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.
And, like the theologian John Wesley so aptly claimed, industry leads to wealth and wealth leads to ungodliness. Here’s a sad truth: without love, we often need favor or self-interest to move our hearts for others, but with frightening ease, wealth pulls and tears and claims our hearts. Those who follow wealth usually have a valid reason – “providing for the family” or other positive causes – but they miss the damage done to their own souls. Greed and materialism should never replace charity and love in a person – let alone in a nation. A loss of charity is a loss of Christian ethics. And when I speak of charity, I mean the classical definition from the Latin caritas, which essentially is the love of God and neighbor that unites humanity and leads us to selflessness. Now certainly, charity has not been eradicated from America. There are many individuals and organizations that do real human work. But for a fulsome banquet of reasons, Americans tend to rationalize and even moralize the acquisition of wealth and their own lack of charity.
The most uncomfortably relevant example is the homeless. When encountering the impoverished, the proteins composing our American genome bristle and yell “He who shall not work, shall not eat!” Our makeup informs us that the man or woman wants to be a leach, and there could be no worse immorality. I think it’s no accident that those who deny the homeless charity almost unanimously assume the man or woman is a drug addict or alcoholic. If labor is righteous than only the lecherous, only the scummy wastes of the earth – only the immoral could be impoverished to the extreme. The denier of charity feels justified; they have kept the man or woman from their addiction. But, suspicion is no grounds to deny love or help. Again, desire for our own wealth should never cripple love. With that same hideous ease, we all can become the priest or Levite and leave the man beside the Panera Bread dumpster, hoping no more bandits come.
To be fair, if I’m going to put American materialism on trial, I too have to take the defendant stand. Many Americans, including myself, struggle to accept the teachings of Jesus about money. His teachings run so counter to American values, the mind almost revolts pondering them. Part of American freedom involves the right to pursue happiness and own property, the right to make something for ourselves. Therefore, if the homeless or anyone asks for money, we feel they’re trying to strip away property we’ve rightly earned – property they for sure haven’t. Americans naturally consider the Fifth Amendment right to property as not just a right – but right, as in moral. After all, the founders rebelled from England to be free from tyranny – to never again toil just so another man may benefit. So then, what do we do with the delicious teachings of Christ like “if a man asks for your cloak, do not withhold your tunic as well. Give to everyone who asks of you.” Or gems like Christ’s response to the rich young man: “give everything you have to the poor and come follow me.” As mentioned, I don’t know for sure; I struggle with these. I encounter homeless people a good deal and try to show love, but I too dread the drain at times. While it sounds petty and unreasonable and selfish (because it is petty and unreasonable and selfish), there are certain grocery stores or convenient stores I’ll avoid if I don’t want to encounter “the drain” of my resources. How lamentable – to put money before people. Reaping the fruits of labor is sweet; clinging to them with unholy fervor is a rot to the soul. Wealth is not an evil – the love of it is – and let it be a refrain, wealth should never thwart love. After all, on that day of judgement when the scrolls are unraveled and the lamb is seated on his throne, he certainly will not be measuring the opulence of our homes, the decadence of our wardrobes, or the extent of our hoards.
Ultimately, the American moralities of labor and possession make a formula, and that formula expresses the “American dream.” Simply put, by working hard anyone can scoff at the caste system and “become someone.” Every American (or at least, every American I know) feels the compulsion to plug their own lives into the formula and hope it equals the Dream. After all, they ought to. Many middle-aged Americans, I imagine, are right now in the process of understanding why their lives don’t add up – why they’re still managing a 7-Eleven or barred within a cubicle or why they haven’t found satisfaction yet. Many young people feel profound anxiety worrying they might never do anything with their lives.
Like the other two qualities, Americans tend to spiritualize the formula. To me, this helps directly explain the American obsession with calling. Surely every human being needs meaning and life direction, but Americans compound that desire with the need to make something of themselves – and then take the abominable combination to church. When Americans hear God’s message to the exiles in Jeremiah 29:11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (a favorite verse of many Americans, by the way. It also has the prestige of being one of the only verses people can seem to remember the chapter/verse number of), they hear that God’s going to fulfill their dreams and make them a pilot or an artist or an ambassador to Norway and oh right, God’s going to use their dream for his glory – all while “making them someone.” Now, I believe the Venn diagram of God’s calling and our dream often has a lot of overlap. Sometimes, the diagram may be a single circle. But that in no circumstances means the purpose of our lives is to pull ourselves up and become someone. Fame, like accomplishment and wealth, will never satisfy. God makes clear the general picture of our purpose, and the Westminster catechism sums it up well: “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” Our lives should be lived in love, with that glory and future perfection always in mind. He wants us to be reunited with Him, and reunification equals living fully. For the struggling cubicle dweller or convenient store manager, I think there is great solace in knowing we can live a calling apart from worldly success. Perhaps, God’s purpose for one of us is to simply be there for one person and nothing “grander” than that. I certainly would not feign this knowledge, but I can’t help but speculate.
And after all this, if we look at Jeremiah 29 in full context, we see that God’s plan involves much more than making the Israelites successful singer/songwriters or CEOs or Antarctic explorers and padding their 401ks with currency. He plans to draw the exiles back to Him. They will call on Him, and they will know Him. They will have a home. I find this, more than any accomplishment or wealth, lavishly, pristinely beautiful.