The Incompatibility of the American Dream and Christianity

Oil and water don’t mix.  It does not matter how much you shake or stir, they will always remain two separate substances.  There are many other things that do not go together, but many of them are just a matter of taste or style.  For example, I used to think that stripes and plaids should never be worn together, but now, when it comes to fashion, it seems that most everything works for somebody.

The same is true with food.  I have always thought it would be crazy to eat catsup with pot roast.  However, whenever our family sits down to eat a roast, our two daughters-in-law grab the catsup bottle.  Even though I tried to make it against house rules, they ignore my edict.  As cultures intermingle and customs merge, it seems there are very few things in this world that do not mix.

However, there is and always will be an incompatibility between the American dream and the Christian faith.  The American Dream has been a driving force of this country since the beginning.  Perhaps the clearest expression of this dream is found in the Declaration of independence, which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Simply put, the American Dream is having the opportunity of life, freedom, and pursuing happiness.  It has been the driving force in this country since the beginning.  It is this dream that has created the most powerful and most prosperous nation in all of human history.  This dream has infected people all over the world, attracting so many people that we now have to be very selective about who we allow inside our borders.  The American Dream really has become the dream of most everyone in the human race.  Who does not want to have life, liberty, and the opportunity to pursue happiness?

But, there is a problem for followers of Jesus.  In His own words, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34)  The American Dream says we have the right to our own life.  Jesus said that if we want to follow Him, we must “take up his cross.”  There can be little doubt that Jesus meant we must give up our life.  Jesus’ cross was the instrument of crucifixion, the cause of death.  It is in taking up our cross that we give our lives.

An important element of the American Dream is liberty – freedom to control our own lives and call our own shots.  Jesus says that if we are to be one of His disciples then we must “follow” Him.  It clearly means that we no longer determine where we are going or what we are doing.  We are simply His followers.  We must give up the freedom to control our own destiny and instead, go wherever He goes.

A third aspect of the American Dream is the opportunity to pursue happiness.  It is this grand pursuit of happiness that has created the materialistic, consumer driven world we live in.  It is this pursuit of happiness that has caused people to kill and steal in order to have for themselves.  Yet, in contrast, Jesus clearly said that we must first “deny ourselves.”  Self denial is the heart of discipleship.  Self denial is what Jesus was all about.  He voluntarily gave Himself for us.  He gave up His life so we could live.  It is inconsistent to think that people who follow a Savior who was so set on denying self that we could be so consumed with pursuing happiness.

There is nothing about the American Dream of pursuing and consuming that is consistent with Christianity.  But it has become so pervasive that many American churches have become little more than a reflection of that dream.  In fact, much of what is labeled Christian Stewardship is little more than training on how to be a successful consumer.  We have tried to Christianize the American Dream.

There is a great danger in trying to merge two things that incompatible. Something has to give.  Scientists, for reasons beyond my understanding, are striving to find a way to actually mix oil and water.  However, it seems that in order for that to happen, one or the other or perhaps both of the substances must change.  That exemplifies the reason why the American Dream and the Christian faith must not be merged.  Experience reveals that when one of them is changed in order to make it more compatible with other, it is the Christian faith that will be altered.  The result will be a faith that is no longer the same radical call issued by Jesus to, deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.

Someday I might wear plaid pants and a striped shirt or I might use catsup instead of gravy on my pot roast.  However, I hope and pray that I do not confuse my calling to follow Jesus with being the same thing as being a good American citizen.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Incompatibility of the American Dream and Christianity

  1. Very good!
    “We have tried to Christianize the American Dream.”
    Might I suggest that in some instances we have Americanized Christianity?

    Thank you

  2. Royce

    I both agree and disagree, what if my pursuit of happines is to pursue God?

    However, We must be a Christian first, and a patriot second. And if there is a conflict, the patriot must give in.

  3. Gary

    Terry:

    You read the recent column by Cal Thomas who said Obama is conducting class warfare on the rich? He literally defends yacht manufactures as economic necessities and says poverty is not a sin as long as people try to escape it. Don’t remember Jesus adding those last words in his blessing!

  4. Terry:

    It’s hard to simply accept the concept that being a Christian is to give up what we believe and have been influenced by an early age to be the right thing to have!

  5. Sergio, perhaps you can understand why the first century Jews had a hard time with Jesus. He was claiming to be the Messiah when everything they had been taught and believed their entire life (for multiple generations) was that the Messiah would be a warrior king. It might be that the incompatibility of the American Dream and Christianity is similar to the incompatibility of first century Judaism and Christianity. In both instances, you can’t have it both ways.

  6. Terry, without a doubt…Perhpas we the church of North America have been operating under the same old mental model!

  7. Discouraging to think that we might have wasted more than 200 years, trillions of dollars, and countless hours of labor in pursuit of the wrong thing.

  8. Interesting theological position, Terry. And that is what it is, a theological position. Here’s another: True freedom, true liberty (as in real and substantive) comes only when one “denies himself,” e.g., “presents his body a living sacrifice.” It only comes when one is willing to say, “Gut me out, Jesus!” And, I might add, that is not just a one-step process. It is an ongoing process, as in every day, for the rest of one’s life.
    If, as you say, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the “American Dream,” then in following Jesus, that is exactly what he provides! The American Dream as you describe it, finds its roots in following Jesus in this manner. Believers tend to think that “taking up one’s cross” means hardship, humiliation, and conscious self-sacrifice — crucifixion! I’m not sure Jesus meant that at all. His teaching may have been that we were to bear the cross, not that the cross would bear us. Another way of putting it: The cross is our mark, as in Paul’s remark that he “bears in his body the marks . . .”
    Consumptive living is often construed as the “American Dream.” It most definitely is not. Such thinking is misguided. The pursuit of life (which Jesus gives), liberty (which he provides), and the pursuit of happiness (peace, joy and contentment, which he also provides), are the bases, the touchstones of relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.
    One does not discover these things in a new SUV or HDTV, one only discovers them only insofar as his or her life bears the mark(s) of the cross.
    Blessings,
    PDM

  9. Paul, to be honest, I’m not sure how to reply to your comment. I think you proved my point! You have “Christianized” the American Dream, although you did it in a very creative and unusual manner.

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