THE IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM ON EVANGELICAL ETHICS

by Wyndy Corbin

The Subscriber Report produced in 1999 by Christianity Today, a popular evangelical publication, describes "the typical CHRISTIANITY TODAY subscriber" as a "54 year old married man with a post graduate degree. He works full-time in a professional occupation. His total household income is over $63,000 (average in 1999)."1 The report provides informative details on the income and social location of the typical Christianity Today subscriber. He, since 68% of subscribers are male, is white (94%) with a median household income of $54,673, and an average household income of $63,614.2 These income figures are compared to the median household income of $37,005 and an average household income of $49,692 in the United States population. The typical subscriber to Christianity Today is not typical when compared to the larger population.3 He is well into and even above the middle income bracket, and predominately white in a fast growing multi-ethnic, multi-racial country. He is fulfilling the American Dream.

This essay will explore the relationship between the social and class location of a "typical" evangelical, and the personal and social ethical commitments which may ensue as a result of this location. In particular, I am interested in exploring the class assumptions of the American Dream and the conflation of the American Dream with American evangelicalism as it impacts the ethic of evangelicalism. I do so as a Christian social ethicist, living and working in an evangelical context as active participant and, hopefully, as helpful critic for transformation.

Evangelicalism and the American Dream

Any cursory reading of material by and about evangelicals and evangelicalism may likely lead one to ask the questions, "what is evangelicalism?" and "what does it mean to be an evangelical?" These are contested terms, even within evangelicalism.4 This question can be answered from a variety of perspectives. From an experiential perspective, evangelicalism places a great emphasis on one's personal conversion to Christ. This experience in evangelicalism is rooted in the theological perspectives, claims and belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, which has produced the "evangelical spirit" as the "inward, passionate, and zealous personal commitment to Christian faith which is born out of a deep conviction that faith in Jesus Christ, who died and was raised from the dead, produces life-changing effects in man [sic] and his culture."5 Therefore, there is a strong experiential component on how evangelicalism is defined in regards to one's personal acceptance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and a three-fold commitment to a personal faith in Jesus Christ, an acceptance of the authority of Scripture, and a desire to communicate the Gospel in both word and deed.6

From a historical perspective, we may understand evangelicalism to be a movement that emerged out of the modernist/fundamentalist controversy of the early twentieth century in the United States.7 In response to the increasing secularization of American society and the Protestant church, fundamentalists rallied around a number of commitments to stem a perceived moral and religious decline of society. One of these commitments was to protect the status of an inerrant Bible that was under attack by higher criticism, religious pluralism, and scientific discoveries of truth. The fundamentalist response was separatism and retreat to the enclaves of church and home, even as they engaged in public battles for the soul of the nation. Evangelicalism, as the heir of fundamentalism, attempted to emerge from this separatist enclave to pursue a more active engagement with society due to its sense of mission. Evangelicalism emerged in the middle of the twentieth century as a reform movement of fundamentalism, desiring to correct its growing separatism and pessimism, and to recapture its missionary zeal for cultural engagement while retaining some of the same concerns as their fundamentalist fathers.8

At the heart of evangelical social involvement emerging from its socio-his-torical location is an assumption that the United States has roots as a Christian nation.9 One of its missional objectives in social ethics, therefore, is to reclaim America as a "Christian nation." The tendency is to conflate the ideologies associated with what is commonly called "The American Dream" with Christian roots; for many evangelicals, they are one and the same. In Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America, Randall Balmer argues that American evangelicalism "grew up" against the backdrop of a particular American story, a story white fundamentalists and evangelicals felt they rightly created and must maintain. They story of the American dream in many ways merges with the story of American evangelicalism, since "consistent with the American ethos, it (evangelicalism) offers a kind of spiritual upward mobility, a chance to improve your lot in the next world and also (according to the promises of some preachers) in this world as well."10 The history of evangelicalism has some roots in the American story of democracy, laissez faire capitalism, and personal freedom. It is conflated with the freedom to pursue one's material dreams and religious preferences, the attainments of which are seen as blessings from God and evidence of moral worth. Before exploring this troubling conflation and its impact on evangelical ethics, some comments on the American Dream are needed.

