Saving America 2.0: Calling for a New Future
If you're a believer in American exceptionalism—that is, you believe America is the greatest, most powerful, and most democratic nation on earth, or that it doesn't require more than a return to some previous way of thinking or acting to retrieve its God-given destiny—then the idea that America should undergo radical and fundamental change will scare the hell out of you. One of the challenges I took on in Faithful Citizenship is how difficult it is to have a conversation about how or even whether America should change when mindless patriotism seems to be the law of the land.
Why should America change at all? It's done all right for over two hundred years.
Why should America change at all? I've done all right, or if things just went back to the way they were, I could do all right again.
American Dream 2.0 opens up this uncomfortable conversation about change and the way we talk about America, but it also suggests a way forward. The American jeremiad is incomplete, in and of itself, but we need that sense of optimism it generates to push forward. Things are hard now, it tells us, but things can be better, and they will be.
The African-American jeremiad, perhaps as preached by Jeremiah Wright, is incomplete, because while it acknowledges the obvious need for systemic change, it doesn't seem to hope hard enough that change is possible.
It is in the rhetoric of President Obama that the Rev. Dr. Thomas finds a useful mixture of the two, a repurposing of the jeremiad that acknowledges the failure of the American Dream and the multi-cultural reality of our present:
Obama repositions the jeremiad from the lauding of traditional American greatness of the past to the perfection of the union in the future. White and black Americans can admit that the Constitution is both great and flawed. Both parties can release the attachment to grievances because perfection is in the present and future and not in the past. The founding idea of America is great, and it is our responsibility to work out the flaws and achieve a more perfect union.
Does this mean that Mr. Obama is the ideal candidate for president? Maybe; maybe not.
What this book argues, though, is that today an honest and truly inclusive form of political discourse has to acknowledge both the American jeremiad and its optimistic appeal to the past, and the jeremiad of the oppressed, that witnesses to inequity and unfairness at the heart of the American Dream.
Listen to your candidates, and ask them to give you not just a mindless version of past glory or a rant on past and present injustice.
We need more than that.
We deserve more than that.
Ask them to imagine with us a future where Americans "will rebuild their ruined cities and return to them. They will plant new vineyards and drink wine from them, and they will plant new gardens and eat the food they grow" (Amos 9:14, The Voice).
Ask them to imagine with us a future that will "Let justice thunder down like a waterfall; let righteousness flow like a river that will never run dry" (Amos 5:24, The Voice).
Ask them to imagine with us a future that we can walk toward together.
All of us.
For more conversation on American Dream 2.0, visit the Patheos Book Club.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.