The American Dream

In our search for silver linings to the economic clouds, consider Michele Catalano’s argument that our financial woes may return us to a nobler version of the storied “American dream.”

Although the term was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, who defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” it really was, for the most part, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the years, the dream has changed accordingly, defined by what we think will bring us happiness. However, it has not changed in a good way.

Long ago, the American Dream was one of simplicity. The proverbial white-picket-fence dream was made of both tangibles and intangibles; everyone wanted a home of their own for their family and a steady job that would provide not only the house, but for the comfort, safety, and well-being of their family. That’s what the dream was about. Prosperity was found not in the money you made or the things you owned, but the feeling of well-being that came with providing a comfortable life for your family. If you owned the land you lived on and your kids were healthy and your wife was able to put a hot meal on the table at dinner time, life was good. You were living the American Dream. Maybe you could even buy a car to take the family on a beach vacation.

In recent years, not only has the concept of the American Dream changed, but so has the attitude toward achieving that dream. . . .

It looks like, for a lot of people, somewhere along the line the American Dream morphed into the American Rich and Famous Lifestyle Fantasy. They have traded the intangible stuff our forefathers’ dreams were made of for unabashed materialism. Gone are the dreams of the white picket fence, two adorable children, a cute little dog, and a station wagon. Now they dream of McMansions with Lincoln Expeditions in the four-car garage, right next to the ATVs and Jet Skis. They dream of perfect children who go to the most elite schools and wear designer clothing, and they want purebred dogs that come with pedigree papers. For a lot of Americans, that’s where the dream lies: in large-screen televisions and private schools, in built-in swimming pools and first-class plane tickets.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • The Scylding
  • Bruce

    Most of us have had an opportunity, the past twenty years, to create and shape our own American dream. I admit it: it has been a good ride, even with the growing realization that it probably couldn’t be sustained. We’ve become bubble riders; never a good thing.

    There is an entire generation–probably two–of middle-class kids who’ve grown up never really knowing privation. You want it? We’ll buy it. Perhaps, then, this might be a good time for some privation.

    In Christian theology, the way of the cross is not paved with riches and glory. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Christianity has been diminished over the course of a hundred years. This isn’t necessarily because of evil outside influences. It is primarily due to the fact that we as believers have been able to buy our way out of trouble. It is a strange thing that in so doing we may have insulated ourselves from the strange work God wishes to do in our lives.

    John Kleinig, in his book GRACE UPON GRACE, describes a different thing: “God deals with us in a strange way as we travel on our course here on earth. Little by little He strips us down until we are left with nothing except our bare, fragile human soul, a soul that relies on Him utterly for its existence. Then He strips us of our soul in death. He takes away everything that we have in order to give us everything that He has in store for us…” p.35.

    So. The American Dream? One aspect of it has to be that we are situated in some way in a place of contentment but also humility. The current American dream of the riches of Croesus leads to neither.

  • Anon

    Yes, that American Dream was the Biblical model of shalom, Luther’s understanding of “give us our daily bread” and being one’s own boss, or at least the real chance to achieve that.

    Still is for most people.

  • Anon

    Would we be more effective if we continued to insist that the American Dream is the Biblical model of shalom, the petition for our daily bread “Godly wife, children, home, Godly servants (tools?), fields and livestock” Not the latest technology and toys, and thus be able to refute the distortion as not being the American dream, but a tempation and a sidetrack from living out our vocations?

  • LAJ

    In the beginning, the dream of coming to America for many was to escape religious persecution. It looks like we may be forced to give up that dream as well. In Chile the government wants its people to be taught Christianity. How different that would be!

  • Rick Ritchie

    The thing about a “dream” is that it is a series of images. I’m not surprised if many of those come from advertising.

    My own approval of someone’s dream doesn’t depend on whether the dream is humble or lavish. It depends on how much they think it is their due no matter what. I would prefer the person who dreams the jet set dream but pursues his actual calling no matter what to the person whose dream is humble, and he’s willing to sacrifice anything to make sure he gets it. Not that those are the only two positions out there.

    I also hate to see the great term “pursuit of happiness” dragged down by the fact that many use the term trivially. More serious talk of happiness goes way back. I can see roots of Jefferson’s language in the Summa Theologica (section on human law) if not earlier. I’m glad Catalano put the term on the good side of the ledger.

  • John M

    The American Dream entry reminded me of an old song by the band Daniel Amos.

    When Everyone Wore Hats

    Here’s to the long-lost world of
    Chain-smoking dreamers
    War and baseball heroes
    Ticker tape and streamers,
    Cocktail drinkers, Bible believers
    When light was still filling up a
    New York river

    They knew the grace of tradition
    Possessed a love of decorum
    Shook the hand of conviction
    No one complained then of boredom

    When everyone wore hats
    They dreamed of ocean voyages
    Believed in true romance
    Found their hearts and voices

    Here’s to the long lost hopes of
    Those mothers and fathers
    Of rags to riches
    Of style and manners
    To the American dream in a
    Pledge to honor
    Promises made to their
    Sons and daughters

    Threw off the chains of depression
    Built up the arms of aggression
    Left us a mixed impression
    Some died before they learned their lesson

    When everyone wore hats
    In the land of immigrants and pilgrims
    The world came rolling off their backs
    And landed on their children’s

    They knew the grace of tradition
    Possessed a love of decorum
    Shook the hand of conviction
    No one complained then of boredom

    When everyone wore hats
    And innocence found simple pleasures
    They built the cities, drew the maps
    With clues to find their buried treasures

    When everyone wore hats
    And handed down their pride and prejudice
    They dropped good fortune in our laps
    We traded it for vice and avarice

    When everyone wore hats
    Would-be kings with ragged crowns
    They say the style is coming back
    What’s out-of-fashion comes around

    Uncertain where the road was leading
    But trusting God was on their side
    They traced the moral chain of being
    And filmed it all in black and white

    And everyone wore hats…