By Nathan Cornelius, Special Guest Writer
How Does the American Dream Align with Biblical Teaching?
The notion of the “American Dream” is one of the most powerful images in our cultural heritage, embedded in our national psyche, often more deeply than we are aware of. It seems natural and self-evident that everyone has the right to better their life, maybe even make their fortune, through honest hard work. As Christians living in America, we may take the American Dream for granted, perhaps placing it next to the Bible in terms of influence on our personal values. We may even see our own prosperity as evidence of God’s approval of our lives. But have we ever stopped to consider whether any of this actually aligns with the Bible’s teaching?
A Brief History of the American Dream
In the early hours of November 9, 2016, Donald Trump, declared victory in the presidential election, saying: “We will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American Dream… Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential” (Los Angeles Times Staff 2016). Almost exactly nine years earlier, November 7, 2007, then-senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States in a speech that echoed that rhetoric about “the American Dream”: “We need to reclaim the American Dream… Every American has the right to pursue their dreams” (CNN 2007).
“The American Dream” has been cited by nearly every American president or presidential candidate of the past century as inspiration for supporters of his or her cause. Often, it is accompanied by the implication that government has somehow jeopardized or corrupted the Dream and the new leader’s task is to “reclaim” or “recover” it.
The ideas behind the American Dream have roots in the earliest history of our country, best summed up in the famous phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1774, the Declaration of Colonial Rights used the phrase “life, liberty, and property,” and almost a century earlier, British philosopher John Locke had asserted that government has a duty to protect the fundamental rights of “life, liberty, health… and the possession of outward things;” While the authors of the Declaration arguably substituted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” to suggest a conception of prosperity as more than merely material, many Americans today seem to largely equate “happiness” with “the possession of outward things.”
The phrase “American Dream” itself did not appear until 1931, in the thick of the Great Depression, when many Americans were experiencing a notable lack of material possessions. In that year, historian James Truslow Adams, in his The Epic of America, wrote of “the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” (Adams 1931, 214). In this vision of society, “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable” (ibid., 415).
The Need for God’s Perspective on the American Dream
There are many profound and provocative questions one can ask about the American Dream. In future posts, I plan to address the fundamental justice or injustice of the American Dream and the philosophy of meritocracy. First, though, I want to examine the Bible’s teaching on the purpose of material possessions so that we can evaluate the American Dream’s view of wealth in light of it. This is important so that if we critique our culture, we do so positively rather than negatively, not just pointing out the ways in which our culture falls short of God’s glorious standard, but also showing how his vision of a flourishing society far exceeds that envisioned by our human ideals.
Wealth Can Be a Good Gift
First, the Bible does not see material wealth as inherently evil, but as one of God’s good gifts.
Solomon appears to praise the “American Dream” value of hard work that provides opportunities to make money: “The diligent man will get precious wealth” (Proverbs 12:27), and “In all toil there is profit… the crown of the wise is their wealth” (Proverbs 14:23-24).
The Apostle Paul also says, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).
Wealth Can Be a Trap
However, love of wealth can easily entrap those who have it into the sins of pride, greed, and selfishness.
A few verses earlier, Paul warns that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
Thus Jesus simply remarks, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).
He also declares, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25).
And James delivers this scathing rebuke to rich oppressors: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. …Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (James 5:1-2, 4-5).
Sharing Your Wealth: A Christian Responsibility and Opportunity
However, the New Testament clearly teaches that Christians who do come into possession of material wealth have a responsibility to share it with others.
Even if Christians acquire their wealth by honest means, they still ought not to keep it all for themselves: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
Paul, in asking for donations to help famine-stricken Jewish believers, explains, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14). The early church did not try to enforce an equal level of income or possessions among its members, but did try to ensure that everyone had what they needed.
Sharing of wealth also presents an opportunity for Christians to experience God’s blessing and show his love. Paul goes on to say that “Those who are rich in this world… are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).
This sharing should especially be practiced among fellow Christians as the distinctive evidence of God’s love: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
Luke records that sharing of not only money but property as well was common practice in the early church: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. …There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32, 34-35).
Governmental vs. Individual Responsibility
Thus, the Biblical vision of an ideal society is one in which those who have achieved material prosperity do not merely rest on their laurels, but out of their love for God share the fruits of their wealth with those who have less, so that there is equity among believers. The early church even went so far as to transfer ownership of their goods to the Christian community as a whole rather than holding private property.
This is different from the philosophy of socialism, which argues that it is the government’s responsibility to transfer wealth from those who have excess to those who have too little. In the Christian community, this sharing is undertaken voluntarily, motivated by brotherly love. Nevertheless, government does have a responsibility to put an end to injustice where possible, and if the rich in society consistently refuse to share their excess with the poor, even though the latter face material hardships due to their lack of resources, this may constitute an injustice warranting action by the state.
Where exactly this line lies is a matter of much debate. However, it brings up an important question: if we are called to share their wealth with others, are there certain groups with whom we should be most eager to share it? Is it possible to use wealth in a way that reduces, not exacerbates, the social injustices existing in our society? I believe God desires Christians to create and nurture community by using their wealth generously rather than selfishly – what Tim Keller (2010) calls “generous justice.” I want to explore this topic more in future posts.
Summary: Honor God with Your Wealth
In summary, the Biblical ideal is clear: wealth is not to be pursued as a goal, even a dream. Instead, Christians should aspire to honor God in their work, their engagement in society, and their financial decisions. Rather than guarantee money as a blessing to those who do so, God usually rebuked the rich. And to those whom he has given wealth, God reveals that he does not intend them to keep this gift for themselves. Rather, the purpose of wealth is to enable one to share with those who do not have enough, as a way of imitating God’s example of generosity and showing his love. In this way, Christians can take the lead in working towards a society where every member has the chance to experience a “better and richer and fuller life,” not through the “pursuit of happiness” in home ownership, consumer goods, or a comfortable retirement, but through pursuing “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).
 All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
CNN. “Obama’s November 7, 2007, speech on the ‘American Dream.’” Accessed April 3, 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/12/21/obama.trans.americandream/.
James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1931).
Los Angeles Times Staff. 2016. “’I will be president for all Americans’ — transcript of Donald Trump’s election night victory speech.” Los Angeles Times, November 9. Accessed April 3, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-trump-election-night-speech-20161108-story.html.
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Riverhead, 2010).
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