Mixed Signals: Christians and the American Dream

Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

Traditionally speaking, the American Dream has referred to each citizen’s right to pursue ongoing and ever-growing economic success, usually defined by home ownership, a bulky retirement, and plenty of gadgets and toys. In sum, it’s materialism. It defines our mindset and rules our lifestyle. Materialism could be argued as the American Christian’s polytheism of choice: stuff + Jesus.

Marketers have tapped into our desires for bigger and better. Most marketing messages are aimed at our expectations for having it all and then having more.

But recent economic hardships have popped our American Dream bubbles, or at least that’s what Susan Lee and Jenny Liang tell us in their recent Co-Design article. The authors outline three ways in which the American Dream is being redefined:

  1. Americans value access over assets.
  2. Americans want to be famous.
  3. Americans desire to make a difference.

As I see it, marketers will soon focus on these new tenets with messaging to connect with the consumer desire for experiences (I want access!), identity (I want fame!), and purpose (I want to make a difference!).

Broken down like that, I’m not sure these tenets are all that new. Consumers, defined by the consumer mentality, are still looking for a defining sense of self through the things we acquire, the things we achieve, and the actions we take. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Biblically speaking, basing our lives around everything we can arrange for ourselves is called sin. Sin deceives us into striving for life apart from God.

But St. Augustine reminds us that God made us for Himself, and the heart is never at rest until it finds rest in Him.

It’s great if the materialistic bent of the American Dream is being corrected. Christians should support that change and even lead the charge. But even the redefined version of the American Dream is no match for all that God is for us in Christ Jesus. No matter what messaging floods the marketplace, no amount of access, fame, or world change will put our hearts at rest.

About Erin Straza

Erin Straza (Associate Editor) is a freelance writer, editor, and marketing communications consultant, helping organizations tell their stories in authentic and compelling ways. After a stint in corporate marketing while earning her MBA, Erin taught marketing communications at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State. She is crafting her first book, writing from the Illinois flatlands where she lives with her husband, Mike. Find more from Erin at her blog Filling My Patch of Sky and on Twitter @ErinStraza.
E-mail: erin [at] FillingMyPatchOfSky [dot] com
Blog: Filling My Patch of Sky
Twitter: @ErinStraza

  • Ben

    I fear we all fall victim to this. What made it click for me was considering what was meant in the Declaration of Independence. All men are created equally by God, and have rights that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    If we really consider the rights listed, and put them in context of inherent human rights, and man created by God, then it really illuminates what Jesus said about life abundant (John 10:10). That is really what we are talking about, not having a home, flat screen tv, 2 cars, and a fat IRA. I think we need to be teaching each other to focus on the proper things.

  • Daniel

    Good, thoughtful article. I’m challenged by this quote:

    “Materialism could be argued as the American Christian’s polytheism of choice: stuff + Jesus.”

    It is so very common in popular Christianity to identify consumer-driven capitalism as God’s will. So common, in fact, that challenges to this order are viewed as threats not just to our comfortable lives, but threats to our whole world view. The only time when I see that it’s ok to condemn consumer-capitalism is in the context of “the real meaning of Christmas”, and/or condemnation of certain specific toys or activities that are clearly against conservative Christianity (like alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc.). But consumerism revolving around things Chrisitans like is not condemned, and you are considered odd if you do condemn them (like poring money into spectator sports, big church buildings or “Christian” entertainment.)


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