Re-Imagining the American Dream
Re-Imagining the American Dream

The early settlers who risked life and limb to come to this land—a land strange and unknown, but full of promise—these early settlers had a dream. That dream included freedom to worship as they wished; it included the opportunity to prosper, if they were willing to work hard; it included the possibility of owning their own land, plowing their own field, not being the landless servant or serf they would have been in the Old Country, where class systems were rigidly enforced, and your life was absolutely locked into place by your rank and by your birth order.

Although this dream promised much to the individual, it was also a dream grounded in holy covenant, with God and with one another. Hear the words of Governor Winthrop, given even before his people disembarked from their ship to set foot in this Promised Land: he said, “We are entered into Covenant with for this worke. Wee haue taken out a commission.” And he continues a bit later: “ . . . wee must be knit together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities.” And then he moves to the responsibility of this new settlement to the larger world: “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a city upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.” A statement of manifest destiny: we shall be a shining example to the rest of the world, a moral light that will guide others into ways of mercy and justice. The date was 1630.

This was an amazing dream, the political piece of which was further articulated and refined in a document which came some 140 years late, a document which made a heretofore unimaginable claim: “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” All people have precisely the same rights? Unheard of! This was the American dream.

Granted, all people did not fall under the purview of the dream at that time—women did not, slaves did not, men who did not own property did not. Native Americans did not exactly get a fair shake. But the ideal remained, and through the centuries we have worked to enlarge the scope of that dream. We have had some successes, of which we are rightly proud—but the essence of that dream has been shaken and changed. What has happened to the sacred covenant, of ourselves with our God and ourselves with one another? What has happened to that noble experiment, to the country that was to be as “a city upon a hill,” leading other nations to righteousness and to justice?

We are a nation where freedom has now been interpreted to mean that the strong don’t have to care for the weak. We are a nation that stinks from corruption at the top, a nation which dresses itself in God-language while pandering unashamedly to the rich and ignoring the poor; we are a nation hated and reviled by many other nations and grudgingly tolerated by those who would count us as friends. We are far from that “city upon a hill,” that moral compass for other nations—rather, we have decided to build empire, that a few might flourish at the expense of the many.

Now, with our economy in shambles, with greed and corruption so apparent to all, we have finally awakened to the hard truth that easy money helped us avoid for so long: the economic system that we thought was sound, that could always be fixed, turned out to be a house of cards—a chimera based on false premises and inflated profit sheets. The good news is that we have come to a point of reckoning; we have had forced upon us a time of reflection that carries with it the possibility of radical change... I say “radical change” because radical means “from the root,” and no amount of shifting or tweaking will do when there is no solid core. Our problems turn out to be rooted not so much in economic malfeasance as in spiritual decadence.

We have come to understand that the story we’ve been living by, the cultural narrative, is defunct. I refer to the cultural story of the nation—ostensibly about bringing freedom and democracy to all the world; in truth, about building empire. But I am also referring to the cultural story for the individual, that which defines middle-class goals and aspirations. It’s all about competition and “getting mine.” It goes something like this: you work on your resume, starting about age 2 or 3, get into a good elementary school, get into a good high school, get into a good university where you will make the right connections, graduate, get a good job, or a series of them, get married, buy a nice house, have 2.3 children, work hard and consume a lot (i.e., buy a lot of toys), get old, and die.

This is not a dream worthy of our lives. This will not render a life that will model anything worthy for our children. The emptiness of it will become apparent, as these young people reach out for meaning in a society in which the parents serve an economic system that no longer serves them, a system no longer grounded in communal and spiritual values. There is no bailing out a system that is ungrounded in relationship, bereft of moral principle. We have to build from the bottom up, on new ground, new premises.

Economics, as I see it, is fundamentally a moral discipline. Economics defines our material relationships with one another—that is, who gets what, of the resources of a society; and economics defines our relationship with the natural environment—what are we exacting or extracting, from Mother Earth, and for what purposes? When we tell our children, starting in their very first year, we say, “Now, Johnny, you have to learn to share,” that’s economics. Or we say to our two-year-old, “Let’s recycle that juice box.” That’s economics.

The problem with economics as it is treated academically and in the business world is that ethical and moral issues are often left out of the conversation. After all, economics is a science, they tell us. (Was it John Kenneth Galbraith who said that if you put all the economists in the world end to end, that would be a good thing?) We use formulas, we measure, we predict, and moral issues cannot easily be figured into the equation. Maybe not, but we should consider that the most important things in this world are the things that do not yield easily to the scientific method.

The movement of socialist and communist systems toward free markets is correct. They need feedback, because complex systems cannot function well without various dependable feedback loops. But a major error of neoclassical economics is its over-reliance on only one form of feedback—it looks at prices and markets and little else. Social and environmental costs are excluded. But unemployment and underemployment are feedback. Global warming is feedback. An economy seized-up by fear—that’s feedback, too.

Economists have taught us to reify “the economy”—or make it seem like a system of rules and regulations that are real and tangible, a system delivered from on high, a system that just is, like air or water, and is not amenable to change. But the system has been imagined by human beings, on assumptions made by human beings, and it can be changed by human beings.

