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.

7 thoughts on “Voting the American Dream

  1. I know that a lot of good people disagree on what’s best for the country, and there will be votes going both ways. Unfortunately, there seems to be at least as many people (voting both ways) that will vote on what’s best for themselves. Don’t know what will happen next Tuesday, but my prayers are with whoever (whomever?) is voted in our next president, after the electoral college makes its decision.

  2. I think you hit it on the head. The root ideals of each party are lost in the focus on the individuals in those parties. The idea of “teach a man to fish” has been twisted by the left to imply the right believes you should never give a man a fish no matter how far down he may be, and some on the right actually do hold that extreme view, but not the majority.

    The lefts ideals of helping and working together to give everyone an equal shot no matter their background has turned to forcing every one to just that in a socialistic twist, not that the root idea has changed it has just been “muddied”

    As you stated(paraphrase) it is the sin introducing the lie to the truths of each.

    The difference is in the bias of the people towards one way or another, as the majority of people still hold to the core values of the “parties” and the lesser of two evils for individuals will be the one closest to those core ideas.

    The problem is; with the extremists now for the most part driving the ship, those evils are…well… extreme.

      • In Puritan New England it was the clergy who decided who could vote, in effect, because only members could participate in elections. Needless to say, sin found a way to mess with that system as well.

        No grades for grammar here.

  3. I have been guilty of assuming that because my will seems fair and just and sensible that it must be God’s will as well. And I have been wrong. In this moment Evangelicals are challenged to vote God’s will – how presumptuous we continue to be! Jesus taught us to “Love God and to Love our neighbor” That right there is a lifetime of work. Quite frankly, I don’t trust either political candidate to be getting it right. Nevertheless, I have a strong conviction for one candidate over the other.
    What troubles me is the polarization this race has generated and the fact that whichever candidate “wins,” about half the people in the US are going to be very upset and in no mood to reconcile. Love God and love our neighbor is where reconciliation begins….and ends.

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