The American Dream

I am attending the National Youth Workers Convention in Nashville, TN this weekend.  At the general session last night three speakers were given 18 minutes to give a talk followed by 5 minutes of discussion with the people sitting around you.  At this point everyone was given the opportunity to text questions to a number on the screen.  The speaker then had 10 minutes where a moderator asked the speaker some of the questions that were texted.  It had a Q feel to it with the addition of a cool use of texting and speaker feedback.  The speakers were Shane Claiborne, Andrew Marin, and Tony Campolo.  Andrew’s talk was about Christians reaching out to the Gay and Lesbian communities.  I thought he did a great job telling his story and the story of what the Marin Foundation in Chicago is doing to reach out to a community that traditionally is not only neglected, but shunned and denegrated by the Christian community.


The talks by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo were also good, but I am having a difficult time digesting a theme that was in there talks and the talks of a few of the other presenters on Saturday morning.  These speakers on Friday night and Mark Yaconelli on Saturday morning all made comments declaring that the American Dream is dead.  They all said that the current market crash is going to force America to live differently and abandon the old ways of consumerism.  Now, there is no argument from me that America has demonstrated horrible fiscal policy from a bloated government that runs a massive deficit every year down to the average household that has been spending way more than their incomes can support.  The government views us as “consumers” instead of “citizens” as demonstrated by their solution to economic woes – Every gets a check in the mail with the directions to go spend it.  To me, that’s like giving an alcoholic another bottle of Wild Irish Rose because we have to keep the liquor industry afloat.  I believe that the church should be modeling Biblical spending principles, and that Christians should be tithing and saving and not reacting to the current situation with fear – like everyone seems to be doing.  But, to say that the American Dream is dead is foolish.


After a discussion with some friends I realized that nobody has a clear definition for “The American Dream”.  Tony Campolo defined the American Dream as “a desire to have a better life than your father had” and others simply defined it as “Comsumerism”.  Based on their definition of The American Dream, maybe it is dead, and for good reason.


I have a different definition.  I believe that the American Dream is to live in a place that fosters creativity and innovation and gives everyone the opportunity to bring their great ideas to fruition.  My definition is one of creation and innovation – one inline with what a dream should be.  Maybe my definition is off.  The American Dream that the speakers were talking about is the ugly thing that many in American have turned the American Dream into – one of greed where wants and needs have been greatly confused.  This economic downturn is a wakeup call for everyone.  I believe that this country will innovate and create its way out of this hole.  There will be some pain, but in the end we will be stronger.  It’s time for new ideas to rise up and for Dreamers to create.


There was a comment that I really did like about this topic from Mark Yaconelli.  He said that the era of purchasing whatever we want off credit cards – a practice that has contributed to isolating us from community – will be replaced with one where we start looking out for our neighbors. 


Instead of “keeping up with the Jones’s”, hopefully we will start “looking out for the Jones’s”.  This type of community is something I Dream about.


What is your definition of “The American Dream”?



Filed under church, Community, work

11 responses to “The American Dream

  1. Sherill

    What is the American Dream and is it dead? I decided that the best place to look for a definition was in that most American of places . . . Wikipedia. And according to that august resource, the American Dream is “belief in the freedom that allows all citizens and residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice. One person may place monetary gain as their highest goal, and thus strive for this in a very American way, gaining through ability rather than social status. For another, the American Dream could consist of achieving a state of pure freedom from the choke-hold of money and social structure. These two examples of the American Dream are only drops in an ever-expanding spectrum of possibilities.”
    By that definition both you and the speakers have correctly defined it.

    The word itself was coined in 1931 in a book called the Epic of America where it said, “The American Dream is 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 is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

    So it seems interesting to me that even in the coinage of the term there was some question about the definition and possibility of it.

    Is it dead? If in fact, it is the a dream of having a bigger house, a bigger paycheck, and more stuff than it probably is dead and has been dead. Its death having been covered up by a mountain of debt.

    Then again–perhaps not. Neither of my parents had a college degree let alone 3 (and working on 4). I have more options than either of them had. I was able to choose to stay home with my kids whereas my mom had no choice most of her life. But then my life is not “normal.” I’m as white American as you can be–the majority of my ancestors arrived on these shores in the 1700s (if you don’t count the obligatory native american or two) and my parents are firmly middle class. And more and more Americans are not white middle class but African-American, Hispanic, mixed race, Asian . . . and their experience is different.

    Will my kids experience “The” American dream or even an American Dream? I believe so. In fact, I think they have already. Two of the three have been able to vote. They have more options than I had at their age. And while maybe they won’t have a bigger house or paycheck, I don’t think that is all that important. What I want for them is to be able to freely worship God, to serve humanity and the opportunity to live out their dreams. That I believe they will experience–even if that experience comes with a price of hard work and a bit of struggle and sacrifice on our part and their part.

  2. carpcatcher

    It’s no wonder the speakers couldn’t put their finger on what “the American Dream” is. The American dream is to be successful. Yep, that simple. For those from a place with little civil rights it may be freedom of speach and the right to vote and from a poor country it may be wish for riches.

