American Dream 2.0: An Interview with Frank A. Thomas

This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re talking about  the new book American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession, by author and pastor Frank A. Thomas.  In the book, Dr. Thomas argues that we need a new American Dream, one that aligns with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the “Beloved Community.”

Dr. Thomas spoke with us about the inspiration for his book, the significance of the American Jeremiad style of preaching, and what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say if he showed up today.

How did this book, American Dream 2.0 come about? What inspired you to write it?

In my opinion, the mythology of the American Dream has fallen completely apart in the 21st century and it is the mythology of a culture that holds a culture together. The mythology of America was a better and more prosperous life for all of America (the American Dream). Yet, in the last 30 years, a better and more prosperous life has been given to the top 1% and the rest have had mediocre results at best.  I wanted to explore why the American Dream had fallen apart and how might we re-dream the American Dream again (The American Dream 2.0).

How did the subject matter evolve through the writing process?

In the writing process, I discovered that I had to go back and look at the roots of the American Dream, the American jeremiad, and what I ended up calling the rise and fall of the American Dream.  It became very important to look at the politics of prophets of the American Dream, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., who inside and outside of the American jeremiad called the American nation back to God’s ideal for America. Barak Obama, in his own version of the multicultural American jeremiad, urged the nation to “perfect the union.”  Finally, I looked at King’s vision of the Beloved Community and suggested that King’s vision of the Beloved Community is the tangible and contemporary expression of the Jesus’s concept of the reign of God and the fulfillment of the American Dream, or what I call American Dream 2.0 and a Christian way out of the Great Recession.

The purpose of American Dream 2.0, you say “is to cause an uprising of ordinary American citizens – particularly pastors, their congregations, and all people of goodwill – to reclaim the American Dream from its exclusively economic stranglehold on the nation.” Do you see the current polarization of politics, the noise coming from the occupy movement, the re-focus of many pastors on a more “missional” church, as being steps in the right direction? Or have we seen this before? Do you see all of the polarization and upheaval going on as positive movement or negative? Are we going forward or are we going backward.

Our politicians and many of our religious leaders present the same warmed over 20th century ideas that find difficult traction in this new less US centric, knowledge driven, and more competitive world. Rather than tell the American people the truth, that we have a crisis of historic proportion that threatens this nation to the core of its ideals, and rally the nation with sacrifice and creative ideas to win and meet the economic and social challenges of the 21st century, our best response is theatrics, partisanship, sound-bites, and old and well-worn twentieth century economic ideas.  The Republicans are proposing 20th century tax cuts for the rich and the Democrats seek to use government to create jobs.  Neither of these ideas work in the 21st century, and clearly illustrate that we have an idea and innovation problem in political and religious leadership that cannot be solved by theatrics, i.e. calling each other names, throwing ultimatums and tantrums about what one will not do, and demonizing unions, the rich, government, and government workers. It can only be solved by leaders who want to serve the people, leaders who want to work together toward a common vision to benefit the people, leaders who want to inspire the people to sacrifice based on a future for our children, and leaders who want every American to have jobs to provide education, housing, medicine, and food for their families.  This is the American Dream 2.0. I believe the Occupy movement can help and so can many pastors focusing on a “missional” church, as long as they endorse the values of the American Dream 2.0.  (See the Epilogue: Encouraging the Citizen Activist).

You say that, “the American Dream in its origin was conceived of as a ritual of benefit for a certain class of people.” Have we never been on track? Were we flawed from the start?

In the book, I explain that the Founder Fathers expressed certain ideals as maxims to be perfected not in their lifetime, but in succeeding generations. Freedom was such an ideal and maxim. The institution of slavery was a contradiction of the freedom ideal. The Founders Fathers were not able to settle the matter of slavery, and therefore set freedom as a maxim for succeeding generations to bring the ideal to reality. This is the idea that Barack Obama expressed, following Lincoln, as “perfecting the union.”  We were on track in expressing the maxim and we were flawed from the start because we could not live up to it, but it is the responsibility of each generation to make a “more perfect union.”  (See Chapter Seven: The African American Jeremiad and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union.”)

Speak a bit about the “American Jeremiad.” What is it? How do you see it playing out in modern American society?