For many in the United States, the American Dream serves a unifying symbol that presents possibilities and prospects for a better life. The American Dream is a cluster of ideas around which the definitions of the good life, morality, responsibility, purpose, and success are described through language, symbols, icons and heroes. Three prevailing ideas are operative in the American Dream. The American Dream contains a metanarrative of success and possibility, the "imperial self,"11 and the desire for unity in diversity. The belief in the metanarrative of Christian nation, and efforts to expand the boundaries of evangelical morality, contain ideas of success as blessing, individual initiative as the means for social change, and unity over diversity. These ideas underpinning the American Dream tend to become conflated with the personal and social ethic of American evangelicalism. This essay in particular will explore the metanarrative of success and possibility as imbibed in the moral ethos of evangelicals.

The Metanarrative of Success and Possibility

One of the key ideas in the symbol of the American Dream is the promise of success through hard work and reward. Success is most often measured in materialistic terms by the accumulation of wealth. If there is one prevailing ideology of the American Dream it is that "anyone can make it if they just work hard enough." Success is guaranteed through hard work; the lack of success is attributed to the failure of those who have not made the required effort to attain the American Dream.

Jennifer Hochschild, in her book, Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation, explores the ideology of the American Dream which is focused on the achievement of success.12 The four tenets of the American Dream according to Hochschild are all related to the promise and guarantee of success. The four principles in her proposal are: 1) everyone, regardless of the past, may pursue and achieve success; 2) success in whatever one does is worthy of pursuit; 3) one pursues success through hard work, self-reliance and self-determination; and 4) this pursuit will be honored and serves as a testimony to the virtue of one's hard work and capabilities.13 Robert Lane, in his exploration of the ideology of the American Dream informing the "common man" [sic], identifies a number of elements comprising and fortifying the American Dream.14 Individuals are captivated by claims to abundance and opportunity available to all and attainable by hard work. Contained in the idea of the American Dream is the belief that the economic system functions rightly, rewarding those who work hard and penalizing the lazy. The result is that the morality fostered by the American Dream is focused "downward" by spending more time

. . . .condemning the failures of the poor than the extravagance, the sinful living, the exploitative behavior of the rich. . . . It is the economic failure of the poor that occasions comment, not their loose living or indulgence or self-gratification. This economic criticism cannot be made for the rich, for they are successes. On the other hand the rich might be criticized for their shady practices, their exploitation, their monopolistic controls, their conspiracies against the people, their withholding from labor the fruits of its effort, and the deliberate organization of recessions. These things are said, but they are said infrequently—more as explanations than moral judgements.15

The ideology of success prevalent in the American Dream cannot be divorced from the metanarrative rooted in the Puritan vision of a new commonwealth where everyone works for the glory of God, the good of others, and for the demonstration of virtue through the obtainment of success. As Tocqueville noted in his observations of American society in the mid-18th century, "for the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of one without the other." The American Dream is conflated with the religious underpinnings of the new world as a land of opportunity and freedom. The early colonizers in the Americas of the seventeenth century were motivated by the promise of freedom, both religious and economic, and were spurred on by a sense of a divine mandate. With this self-understanding, they "Christianized" the native populations and exercised dominion over the new world, both its earth and its inhabitants, through their hard work. Their abundance grew, while the probability of success was diminished for some, and never offered to others. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us, it was not only this Puritan vision which fueled the prosperity of the early colonies; it was also the enlightenment principles of individualism which fueled the industrial machine, created class warfare, and resulted in group pride.17 Abundance and success were marks of divine favor and blessings; the growing chasm between those left out of the American Dream was attributed to their moral failures. According to Robert Lane, failure to obtain the American Dream "is a means of justifying differences in the 'land of opportunity.'"18 Therefore, "success is a triumph of the will and a reflection of ability. Poverty is for lazy people, just as middle class status is for struggling people."19 The ethically troubling aspect of this ideology of success is the way in which it prescribes reality for all based on the particular experiences of some. It takes hold as a universal metanarrative of interlocking ideologies