  3. Duncan

    It’s awesome that people are even talking about the economy at Christian conferences – in the UK we’re only just beginning to realise that real life can be discussed in relation to our faith!

    So what’s the American dream? As an outsider I think you’re pretty spot on – the dream of hope, the dream of change, the dream of opportunity not available elsewhere, the dream of wide open spaces and your own property, the dream of freedom, the dream of peace and prosperity. That’s the real dream, and why people emigrate to the USA. And that’s why to me you find most of the creativity and arts and tech (not all!) on the West coast – the original immigrants came and the more adventurous and exploring type people just kept going until they hit CA.

    But there is another American dream, and arguably it’s the one that has been exported (probably since the 50’s in response to Communism) around the world and by some of the largest companies around the world. And it is consumerism – if you buy it, you’ll be happier. You can buy success, you can spend more and eat more and travel more and it’ll lead to the happiness you want. And that’s a dream that is sold all the time in commercials – buy a bigger truck, bigger house, more gadgets for your house you don’t need, hey even trade our way out of global warming. Even post 9/11 the challenge of the White House was face up to the terrorists by going shopping.

    But is that latter dream dead? I don’t think so and I think that although there is many lessons to be learned from the crisis, I honestly don’t think the world is ready to abandon credit. Markets and economies go from fear to greed and back again and right now we are in fear and over the next decade we will swing back to greed. In the UK there are rate cuts to help those who over-borrowed, failing to deal with the over borrowing and just making it easier for them to get more borrowing. Corporates will do the same, as will the market as a whole.

    So in that regard, the consumerism is dead call is a bit naive perhaps. But I do think there’s a massive opportunity for the church now to choose to live differently, to say we’ll save, we’ll show that credit is not the number 1 route, that we’ll stand in the face of the lie that is that consuming is the god we’re looking for. But will we make that choice?

    The American dream – the first part I wrote of is still alive. And maybe there’s more hope than ever because of the new President who at least speaks hope (time will tell if he can deliver). None of that dream went away, it’s much of the reason why America is a brilliant country – in fact, it’s an idea and not just a country, so different from many other places. So you’re right, the dream is still there, it just got a bit disguised over the last few years and partic in the last few months.

  4. sigmugi

    Sherill, You are working on another degree? I assume a Doctorate in Ministry. Very nice. I like your implicit point that the American Dream is to have more opportunity that your parents, with the caveat that opportunity doesn’t translate into wealth or possessions necessarily.

  5. sigmugi

    Carpcatcher, thanks for the comments. I don’t know if a desire to “be successful” is strictly an American ideal though.

  6. Sherill

    Yes, a Doctorate in Ministry in — Gospel and Culture. So this is a related discussion.

  7. sigmugi

    I want to live vicariously through you in your studies!! – Here are related reads that I have/or soon will enjoy

    1. Culture Making by Andy Crouch
    2. The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, The Gospel, and Church by Shane Hipps

    Ones I haven’t read yet, but look interesting:
    3. The Culturally Savvy Christian by Dick Staub
    4. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters

  8. sigmugi


    I always appreciate your perspective (and again I will tell you I miss your blog). As you mentioned, The difference in the American Dream that many of us grasp for and the one that we export to other countries (and to the majority of our own citizens) is vast. One is imagination for a better way, the other is purchase your way to a better way. I also agree with you that Credit is not dead, although I am not receiving near as many credit card applications in the mail anymore. I hope this dialog continues in Christian and secular circles. Its time to wake up!

  9. Sherill

    Those books sound great. So far, I’ve been assigned theology books – A Theology of Public Life and The Soul in Society. I’m sure they won’t be near as much fun to read as your stack!

  10. Great discussion here on this post, which you nailed, by the way.

    I would have loved to hear the original talks leading to this post. I have found at Q and other conferences that some of the speakers will intentionally move to an extreme position in order to accomplish, well…this. People talking about the issues. So I guess for that reason it was a good conference.

    On the other hand, i think the discussions need to be rooted in encouragement, respect, biblical principles and history.

    The American Dream — the real one — isn’t dead. And in fact, I believe that it continues to inspire people around the world to create a better future. But the ideals that create the American Dream are not concrete, easy goals. They require vision and entrepreneurial spirit to translate them into reality. As we all know, this is hard work. I think the “fake” American Dream is a result of trying to skip the hard work part (which is really what builds the character) and jump straight to the rewards part. Such a surface and superficial definition of the American Dream, and an unfulfilling dream at that.

    So do you all think the “fake” American Dream is dead? I don’t, unfortunately. I think it is sick with a spreading cancer, but the “fake American Dream system” will pump chemo into it and keep it hobbling along even though it’s natural cycle would be healthier for everyone.

    There is definitely a window of opportunity right now, however, to try to recast the original vision of the American Dream (which isn’t solely American, of course). There is a time, now, when people are open to redefining themselves by something other than their declining bank balances. I’m hoping that we can build a discussion — and change — around that window of opportunity.

    Duncan, you KNOW I’m seconding Larry’s opinion of your blog.

  11. Thank you for your kind words. I hope I was able to challenge the crowd in bringing the gay and lesbian topic to the front of folks minds. Much love!

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