The End of the American Dream

Being an American is a lot like being stranded on an island, but very few of us realize it. We’ve come to see the island as our home, and we don’t remember the way things used to be: all we know is, this is the way things are, and that’s that. Every now and then some islander will come along waving his arms, talking of land beyond until he’s red in the face—of how the island is a peninsula and there’s a whole world out there to discover—but those prophets are either stoned or banished because they tell us a story about life we simply and absolutely refuse to believe. One of those prophets was the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville.

Early on in the American experiment Tocqueville travelled across the amber waves of grain and commented on the majesty of the purple mountains, but his awe was mingled with sadness when he saw our people. Tim Keller tells the story best:

In the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville recorded his famous observations on America, he noted a “strange melancholy that haunts the inhabitants… In the midst of abundance.”2 Americans believed that prosperity could quench their yearning for happiness, but such a hope was illusory, because, de Tocqueville added, “the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy the human heart.”3 this strange melancholy manifests itself in many ways, but always leads to the same despair of not finding what is sought.

What is the cause of this “strange melancholy” that permeates our society…? De Tocqueville says it comes from taking some “incomplete joy of this world” and building your entire life on it. That is the definition of idolatry.[1]

Keller here is quoting Andrew Delbanco in his book The Real American Dream: a Meditation on Hope, where he comments further:

Tocqueville thought that envy and longing were built into American life: that Americans suffered from the illusion that equality could eradicate their envy and prosperity could quench their yearning for happiness. These were illusory hopes, he believed, because “the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy [the human] heart.”[2]

Tocqueville was a stranger from across the sea, heralding a prophetic message of warning to us. But he was hitting far too close to home: we like our pleasures, and without God, the only way we have of calming the demons that come with worshipping idols is through more and more pleasures. So his words have fallen (and keep falling) on deaf ears. Mostly.

A few listened. A few islanders have come to see what he saw, to be disillusioned with the utopian dream we arrogantly labeled “American.” The American Dream was inscribed into our legal documents and indoctrinated into our children, but there have always been those few who walked up to our campfires and shouted at our sleeping faces that we were believing the wrong Story, that life wasn’t about us and we weren’t actually on an island.

The Prophets Foretold the End

You’d think those people would be preachers, but old-school American preachers tend to shout so much all people really remember are their red faces. Whereas the prophets, like Tocqueville, sit down by the fire and actually explain themselves—passionately, with great clarity, so effectively that you’d think they’d be effective to save us from the illusion. But even prophets, like preachers, are still only ineffective humans, and the weird thing about being human is that we only believe things we want to believe, and nothing is less persuasive than a fellow (rival) human.

Another of those prophets was F. Scott Fitzgerald. His book The Great Gatsby (easily in my top–3) is a parody on this American Dream. The hero, Jay Gatsby, ends up being a drug dealer, he doesn’t get the girl, and instead of living happily ever after he dies a senseless death. The story leaves you thinking that life is a joke, the American Dream a particularly bad one. The Dream, to Gatsby, is summarized in this quote:

My life, old sport, my life… my life has got to be like this.

Raises index finger diagonally upwards

…It’s got to keep going up.

And when it didn’t, he had no idea how to live.

The American Dream, Defined

Andrew Delbanco says that The American Dream is essentially a religion, and he traces the progress of religion in America as moving from God to Nation to Self. He says that in the first phase hope came from the Christian story, but in the second phase it came from the idea of a deified nation. The third phase promises us hope through self-actualization, but that leaves us at a dead-end:

This is our contemporary dilemma: we live with undiminished need, but without adequate means, for attaining what William James called the feeling of “elation and freedom” that comes only “when the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.”

The American Dream is the dream that the hope that traditionally comes from religion can be attained elsewhere: through the nation or the self. The American Dream is the dream of a prisoner who thinks that freedom from his prison cell is a guarantee to the good life. But what Tocqueville and Fitzgerald saw was the bitter truth that even political freedom doesn’t guarantee happiness and hope and meaning. Our freedom has simply led us to Ferguson, Charleston, and the bondage of political correctness, safe-speech, and hate-crimes. The American Dream has turned into a nightmare, and the only hope it has is the same hope any of us have: a religious hope.

The American Dream Needs to be Rescued by the Truth

Each phase of human history has introduced a “new” ideal or source of hope. The Enlightenment found its hope in the human brain. The Scientific Age hoped in technology. The Information Age hoped in the accumulation of data, but, ironically, with the increase in data came the decrease in knowledge. T. S. Eliot is especially good here:

The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information—deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.

Emotions rule our world, and they are starting to rule our brains. Universities are forced to subject knowledge to emotions in a great reversal of values, and the American Dream, once focused on the freedom of diversity, has now become the slavery of diversity.

The American Dream wants to convince you that the island is your home, that life is meant to be like this (out of control and barbaric), and that, given enough patience, we can achieve utopia, or at least a utopia for ourselves, which is all that matters anymore.

But we aren’t on an island, and there is a God who put us here. We seem to be broken beyond repair, but He keeps sending men to warn us, to teach us, to gather us around the campfire and tell us the Truth. They all keep patiently pointing us to the horizon, poking and prodding us out of our cynical disillusionment and into the fiery passion required to live and die well on this terrifying island.

What we need are a new breed of preachers who preach a Truth that does more than diagnose our problems. Tocqueville, Fitzgerald, Eliot—they all tell us what is wrong, but none of them give us the right answers, the Truth. We need men to stand up and lead us to the Truth, men like those a German pastor wrote about in the early 1900s:

God needs MEN, not creatures
Full of noisy, catchy phrases.
Dogs he asks for, who their noses
Deeply thrust into—To-day,
And there scent Eternity.

Should it lie too deeply buried,
Then go on, and fiercely burrow,
Excavate until—To-morrow.

Our hope lies in the Truth, and the Truth is found in the Word of God. Our Dream is bigger than ourselves or our nation; it’s about the entire created order. We live on an island which isn’t alone in the sea but is connected to the eternal Life by an invisible connection, made visible by faith in the One who created everything. Often we hear His voice in the words of prophets, we see His shadow in the beauty of a sunset, we feel His love in the arms of a spouse.

For now, we are stranded islanders with yearnings and flashes of something more, but if we keep watching the Eastern sky, very soon we will see Him and go to Him, and be changed from strangers to adopted sons. The American Dream is fizzling out into a cheap parody of the True Dream which haunts every human heart, the Dream of an eternal, intimate relationship with the only self-sufficient Being in existence. For us, the blessed beneficiaries of a heavenly Kingdom, that dream is Reality, just not quite yet.

  1. Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, pg. xii (footnotes: 2 and 3 from: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by George Lawrence (New York, Harper, 1988), p. 296, quoted in Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: a Meditation on Hope, p. 3.)  ↩

  2. Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, pg. 3.  ↩