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I’ll just get right out and say it: Americans spiritualize American values. I’m not saying that Americans exclusively – or even especially – act as this devilish figure twisting and forging and spinning truth until the sun revolves around the earth and the earth revolves around America. Every human civilization ever has appealed to a higher authority, both human and divine, to justify their culture and natural impulses. Chinese and European rulers alike justified their own rule by appealing to a divine mandate. Sunnis and Shia adhere to their interpretations of the Qur’an and feel validated acting upon them. The South and the North appealed to the same Bible during America’s Civil War. And certainly in the west, even in a post-Biblical west, Americans appeal to the Bible as a potent advocate for a diverse panorama of causes.

American culture and Christian values spread together on this continent and eventually become inseparable. I see 1600’s America as a garden where individual plants grew separate – a sapling of industry, a weed of avarice, a fern of self-reliance, a rosebush of Puritanism – but have now mixed root systems and overgrown so close together they form a single bush. An appeal to Biblical values is now an appeal to our very essence. I recognize that many do not actively believe in the Bible, and many lament the downfall of western civilization, but that does not change our view of the bush. Even if somehow Christianity were completely uprooted from America, Americans would still see their particular values – self-reliant sturdiness, industry, the right to abundance, the American dream itself – as moral. Even if some shame these values, the majority still act upon them. For instance, even if individuals decry American “greed and imperialism,” the many still partake in luxury as right, save abundance for themselves, and aim to rise and rise like mist above their personal station. They feel like failures if they cannot.

American Christians do likewise but in reverse; we tend to seek justification in the Bible, and since our natural impulses are American impulses, we look to God to license our culture and potentially ignore what runs perpendicular to it in scripture. Of course, none of these claims are absolute. Many Christians from around the world follow God without confusing or conflating Christ and Culture. But the human tendency remains, and I want to address those American spiritualisms – industry, the right to abundance, and the American dream – and see how they compare and contrast with Christianity.

From the beginning, America has valued hard-work. Consider John Smith’s public declaration to the Jamestown colony: “he who shall not work, shall not eat.” Or consider Ben Franklin’s bulletin encouraging only enterprising and industrious foreigners to immigrate. The American experiment attempted to balance the natural unfairness of the world; those who worked and created would prosper; those who leeched would wilt and fall away. Mix that desire for equality and fairness with the Puritan work ethic – which viewed good work as not just the motion of Christian life but worship made manifest in the everyday – mix them both with time and generational instruction, and industrious labor became a natural strand in the American double-helix. For this reason, I never understood why Americans consistently brand themselves as lazy when most Americans become stressed out of their minds if they don’t feel like they’re accomplishing enough, but then I realized, we feel lazy because we set an unnaturally high standard of accomplishment and labor. We have Abraham Lincoln. We have Steve Jobs. We have Oprah Winfrey.

"Hard work teaches sacrifice; it can help establish community, and like the Puritans, it can be a form of worship."
Labor and industry are valuable until they err from the gospel. After all, John Smith’s “he who shall not work. . .” comes directly from scripture. So does the command to “do everything unto the glory of God.” However, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus claimed, everything can (and, by all means, will) become its opposite. Whether consciously or not, John Wesley mirrored the philosopher with his statement: “Godliness leads to industry, industry leads to wealth, wealth leads to Ungodliness.” Industry can be used to serve God and enrich the soul until it becomes its own end. Hard work teaches sacrifice; it can help establish community, and like the Puritans, it can be a form of worship. Moreover, industrious labor can serve others by raising the standard of living for everyone. Americans, however, tend to abstract work and revere it outside of the overall context. Work as its own end goal will never satisfy. Those who seek soul satisfaction in labor and accomplishment alone will look with dismay – like the teacher – and cry “meaningless!” Americans may appeal to the Bible and Christian heritage and claim their version of work has legitimacy, and depending on the person, it may. But for those over worked and ever reaching, for those who put shoulder to the plough and foot to the pavement and sprint towards the horizon, for those who appeal to Christian work ethic or family values to endorse their obsession and compulsion to work and rise higher, they are deluded. They serve a false deity, and it’s carving their lives.
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