. . . .that people adopt and develop because they believe them to be true and worthy, not only for themselves but for others as well. The power of ideology is that it allows (classes of) individuals to believe that their inherently biased opinions are actually universal truths. . . . ideology is the natural and largely unconscious outgrowth of lives lived in particular social positions within a competitive social system.20

Challenging the ideology of a unilateral attainment of the American Dream are a "narrow definitions of success" and a growing understanding that the ideology of the American Dream is an "ideology of deception" which blinds individuals to the social and structural realities that exert powerful influences on human well-being and potential.21 There are fundamental flaws in the Dream itself. According to Hochschild, history and social location do matter.22 The construction of and access to the American Dream by white males foster an uncritical acceptance of the Dream as inherently good, something that ought to be pursued and maintained. In reality, however, resources are scarce and access to them is controlled by dynamics well beyond the control of individuals. They very values purported by the ideologies of the American Dream, such as competition as key to success, can erode any conception of a common good and responsibility for others, crucial aspects of ethics and moral life. One of the most troubling flaws, according to Hochschild, is the connection between failure and sin, which enables dominant groups to claim virtue for themselves and legitimate their right to rule based on an illusion that success is a product of moral goodness. In Reinhold Niebuhr's social ethic, this phenomenon is the root of group pride and egoism, and the justification of class interests, which supports the powerful pursuit of material self-interest as an inherent moral good, and success as the ultimate mark of virtue.23

The Impact on Evangelical Ethics

What might be some of the consequences of the acceptance of the American Dream as a Christian story? How might this acceptance impact the shape and flavor of evangelical social ethics? In their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in American, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith explore the influence of the social and class location of American evangelicals on their social ethic as it applies to race and class. According to Emerson and Smith, the cultural tools in the toolbox of most white evangelicals are free will individualism, antistructuralism, and relationalism.24 These tools have produced what Smith calls a "personal influence strategy" for solving social relations and problems. In his book, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, Smith writes:

. . . .this personal influence strategy exacts a cost. It tends to render evangelicals rather blind to the supraindividual social structures, aggregate effects, power dynamics, and institutional systems which profoundly shape human consciousness, experience and life-chances. Because evangelicals employ the personal influence strategy, it serves to obscure, for them, the effect of forces outside themselves on their interpersonal relationships, along with their capacity to comprehend adequately how the social world actually works and to formulate relevant and responsive solutions to complex social, economic, political and cultural problems.25

Smith's work is insightful for helping to identify the effect on evangelical social ethics as a result of social and class location and acceptance of the American Dream as a Christian story. I see two areas of impact on evangelical ethics pertinent for analysis in this essay on class. These as the acceptance of laissez-faire capitalism as not just a neutral, value-free economic system, but one that is morally good, and a lens that views social problems as mere extensions of personal problems that are moral or spiritual in nature.

First, evangelical ethics tends to accept the principles of laissez-capitalism as either value free or morally good. As one prominent spokesperson said, "God is in favor of freedom, property, ownership, competition, diligence, work and acquisition. All of this is taught in the Word of God, in both the Old and New Testaments."26 Since evangelicals tend to view the world through lenses of individualism and personalism, economic injustices are not the product of systems that favor certain persons over others, nor caused by the economic exploitation of certain classes of persons. The moral responsibility for evangelicals, therefore, is to "Christianize" capitalism, since it is assumed that the free workings of the market are normal, good and when, used properly by "good" people, reward hard work and penalize the lazy. Therefore, as a personal ethic, Smith writes, most evangelicals try to bring their own personal morality to bear on the market since "whether or not a corporation is cut-throat is determined not by institutional policies, the broader economic environment, marketplace dynamics, legal structures, or the profit motive, but rather by the goodness of the individual employees who work for it. . . . evangelicals leave the existing larger structures of business and the economy largely unquestioned."27

Since most white evangelicals benefit from laissez-faire capitalism because of our class location, we are hard pressed to apply an ethical critique to a system by which we benefit in spite of the fact that the values underpinning laissez-faire capitalism tend to be inimical to Christian faith, values such as competition, usury, excessive profit, and exploitation and oppression of the poor. This anti-structural bent in evangelical ethics, which blinds us to the impact of social realities on human lives, lends to an acceptance of "what is" as "what ought to be" without questioning the power dynamics and values embedded within social systems and institutions themselves which leads to the second effect of the American Dream on evangelical ethics.

