The American Dream is our secular religion—it has so shaped our collective aspirations that any violation of its premise is treated as something like sin. Author James Truslow, in his Depression-era book Epic of America, took a first stab at defining this American entitlement: “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Much later, Parade Magazine columnist Marilyn Vos Savant added flesh onto Truslow’s bones: “[It’s] a house in the suburbs with a backyard for kids to play in, a patio for barbeques, a shady street, bright and obedient children, camping trips, go fishing, family cars, seeing the kids taking part in school, and church plays.”
The premise of the American Dream is that, in a just and democratic society, the only thing that should separate the haves from the have-nots is effort. This is such an accepted moral imperative that its few critics attract suspicion as leftists or monarchists or demagogues. Author and academic Samir S. Gupte says: “Today, the American Dream is used by politicians, advertisers, athletes, and artists as a manifesto for their own purposes. Perhaps a thousand years from now, historians will examine the unique nature of the American Dream in developing America‘s prominence in the world and conclude that it was an epic component of human history on par with the invention of tools, or the teachings of Jesus Christ, or the ancient Greek philosophers.”
At its core, the American Dream offers us a path to significance and happiness… But on this day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, it’s important to consider his radically different vision of the American Dream—a vision rooted not in the secular religion of American exceptionalism, but in the bended knee of the gospel of Jesus…
I say to you today my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (From the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech)
These competing American Dreams—the first so deeply embedded in our entitlements that its foundations seem self-evident, the second rooted in the transformational mission of God among His people—are diagnostic for those of us who’ve given our lives to serve in overt ministry.
Think of the two American Dreams as separate bags of seeds…
- From which bag are we scattering seeds in our ministry?
- What is the true nature of the “good news” we’re proclaiming to our people?
- In our rhetoric and theology and practice are we pinning the hope of our transformation on ourselves or on the active work of the Spirit of Jesus in us?
- One vision of the American Dream is focused on ourselves, the other is focused on “freedom from captivity” for others—which vision finds its way into our sermons, our Bible studies, and our mission statements?
Just some things to think about on a day we honor the prophetic impact of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King…
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bibleand author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Lifeand Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.