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.