The second consequence of the conflation of the American Dream with evangelical Christianity is a belief that social problems are merely extensions of personal problems which have a moral or spiritual cause. This has produced a simplistic strategy in social ethics that believes that "changed people change society" which ignores the reality that "changed societies change people." Evangelicals, out of a sense of mission informed by the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) have a keen sense of evangelism as sharing the Gospel as a personal call to salvation as opposed to a means of redemption for social relationships. This evangelical Gospel is directed at one's greatest need, which is essentially spiritual, or "getting right with God." The conversion experience within evangelicalism involves stories of personal transformation as key to all social transformations. In other words, individuals act on society and social structures, not the other way around. This makes sense, according to Emerson and Smith, since one of the cultural tools of white evangelicals is "antistruc-turalism" or the "inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences."28 This posture not just minimizes, but ignores the social complexities of life and the ways in which human goods and flourishing are determined and distributed by these realities. If Smith and Emerson are correct, and evangelicals, due to the cultural tool of antistructuralism are blind to social realities, it becomes imperative, then, that we address this blindness and attend to what Gloria Albrecht calls the "character of our communities" and social institutions as an important corrective in ethical analysis and moral formation since they wield enormous power on human well being.29

A Christian Social Ethical Critique for Evangelicalism

There is much in Christian social ethics that provides a moral critique to the ideas of the American Dream and its appropriation into the social ethic of evangelicalism. The substance of life ought not to be defined by material success. Most evangelicals affirm this, but our blindness to the causes of poverty and injustice keep us accepting "what is" for "what ought to be" since the problems rests with individuals in need of conversion not social systems in need of change. Believing that the reward for material success is a form of justice in a world of competing and compensated self-interest actually reinforces injustice in social policies that penalize the poor as undeserving and the rich as rightly rewarded, and leaves economic systems in place which foster these class inequalities. Christian ethics has a voice in challenging the values on which our current economic system is based. Competition pits us against each other and dehumanizes us to one another; buying and selling based on wants created by economic privilege minimizes the real needs of basic sustenance for the majority of people harmed by the free market; and benefiting from the labor and production of goods made possible by exploitation and oppression received many a prophetic tirade from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible.

Even while evangelicals purport to be blind to social realities, the very Bible on which they base their ethic is packed with social realities that affirm the moral power of social systems and their impact on human life. As Smith and Emerson note, "although much in Scripture and tradition points to the influence of social structures on individuals, the stress on individualism has been so complete for such a long time in white American evangelical culture that such tools are nearly unavailable."30 Perhaps developing tools in social analysis as a legitimate source for moral reasoning may help evangelicals see the ethical dimensions of social structures and realities. The Israelites were freed from the system of slavery; the Jubilee Codes in the Torah were meant to alleviate the growing class differences between the rich and the poor; the prophets warned of the danger of justifying economic oppression through religious language and practices; Jesus had his eye on the poor and oppressed, holding out the promise of a "new way of being and doing" that would impact individuals and communities; and the eschatological vision of Revelation promises that what has been wrong will be made right in a vision of social justice. Perhaps we can begin to practice what Larry Rasmussen calls "soul craft," by naming the moral dimensions of institutions and the impact they have on the moral bearings of the individuals who inhabit them and working for their redemption and transformation.31 In doing so, perhaps evangelical ethics can truly bring "good news" to the countless people harmed by social realities that exploit them for the benefit of a few. By taking seriously the power of class and the dynamics of power imbedded in social life, we may be able to foster, and even realize, a moral vision, or a "dream" that is more Christian than American, whereby all are free to attain goods, both tangible and intangible, and where success is measured by liberating the "least of these" from economic oppression.

