In his book, RADICAL, Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream, David Platt writes, “Here we stand amid an American dream dominated by self-advancement, self-esteem and self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism” (p. 19) and “…ordinary people who are naturally drawn to the comforts of the American dream can be converted to radical faith in a radical savior” (p. 20). I take issue with this because I already have a radical faith in a radical savior.
I believe in the American dream, but not because of any purported “comforts”. What does he mean? On page 45 he writes, “…the American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the gospel.” And he explains, “…underlying this American dream are a dangerous assumption that, if we are not cautious, we will unknowingly accept and a deadly goal that, if we are not careful, we will ultimately achieve” (p. 46). The dangerous assumption is that our greatest asset is our own ability. The deadly goal is that as long as we achieve our desires in our own power, we will always attribute it to our own glory.
But that’s not what the American dream means to me. While Pastor Platt’s concern for Christians basing their faith on Scriptural teaching rather than on prevailing cultural values is well-founded, his attack on the American dream as an enemy of the gospel reflects less than critical thinking. His first problem is how he defines the American dream. I for one don’t agree with his definition at all.
One thing I’ve learned is that the American dream doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. I watched a program once that asked various people what the American dream meant to them, and they all had different things to say. So, to say it is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ is simply foolish. David Platt is using a straw man argument, slapping on the name: the American dream.
So, what is the American dream? Where did it come from? When did it start? Why does it matter? Platt credits James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) with first coining the phrase in 1931 and partially quotes him to make his point, “While the goal of the American dream is to make much of us, the goal of the gospel is to make much of God” (p. 47). I don’t agree with his conclusion. Here is Adams’ full quote.
“The American Dream is 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. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
To me, such a dream comports to Biblical teaching. Should we not all aspire to being who God has created us to be and doing what he calls us to do?
“…a land in which life should be better…” This is a dream about the land you live in, not just for yourself, but for everyone. It speaks of hope for something better, for opportunity and freedom. It is not a selfish dream (“…of motor cars and high wages”…), but the dream of all people everywhere to find fulfillment and purpose. Notice the comparison to the European upper classes. They didn’t understand the American dream because they were blinded by their own class distinctions.
For some context, note also that this was written in the depths of the depression. The American dream was not a crass or shallow game of acquisition, it was a high and noble hope that kept people holding on and persisting through years of deprivation. David Platt has apparently overlooked the fact that in 1931 Christianity was far more wide spread than it is today, more broadly accepted, and wielded more influence in society than now.
The American dream had existed long before James Truslow Adams put a name to it. In the early nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) observed, “I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors…; in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
De Tocqueville’s observation was that the American dream was essentially religious (meaning Christian). From the time of the Mayflower Compact and the Puritan covenants, the earliest settlements in America were dedicated to the spreading of the gospel. Religious freedom was the American dream. That is why our Declaration of Independence reads in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But, that was then; this is now. American society has increasingly turned its back on the Bible and the God of the Bible. As a result, many Americans now consider the American dream to mean something entirely different from what it used to mean. They might not consider Biblical values foundational to the American dream, but I do. And even though professing Christians may not take all Scripture to be authoritative, I do. That’s pretty radical.
Their “American dream” is not my “American dream”. I don’t have to take ownership of what they think it is. Nor do I believe that the American dream as I see it conflicts in any way with the call of Jesus or the essence of the gospel. I do not see myself (or any Bible-believing Christian for that matter) in the “We” of David Platt’s statement, “We have in many areas blindly and unknowingly embraced values and ideas that are common in our culture but are antithetical to the gospel…”
I was 31 years old when I received Christ. At that time I believed in evolution, accepted the ideas of sex outside marriage, homosexuality, abortion, drug-use and other “social norms”. But as I read and studied the Bible and learned of God’s standards in these matters, my values changed and I developed a Biblical world view. My faith was always based on Scripture — not church traditions, not social customs or cultural values. My American dream became Christ-centered.
So why isn’t my American dream considered the American dream by Pastor Platt? Why must it be “dominated by self-advancement, self-esteem and self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism”? While there are probably many folks whose American dreams contain some of these elements, they all don’t go together, nor are they all necessarily bad.
The first thing I notice about this list is that universalism is diametrically opposed to individualism. I find it odd that they are thrown in together. Universalism is a lie that says society should do what makes most people happy (the “greater good”). But everyone must do what the majority says. The individual cannot opt out. There is no freedom. Universalism flies in the face of our God-given free will.
Individualism is another term that needs clarification. Platt implies or assumes that individualism is selfish and opposed to group effort, group loyalty or group cohesiveness. But I see individualism as a good thing. If we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) and God has numbered every hair on our heads (Luke 12:7) it seems to me that God highly values us as individuals. He makes us all different to be different parts of his body (1 Corinthians 12:14-18) and gifts each individual differently (Romans 12:5-8). That means that everyone of us is valuable in his own way. We all as individuals have something unique to contribute to the body. That’s the beauty of individualism.
The other items in his list are pretty common human failings that if we apply Biblical teaching to our lives, they shouldn’t be more problematical than any other sin. Scripture teaches us to be humble and submit to one another (1 Peter 5:5). If we are living according to his word, we will not be self-absorbed. Such issues are basic and universal to the Christian walk. They are not unique to America. I wonder why David Platt focuses on “the American dream” as the prime reason American Christians are not living according to Jesus’s commands?
I believe the so-called American dream, as described by David Platt, is a perversion of the real American dream. The real American dream still stands. Largely ignored by godless politicians and judges, there are still Americans like me who believe in the real American dream: “one nation under God”. This is not a dream of a theocracy but of the freedom to spread, discuss, teach, proclaim and live out the gospel of Christ, so that as many as have eyes to see and ears to hear will be saved.
I believe that same dream is shared by Christians all over the globe, no matter what country they live in. But in America, that dream had been realized to a greater extent than ever before by how our nation was founded. That is what enabled Alexis de Tocqueville to make the observations he did. And that is what led to James Truslow Adams coining the phrase, the American dream. It happened in America — nowhere else. So what makes David Platt zone in on the American dream, rather than the specific faults he lists to describe it? Because certainly you can find those same faults in other countries.
David Platt was born in 1978. His generation was educated with a distinct self-hating, anti-American slant. The history of their text books was revised from that of previous generations. His generation was taught to focus on evils characterized as racism, sexism, genocide of indigenous peoples, imperialism, the unfairness of capitalism, immorality of wars and the dangers of nationalism.
I was 33 years old when he was born. I personally witnessed the changes in how children were educated — from the 60s to the 70s, 80s and going forward. There was a definite, intentional change in curricula. “Values clarification” was introduced, and the values taught in schools began to change. By the time our daughter was born (1982) we determined that the public school system had become an incubator for inculcating godless, socialist, anti-American propaganda, so we sent our daughter to Christian schools.
How people think of the American dream has changed over the years. But it hasn’t changed with me. It was Bible-based to begin with and it still is. Our Christian walk gains nothing if we simply point the finger at the American dream and say “Bad!” David Platt does a great disservice to our nation’s founding, history and national character, all of which stem from Biblical Christianity.
My advice is let’s keep our theology pure. Call sin sin. But nationalism is no sin. Christian nationalism seeks to glorify God, not to “make much of ourselves”.