relying on the collective, Paul lived out in a Christian way, the individualism of the American Dream. Working, and working hard, is an integral part of the Christian life. Later on in Second Thessalonians, Paul instructs the Thessalonians that “if a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Regarding status and success, Colossians 3:23 instructs Christians in this way: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” There is no higher work-ethic. Furthermore, Proverbs 14:23 notes that “all hard work brings a profit,” and Proverbs 22:29 declares that a skilled man “will serve before kings,” not “obscure men.” Thus, we are commanded to work hard for Christ and, if we do our duty well, presumably our hard work will bring profit and recognition. Up to this point, this seems to fit nicely with the American Dream.
What Christians need to be wary of is making wealth the ultimate goal. Riches and success are no substitute for reliance on God, since even the richest are not safe from trouble (Proverbs 11:28). The fact that some individuals allow themselves to be controlled by materialism is not an indictment of the opportunity provided by the American Dream. The American Dream that allows one person to relentlessly pursue material success is the same Dream that allows another person to spend a lifetime working in nonprofit ministry. Indeed it is precisely the prosperity that has resulted from the American Dream which has allowed the U.S. to be the world’s largest contributor (by far) to charitable causes, according to Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.
Instead of renouncing the American Dream, Christians should take advantage of the opportunity it provides to succeed, and then turn around and reinvest that success back into the Kingdom of God.
Nelsen is a senior majoring in political science. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.