Notes

1. "Christianity Today: Subscriber Characteristics," 1999, 3.

2. Ibid., 10.

3. Ibid., 10. The figures in the "Christianity Today Subscriber Report" were obtained from the Statistical Abstract of the United States in 1998.

4. According to church historian Timothy Weber, "defining evangelicalism has become one of the biggest problems in American religious historiography." Timothy Weber, "Premillennialism and the Branches of Evangelicalism" in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, edited by Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnson (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 12. Evangelicalism is not monolithic and encompasses a variety of sub-groupings with their own historical, sociological and historical distinctiveness. See Dayton and Johnson, The Variety of American Evangelicalism; Randall Balmer, Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999); and Robert E. Webber, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978).

5. Webber, Common Roots, 17.

6. Johnston, "American Evangelicalism: An Extended Family," 261.

7. The history of evangelicalism starts much earlier and has its roots in the scholastic and pietistic streams of the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe in the sixteenth century. The types of "evangelicalisms" birthed by the Reformation have taken four distinct forms in the United States according to Gary Dorrien. They are scholastic and Reformed evangelicalism, pietistic and holiness evangelicalism, fundamentalist evangelicalism, and an emerging form which Dorrien calls postconservative evangelicalism. See Gary Dorrien, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998). The type of evangelicalism which is the focus of this essay is the distinct religious movement in the United States with its own historical trajectory out of Protestant fundamentalism which emerged in the early part of the 20 century during the modernist/fundamentalist controversy. For a historical overview of the emergence of evangelicalism out of the modernist/fundamentalist controversy, see Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991); and Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

8.  Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, 64. I intentionally retain the use of "fathers" given the predominance of male authority in this tradition and its patriarchy to signal this reality in this tradition which requires a feminist ethical critique.

9.  I identify this merely as an assumption. Due to the scope of this article, I will not press on these assumptions. I will "assume them as assumptions" in spite of the myriad of historical, sociological and theological difficulties surrounding them. The assumption works as convenient rhetoric in evangelical ethics to justify social involvement.

10. Randall Balmer, Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 11.

11. I borrow this term from The Rise of the Imperial Self: America's Culture Wars in Augustinian Perspective by Ronald Dworkin (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).

12. Jennifer Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

13. Ibid., 18ff.

14. Robert Lane, Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does (New York: Free Press, 1962). Lane's study attempts to unsurface the political ideologies of the common man. His studies involved men from a working-class city in the Northeast. Therefore, the perspective lent from this study is narrowly focused on male experience. However, his study is helpful for identifying the ways in which visions of the American Dream are appropriated by those who are shut out of it based on class location.

15. Ibid., 330-331.

16. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Trans. George Lawrence (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969), 293.

17.  See Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (News York: Harper and Brothers, 1935).

18. Lane, Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does, 68.

19. Ibid., 72.

20. Leslie Paul Thiele, Thinking Politics: Perspectives in Ancient, Modern, and Postmodern Political Theory (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1997), 220-221.

21. Hochschild, Facing Up to the American Dream, 34. Robert Bellah points out the danger of blindness to institutional and structural realities in his book, The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991).

22. Ibid., 26ff.

23.  See The Nature and Destiny of Man, Volumes I and II by Reinhold Niebuhr (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941-1943).

24. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 76.

25. Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 202.

26. Jerry Falwell, quoted by James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 111.

27.  Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, 207.

28. Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 76.

29. I am indebted to Gloria Albrecht for this wonderful "turn of phrase" in her book, The Character of Our Communities (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995). In her work, Albrecht challenges the limited focus on personal character and virtue, in particular the works of Stanley Hauerwas, in favor of an ethical and structural analyses of the ways in which our communities are shaped by capitalism, thereby putting the moral character of our communities at risk.

30. Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 78-79.

31. Larry Rasmussen, Moral Fragments and Moral Community: A Proposal for Church in Society (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 101.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2005, Vol. 55,  No 3.