Re-Thinking the American Dream: A Book Review

At first blush, Frank A. Thomas’s new book, American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession, is reminiscent of an article I wrote nearly two decades ago.  Writing for Religion News Service (RNS) in 1996, I was reflecting on the recession of the early 1990s and its effect on my family.  In the wake of the then-recent demise of the Soviet Union, I thought of the ironic similarities between communism and capitalism:

Nearly 50 years ago, a book titled The God That Failed described how communism fell short of its egalitarian ideals.  As seen through the eyes of six former communist intellectuals [including the African American novelist Richard Wright], communism represented “a vision of the Kingdom of God on earth,” a vision at odds with the sinfulness of those who controlled the Communist Party.

What was true of communism can also be said of the American dream. Though we are still a prosperous nation, that dream is proving to be as unreliable a deity as communism.

I know. I once worshipped at its altar…[My wife and I] accepted as gospel the notion that if we lived right, got a good education, and worked hard, our financial future would be limitless.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

As is reflected in American Dream 2.0, Thomas agrees with my basic premise: Embracing the Protestant work ethic, playing by the rules and demonstrating Yankee ingenuity has failed to produce “the good life” for many Americans.

Thomas, however, goes far beyond my navel gazing.  Whereas my musings are seen through the lens of my family’s “re-education about the myths and realities of the American Dream,” Thomas paints with a much broader brush.  He seeks nothing less than a re-visioning of the American Dream, in which “true and humane values” are established which recognize “the dignity and worth of human personality” and benefit the entire body politic.  Such values, he believes, can best be developed within the prophetic tradition of the Christian social gospel.

While Thomas draws inspiration from a variety of sources, his principal muse for this re-visioning is Martin Luther King, Jr., whose moral and intellectual thought gave shape to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and helped change the course of the nation’s history.  With respect to the creation of a new American Dream, it is Thomas’s hope that history will repeat itself.

Yet, as he correctly argues, the task of the prophet is a daunting one.  At times a prophet must speak on behalf of his or her constituency, challenging the larger society and the powers that be to embrace “the better angels of their nature”.  As Thomas notes, for King this meant prodding the nation and its leaders to live up to the values inherent in the nation’s creed.

As an example he cites King’s March 1965 speech in Montgomery, Alabama, titled “Our God Is Marching On”.  Speaking at the conclusion of the fateful march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for blacks in the South, “King challenges the nation to rise to the democratic ideals it professes.  By giving the Negro the right to vote, America put teeth into democratic ideals.  It moved beyond the talk of freedom to walking the walk of freedom.”

Thus in Montgomery and throughout most of his prophetic ministry, King functions as a radical reformer – decrying the evils within the American system but affirming the system as a whole.  The same, however, cannot be said of the last year of his life.  As Thomas and other scholars have pointed out, King’s criticism of the Vietnam War “marked a fundamental line of demarcation in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s public ministry and positioned him on the fringe of American political discourse.”  For here, he doesn’t just decry evil within the system; rather, he decries the system itself.  He doesn’t seek to reform the system, he seeks to transform it.

Thus does King illustrate yet another task of the prophet.  While at times he or she must walk with and speak for the people, at other times the prophet must walk in front of the people – and thus alone.  In either case, he or she speaks with the voice of God, to whom all are ultimately accountable.

For Thomas this presents a quandary, which he seeks to resolve through embrace of a salvific renewal resulting in the “creation of a loving and moral society, the Beloved Community.”

“Modeled after Jesus’ inauguration of the reign of God” and christened by King, Thomas’s Beloved Community envisions “citizen-activists” who are “ordinary American citizens, particularly pastors and their congregations, and all people of goodwill, who will nonviolently resist the exclusive economic domination of American life.  I mean the identification and mobilization of the ordinary person, a moral and political leader willing to sacrifice and to pay the cost and suffer the difficulties necessary to reclaim the American Dream.”

As a pastor who is a student of King, pursues social justice in daily ministry, and has personally wrestled with the myth of the American Dream, I “get” Thomas.  Yet even as I followed his discourse I was besieged by troubling and competing thoughts.

For one thing, as the late pollster George Gallup, Jr., used to say, “America’s faith is broad but not deep.”  He argued that while 60 percent of the public attend church or another faith community at least once a month – with 80 percent attending at least once per year – most people have little knowledge of even the basic rudiments of their faith.  Biblical literacy, Gallup reported in 2003, “has not improved over the last half century. In fact, it has not kept pace with increasing literacy on the whole.”

Another thing to consider is that, while most Americans continue to self-identify as Christians, as many as one person in seven claims no religious identity or affiliation.  Moreover, among the domestic outcomes of globalization has been the migration of well-educated Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists to the U.S.

As I wrote in a 2001 RNS article, “Technological innovation and expansion have produced high paying jobs attracting the best and brightest from around the world.  Unlike the penniless European immigrants of a century ago, today’s Asian and African immigrants are well-educated, highly skilled and much sought-after in a global economy.  They tend to live close together in middle class enclaves and their impact on the nation’s social, political and religious landscape has been immediate.”

These and other factors suggest that creating the moral consensus and activist commitment that Thomas seeks – from such a spiritually and ethically diverse population of people – will be difficult at best.  In the meantime, I suspect the American Dream will remain elusive for many.

Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on the American Dream 2.0.

Rev. Samuel K. Atchison has served as a welfare policy analyst, social services administrator, social policy consultant, and prison chaplain. He is the president of the Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry (TEAM), which serves as a coordinating agency for the community outreach efforts of churches in Mercer County, New Jersey. He is also a community partnership manager with the Amachi Mentoring Coalition Project (AMCP), a program of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation that provides mentoring to children impacted by incarceration.