In his speech at the Republican National Convention, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan provided a rare articulation of the true power and importance of the American Dream — an idea that, as of late, has come to either be derided as overly individualistic or exalted as a pseudonym for collectivist entitlement.
College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now. And I hope you understand this too, if you’re feeling left out or passed by: You have not failed, your leaders have failed you.
None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.
Listen to the way we’re spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate.
It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio. When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.
Yet as romantic and well-put as I take this to be, I fear that many will still fail to connect the dots, claiming that any promotion of “my own path” and “my own journey” will necessarily lead to an atomized world of selfish, isolation-prone hucksters out to exploit others toward achieving their own narrow ends. For these folks, Ryan is promoting the very conditions from which fantastical Marxian crises of history are born.
The truth is that individual liberty lends toward community engagement and the market lends toward social interaction and cooperation—the real kind. The “American Dream” of President Obama—a vision in which caring for the “least of these” is reduced to mechanistic material redistribution and “compassion” and “charity” are distorted by arm-twisting and class division—is one that will erode the very conditions from which authentic communities flow.
Give us an inch, [the progressives] say, and we will lock ourselves up for days, relishing our isolation and avoiding interaction at all costs. Forget that we have churches and festivals and clubs and schools and orchestras and neighborhood barbeques. Forget that free trade is free exchange and that productivity corresponds with collaboration. Forget that we are social animals who are actually, um, social.
And therein lies the big fat irony of the [progressive] communitarian shtick: It attempts to elevate our sociability by pretending it doesn’t exist, with all such criticisms of “anti-social society” being immediately paired by proposals for anti-social society. In the world that rejects the individual, any corresponding relationships and communities are immediately tossed out the window, leaving us doomed to follow the checklist of the “enlightened,” marching aimlessly toward Pelosi knows where.
The truth, then, is that real individualism results in atomic communities, not isolated hermitdom, and this is what the control freaks are worried about.
For the admirers of utopian scheming, the big impressive tower will never be constructed if the project is left to free individuals pursuing their petty mutual ends. Heaven on earth will never be achieved if left to a scattered landscape of diverse, uncontrolled communities, organically collaborating to make the world a better place (“yeah right!”). The Big Sky God of Material Equality will never be properly worshipped if we refuse to lay our children on the altar of urgency.
Yet for the Christian, although “good” decision-making, “happiness,” and flourishing communities are important, any vision of the American Dream needs to acknowledge something much deeper. The American Dream as Ryan defines it—the ability to follow our own path and our own journey—can only be justified to the extent to which our lives are consecrated to Christ and dedicated to pursuing his will.
As I’ve previously noted in response to American-Dream-critic David Platt:
Without the American Dream, I would most likely be slaving away for some feudal lord in the cold of winter, trying my best to stay alive. I would be illiterate, would not own a Bible, and would barely be able to feed my family, let alone donate to Compassion International…
Having the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and dreams can certainly be a bad thing, particularly when such dreams are merely one’s own goals. But God has intended for our hearts to be aligned to his mission. When that is the case, the society that promotes individualism becomes one that has great potential for enabling God’s plans through individuals.
For Christians, then, the American Dream is not so much about the pursuit of self as it is about being free to pursue the one who owns that self. What Paul Ryan is promoting, then, becomes much more than individualism over collectivism, happiness over misery, and good decision-making over bad. A properly ordered, free society is really about the Love of God over the Love of Man, and that’s a dream I can get behind.