Two American Dreams and One Economic Reality

Two American Dreams and One Economic Reality August 20, 2012

Everyone in the country has heard the line from President Obama’s speech in Roanoke, VA, on July 13: “You didn’t build that.”  Almost before it was out of his mouth, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were expressing mock outrage at the President’s disrespect for small business owners who, obviously, created their businesses without any help from anyone. Rush Limbaugh proclaimed, “I think it can now be said, without equivocation — without equivocation — that this man hates this country. He is trying — Barack Obama is trying — to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream.”  Before long, the Romney campaign was running ads on television and the web featuring small business owners describing the sweat, blood, and tears that went into creating their enterprises and lashing out at the President and anyone else who belittled their efforts by saying they had help. “We built this business,” they insist.

I think the continuing debate between the candidates over the “You didn’t build that” line reveals a deep divide in our society about what it means to be an American. The Democrats complain that the Republicans have taken the President’s comments out of context, which they certainly did. If you look at the speech as a whole, it is clear that they dice and splice the President’s words in order to make it sound as though he is dismissing and belittling hard work and individual initiative. He does not, of course. But the President does argue that we are not autonomous individuals. We are not solitary islands of independence. We depend upon one another! We need each other and we recognize this by, among other things, paying taxes that help create the conditions for our mutual flourishing.

I don’t think that reading the transcript of the President’s entire speech will make the people scandalized by the “You didn’t build that” line feel any better.  There is a clear division in this nation between those who acknowledge and embrace our mutual dependence and those who are offended by the very idea and will never admit they owe anything to anyone.  It really comes down to two very different understandings of the American Dream–President Obama’s and Rush Limbaugh’s. President Obama has a social vision of the American dream with a long history, going back to the United States Constitution and beyond: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It envisions diverse people bound together for mutual support and the common good. It recognizes that people have their own ambitions and goals but that there are many things for which they depend upon one another–schools , roads, public safety, health insurance, and so much more.  We are free to pursue our individual aspirations and inspirations because of the resources and opportunities created by our common life.  In return, these individual energies contribute to and enrich our common life, generating virtuous cycles of mutual support and personal initiative.

Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, envisions a radically individualistic version of the American dream. From his perspective, we are free to the extent that we are liberated from obligations to one another. Whatever we have is exclusively our own and no one should try to take it from us. Similarly, whatever we accomplish is completely due to our own creativity, hard work, and initiative, and no one else can claim any credit for it. Each individual is responsible for his or her own success or failure and his or her own wealth or poverty. This version of the American Dream goes back a long way too–at least to the 19th century. Horatio Alger is the symbol of this version of the American dream. America is the sort of place where anyone can go from rags to riches simply by dint of their own effort and intelligence.  According to this version of the American dream, all forms of mutual support are unnecessary and immoral. The secret of America is releasing people from these obligations so that they can freely succeed or fail on the basis of their own merit. Taxes, therefore, are innately illegitimate, taking what individuals have earned by dint of their own effort and giving it to others. What could be more patently unjust?  The responsibilities of government are  minimal, limited to simply protecting individuals and their accomplishments. Much of the preamble to the constitution is simply ignored–the parts that have to do with common goods and shared purposes. All that remains is an individual’s freedom to pursue his or her own happiness apart from all constraints and any social obligations.

As a Christian, I am much more sympathetic to the social vision of the American Dream described by President Obama. Christians have had to come to terms with a universe in which they do not earn what they have or deserve what they get. At the heart of the Christian faith is the experience of being saved by another and receiving what we have from someone else. Jesus Christ died so that we might live. God’s grace befalls us before we can do anything to earn it. According to Ephesians 2:8-10, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Good works do not precede a right relationship with God but follow from it. We do not earn our salvation. We do good works out of gratitude for what we have freely received from the hand of God.

Christians simply cannot think of themselves in the way that Rush Limbaugh does. We know better. We know that the desire for autonomy and the claim of independence are sinful self-delusions that began when Adam started to blame his troubles on Eve (Gen. 3:12) and Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper” (Gen. 4:9).  Ever since, we human beings have tried to avoid responsibility for one another and to pretend that other people are the source of all our problems.  We imagine ultimate perfection and ultimate satisfaction can be found in splendid isolation from the difficulties of life together. But this is not the way God made us or the end for which God created us.  “It is not good that man should be alone,” God said. We were made for community with one another in communion with God. In running away from community we have turned away from communion with God and run headlong toward our own destruction. Only the coming of God in Christ has provided us with the possibility and promise of repentance and renewal, of a new creation and a new life together. In Christ, God broke into our self-isolation to call us out our ourselves toward participation in the love that is at the heart of things. Christians are not driven by a desire to earn their salvation or a fear of being contaminated by the sins of others. They know that they belong to a gracious God who saved them, despite themselves, and who has set them free to love and serve others in the same manner. As it says in I John 4:10-11, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

I suppose that some will say that all this talk about salvation is fine, but it has nothing to do with the secular world of politics and economics. Sure, Christians should love each other, but that is advice for how to behave at church not how to vote. But I disagree. Christians do not obey one God in their religious lives–the God of love–and another God in the rest of their life–the God of economic self-interest. There is just one God who rules over the whole universe.  It is the God who created us, reigns over us, and is redeeming us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the God who loves us before we can do anything to earn God’s love and who calls upon us to love and serve one another as well. There is no other God. There is no other reality.

We are all members of God’s household (oikos). And we are all constrained by God’s rules (nomos) for life in this household.  God has ordered things in such a way that we need each other. We depend upon each other.  This is the point of any and every political economy (oikos + nomos): it creates the rules (nomos) through which we share the burdens and rewards of life together (oikos). Those who think the economy runs best when people’s individual self-interest is unleashed from all constraints are just plain wrong. Such attitudes pave the road to hell and lead us all toward disaster and away from community with one another in communion with God

This political season the debates will center around two versions of the American Dream.  I will be taking the side of those who envision us as a society of different people bound together in mutual service for the good of all. The other version of the American Dream is a self-indulgant illlusion. It has nothing to do with the reality of life in God’s household–the real world. It’s proponents may talk endlessly about the “economy” and “how it works.”  But there is only one economy, God’s economy, and the rules of God’s household are grace, gratitude, and mutual service.




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