Voting the American Dream

Yes, it’s really a new post. Just in time for the presidential election, too!

No, I am not here to endorse one of the candidates, as if it would matter to anyone were I to do so. And I am not here to bemoan either the quality of the candidates available to us or the character of the debates that have been held. And although it is a bit more tempting to chastise some of my Christian colleagues about their complicity in the ungracious incivility that marks the public conversation (yes, I am on facebook; I know who you are and what you post), that option will likewise be resisted.

What I would like participants to think about before voting is something often referred to, yet only vaguely and varyingly understood. We refer to it as The American Dream. You remember that, do you not? Some of us first heard of it when we were in elementary school. Every now and then candidates will pull out the phrase and attempt to position themselves as the champion of all that it stands for. But just what is that which we are expected to embrace when we vote the American Dream? In what sense does the embrace lead us to the particular candidate offering it to us? A moment’s thought would lead us to think foolish, if not treasonous, the person who would not vote for the person best representing the dream–our dream, the corporate aspirations of the great nation in which we are privileged to hold citizenship.

Republicans and Democrats seem to hold different versions of the dream, each of which has a long history leading to and through some very good people along the way. One version thrives on the theme of rugged individualism, an idea itself subject to some revision along the way. Whereas it once referred to the strength of will and bravery in blazing new geographic trails, it has gone through a scientific and, more recently, an economic (read:entrepreneurial) cast. Surely we recall from those earliest lessons in U. S. History the names of heroes who exemplified the quality; or perhaps it was groups of people who set out to settle the vast uncharted regions of the land, eschewing danger in order to forge a new, more successful, and (especially) less fettered way of life.

The second version has at least as long, and arguably, a longer history. This version belongs to those who sought not a place where each was on his own to make of life what he wanted it to be, but rather sought a new commonwealth, a place where the community was more important than the individual. Puritan founders has limits regarding how much land each person might be able to hold, fearing that a significant disparity would bode ill for the character and quality of life together. Being the keeper of one’s brother and sister was unquestioned; maintaining as much equality as possible was paramount. The kingdom of God was to be displayed in terms of values.

We have been trying to negotiate the proper balancing of the two versions of the dream for quite a long time now. Sometimes we get it more nearly accomplished than we do at others; sometimes the tensions between the two place us on the brink. I want to suggest that life in a world where sin is an ever-present reality virtually requires us to heed both sides of the dream. Rugged individualism, perhaps most especially in its entrepreneurial version, becomes ravenous, callous greed when allowed to run unfettered; the common good becomes something less than good when sinful persons (that would be about all of us) decide that sloth isn’t so costly after all.

And so we vote. Is the balance in danger of leaning to heavily in one direction or the other? We have our ballot. But let us not succumb to the notion that human institutions, however much superiority they may have over rival systems, can ever attain the righteousness or the holiness of God. If we remember that much we just might be able to learn something about ourselves and about our common good by listening to the people from whom we differ when emerging from the booth.