So let’s take a look at the values that run the country’s economy—and our lives—at the moment. I think we’d have to use words like profit, production, efficiency, consumption, creation of capital. Now let me make myself clear: there is nothing wrong with these words. It’s just that they are not ends in themselves. They should exist to serve values larger than themselves—human values. They should exist to serve the common good, to serve human health and well-being, to ensure the care and sustainability of our earth.

There are important questions we need to ask: does our economic system exist to serve families—or does our family structure exist to serve the economic structure? Why should both parents have to work out of the home? Why do we have so little interaction with family members, not even eating together in many cases? Are social structures arranged to bring generations together, or to pull them apart? Do work structures exist to support parenting, the building of community, the work of citizen-activists—or for the efficiency of the economic machine?

This economic melt-down will help us begin to ask the right questions. And so will the peaking of fossil fuel, which is upon us. When oil is no longer cheap—and that time will come again, and soon—our economic life will shift dramatically. We will be more and more focused locally. We will eat more local food, trade with small businesses close at hand, find ways to work that are more amenable to family life instead of commuting miles each day. We will walk and bike and use transit instead of drive. We will not fly thousands of miles away from home to meetings or to vacation three and four times a year. We will live closer together, and we will share more of ourselves, more of the time. We will mend instead of buying new. Some of us urban dwellers will weave and knit and plant and grow. Change is already happening, and more will come.

This is one of those rare openings in which the scales have fallen from the national eyes, and it is clear to almost everyone that the emperor has no clothes. The good news is that we will now have the opportunity to re-imagine the kind of economy we want, the kind of life we want to live. We need to take advantage of the moment, to re-imagine, to re-form the American Dream.

It’s not that people don’t understand that we have a problem—it’s that people have had their imaginations drained out of them by the constant barrage of messages they receive about consuming, and they have had their energies drained by jobs that have longer and longer hours and less and less meaning. But the people need leadership....

You know, I think of that old Chinese blessing: “May you live in interesting times.” Our generation has a mission, a clear and evident one. We have a compelling moral purpose which can direct our lives and our energies—literally, we are about saving the world.

So what is our part? The place to begin is at home—that is, with ourselves. Notice what is life-denying and resist it—just say “no” for your sake and your children’s sake. Live with the moral authority that comes from compassion and non-violence. Form communities of people who will sustain you in living as you wish to live, whether they are study groups or alternative living arrangements or socially responsible, sustainable businesses. Our churches should be central gathering places for such community. Now we structure our lives to serve the economy—what would an economy look like that was structured to serve the people? How would you like to live? Make it happen.

You and I belong to a group of people that Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson refer to as the “cultural creatives,” a growing segment of the U.S. population—already over 25—who embrace a new culture that values diversity, stewardship of the environment, economic justice, and civil rights for all. They say that roughly half this number combine these beliefs with some form of spiritual practice. They call these people the “Core Cultural Creatives.” It is from these folks—folks like you and me, folks that populate Unitarian Universalist churches—that the new story, the new cultural narrative, will emerge. I’m not sure of the exact words you will choose or how you will put them together for your story, but some of those words might be love, service, kindness, joy, presence, peace, integrity, stewardship, covenant. These are religious concepts, and this is the Beloved Community that we are building.

I was intrigued by these words of an East German dissident, Rudolf Behro: he said, “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” I started thinking about us as Unitarian Universalists: this is who we are—we are not afraid to be insecure. We are not afraid to search, to go deeper, to find the truth, even when the truth is unpalatable. We are seekers who want to live out of that truth, not some kind of made-up world that might be more momentarily comfortable to live in.

Unitarian Universalists, though small in number, can be the yeast in the loaf. Let us, however, be wary of the usual distractions and follies of our movement. It’s grown-up time now. We no longer have time for petty quarrels about how “religious” our language should be, no time for conflict between the humanists and the more spiritually inclined, no more time for squabbles about who is in charge here. The mission of the church is not about meeting our needs; the mission of the church is about healing our world. It is about giving ourselves to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, when we give ourselves in this way, we find that our deepest needs will, in fact, be met.

The idealism that caused John Winthrop to say that we have a special destiny, and that destiny is to be as “the city upon the hill,” is not dead in this country. I see it in certain young people, who are quietly living in a way respectful of our earth; I see it in many creative people who have a vision way beyond the popular mind. I know that wherever the human spirit is willing to join with that larger Spirit that new dreams can be dreamed and whole nations can be moved. Whoever thought the Berlin Wall would come crashing down? But when the time was right, it came down. Whoever thought that Nelson Mandela would get out of prison after 28 years, and lead his nation, but in time it happened. I grew up in North Louisana in the 1950s in a small, totally segregated town. I literally never saw a black man in a dress shirt. Who would have guessed that I would see an African American President in my lifetime? An African American President, with a cabinet replete with women and people of color. The time is ripe for a great turning once again.

I am convinced that what is life-denying, what is repressive and false, will be known as such and people, who are basically good, will follow a new way. Let us be some of those who step out and lead, who dare to once again be the Light that blesses the world.

About the Author

  • The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is minister emerita of the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, where she served for 17 years before her retirement in 2009. She is the editor of four Beacon Press anthologies, including the award-winning Cries of the Spirit . She is...

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