The American Jeremiad is a form of public exhortation that originated in the Medieval European pulpit, was transformed by New England Puritans to the American jeremiad that has subsequently developed into the cultural myth of America. The chief characteristic of the American jeremiad is its optimism, in that, flaws in the American nation, like slavery or racism, are not structural flaws in American character, but only ideals (maxims) in the nation that have not yet been perfected. The only acceptable dissent in America is dissent that utilizes the American jeremiad. When one moves outside the American jeremiad and argues that there are structural flaws in the values and character of American life, this kind of dissent evokes violence, demonization, and outright public rebuke. The only dissent that is acceptable is dissent that supports and reinforces the American Dream.  This explains the demonization of Jeremiah Wright and Martin Luther King, Jr. (See Chapter One: The American Jeremiad and the Cultural Myth of America).

You align Dr. King more with the European Jeremiad than the American one. How so?

It depends on which King you are talking about. The King of the period 1954-1965 enthusiastically supported the American Dream, which explains the tremendous popularity of this King as cultural icon.  The King of the period of 1966-1968 was more in line with the European Jeremiad and calling for God’s judgment of America based upon structural flaws in the nation. The later King structures his message more in line with the European jeremiad. (See Chapter Four: The Triumphal March of the American Dream and Chapter Five: “Beyond Vietnam” and Radical Transformist Dissent.”)

You chose to focus on “Beyond Vietnam,” and other less mainstream speeches and writings from Dr. King. Why do you feel that these later messages are often passed over in the King mythology?.

America loves the King that supports and endorses the American Dream and does not seem to give the status, position, and love to the King that saw structural flaws in the values of the America. The later King of “Beyond Vietnam,” took a much more radical position and said that American values were structurally flawed and what was needed was a “revolution of values.” The King that points out American militarism, racism, and materialism would not get a monument on the Washington Mall. To achieve the capital to arrive in this pantheon of American heroes, one must only and completely endorse the cultural myth of America, the American Dream. (See Chapter Four: The Triumphal March of the American Dream and Chapter Five: “Beyond Vietnam” and Radical Transformist Dissent.”)

You focus on Dr. King and Jeremiah Wright. The myth of Dr. King is secure in American culture. However, Jeremiah Wright is portrayed as a very divisive figure. You state that Dr. Wright is taken out of context. Are the messages between these two men all that different? Is Dr. Wright merely a victim of a society that runs on 24-hour a day sound bites, open message boards linked to journalistic vehicles, and openly biased news agencies? Or is there something more leading to this divisiveness?

When Dr. King delivered his speech taking a position against the Vietnam War in 1967, King was vilified just as Jeremiah Wright was in 2008. What Jeremiah Wright and Martin Luther King Jr. have in common is that they found structural flaws in the values of America as evidenced by American racism, militarism, and materialism. When Jeremiah Wright spoke out against these, he was taken out of context and vilified just as King was in 1967. America has forgotten that it treated King in 1967 just as Jeremiah Wright was treated in 2008. King was seen as a divisive figure then just as Jeremiah Wright is seen as one now.  (See Chapter Five: “Beyond Vietnam” and Radical Transformist Dissent” and Chapter Six – Co-optation as Demonization: The Radical Transformist Dissent of Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.).

If Dr. King were to arrive on the scene today, do you feel he would be portrayed like more of a Jeremiah Wright character simply because he COULD be portrayed like that?

If Dr. King would address American militarism, racism, and materialism today, just as he addressed it then, he would be portrayed like a media constructed Jeremiah Wright character. It is interesting, it is possible to take King’s 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” and insert Iraq for every place that King mentions Vietnam and the speech still has relevance. I believe that King would continue to speak against American racism, militarism, and materialism. (See Chapter Five: “Beyond Vietnam” and Radical Transformist Dissent” and Chapter Six – Co-optation as Demonization: The Radical Transformist Dissent of Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.).

How are Jesus’ “City on a Hill” and Dr. King’s “Beloved Community” the same? Are they the same thing? Is Dr. King reiterating the message of Jesus? Or is there something else?

King’s message of the Beloved Community is the contemporary vision of Jesus’s concept of the reign of God. Only the reign of God will bring us out of the Great Recession. The reign of God fulfills the “City on a Hill” in American mythology. The Beloved Community is the reign of God on earth which does not include conquest, racism, exploitation, etc. (See Chapter Nine: The Beloved Community).

Ultimately, what would you like for people to take away from American Dream 2.0?

That pastors, congregations, and all people of good will would become citizen-activists to transform the values of this nation, to move away from the exclusively economic interpretation of the American Dream, to the values of the reign of God, or what King called the Beloved Community.

Frank A. Thomas is an author, speaker, coach, and pastor of  Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He also hosts 15 Minutes of Faith with Dr. Frank A. Thomas, a weekly talk radio ministry that speaks to the well-being of body, mind, and soul.

 

 

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