Is the American Dream Compatible with Christianity?

image credit: Collin Armstrong, unsplash

A spiritual problem resides at the core the American Dream.

For people of faith, it gets particularly challenging to reconcile notions of a selfless gospel and individualistic prosperity in a nation with growing financial inequality. Here’s my latest on RELEVANT Magazine:

Read Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Emptiness? on RELEVANT Magazine


“The not-so-middle-class, not-so-comfortable Jesus we see in the Bible is a difficult pill for modern American Christians to swallow.”

That’s what my friend and pastor told me one day, and I knew he was right.

In the ancient world, followers of Jesus caught a lot of trouble from the powers that dominated the first and second centuries AD. The movement of Christianity across cultures and ethnicities caused a stir in the religious and political systems of the day. Many were upset to hear of a king with broader jurisdiction than Caesar and of a kingdom that called them to selfless nonviolence and reconciliation instead of oppression and conquest.

Jesus preached a message of love for neighbors and enemies alike, insistent on God’s compassion for the poor, the immigrant and the outcasts on the fringes of society. Everyone was welcome in this new world which was coming to life in the midst of persecution and death—a far cry from the shallow veneer of happy, risk-averse, comfortable faith we see so often today.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Emptiness

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann said, “We have merged the promise of the gospel with the American dream, and the big task is to pull those two things apart, which of course people resist.” Let’s give it a try.

Peculiarly, Americans celebrate the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In an ideal world, freedom allows each of us to work on something meaningful that makes life better for everyone. In reality, freedom is typically used to manipulate others to work on what will make life better for us.

The pursuit of happiness, though, is a funny phrase. Maybe it refers to the way in which people apply their freedom to do what makes them happy, but the functional translation of the pursuit of happiness has become that everyone ought to live the American Dream.

The Problem at the Core of the American Dream

The American Dream preaches that to be a model citizen, one must zealously chase success, prosperity, self-sufficiency through hard work and upward mobility (which I like to pretend means being able to fly, but is really less fantastic than that).

Most of the American Dream is manageable and comfortable, largely separated from people who don’t subscribe to the same cultural expectations. We rarely try to make anything better in the world because we’re too busy building our own little kingdoms in our own socio-economic enclaves…

Read the rest of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Emptiness? on RELEVANT Magazine


This article was adapted from John’s new book, The Variable Life: Finding Clarity and Confidence in a World of Choices. Join the email list community to get discounts, giveaways, and more on faith, culture, and personal growth.

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