Faith & the American Dream

I write this post from somewhere over the North Pacific Ocean, west of the Aleutian Islands and near the Kamchatka Peninsula according to the inflight map which all my friends who often fly long distances tell me you should never look at because doing so makes the flight seem even longer. I am thoroughly convinced that nothing can make this 14 hour long flight from the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport to Seoul, South Korea seem any longer.

I am seated next to a Korean man who I presume to be in his 70s (I am a terrible judge of age). He holds in his hands a self-made notebook – lined paper, stapled together with a makeshift cover. The pages are filled with writing. I am the curious sort and couldn’t help but notice everything filling the pages is about the United States, particularly what we call civics. Questions like, “Where does the President live?” with their answers, written in both Korean and English are complete with the phonetic pronunciations. I have no idea why he is studying but the pages are worn and he has revisited them several times during our journey together today.

One question particularly struck me: “Why do people come to America?” Amidst the Korean, I found the answer he had written – freedom. Questions about Americana and what it means to be an American are particularly salient to me these days having just released a coauthored book titled Chasing the American Dream: Understanding what Shapes Our Fortunes. In this book we examine how Americans define and pursue the American Dream. From September 2010 through July 2011, I conducted 75 interviews with Americans from all walks of life. Conversations with single moms, homeless men, first responders, artist and actors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and many others, lasted anywhere from 90 minutes to over 5 hours. I had a series of questions I asked but allowed the conversations to occur organically taking twists and turns.

Not once did I ever ask a question about faith or religion. Yet the topic came up in 48 of the interviews! A recent Pew poll showed that over the past decade more Americans report “seldom” or “never” attending worship, increasing from 25% to 29%, and weekly attendance has declined slightly from 39% to 37%. Despite diminishing religiosity among Americans, our data suggest that faith is still alive and well in how we define the American Dream.

Five specific themes emerged but I want to discuss only two here. First, the Christian Church is built on the notion that God will provide and so is the United States. Currency stamped with “In God We Trust” reminds us in our daily lives that we, as a nation, have long viewed ourselves as a sort of theocracy. That even in the most mundane of everyday transactions, God is present. As such, it was not surprising here in the “Land of Opportunity” discussing the American Dream and economic security, good folks would affirm that God will provide. It came up time and time again – from the man sleeping on the streets to the investment broker struggling with substance abuse. Our research suggests that even when individual and household economics are difficult, a majority of people still hold fast to the belief that God will eventually provide a way out. Our findings also point to the enduring Horatio Alger story – that if I work hard enough (or because I worked hard) God will provide. Regardless of which side of the tracks one found themselves, they believe God’s hand is there providing a way forward.

You might be surprised that only one out of 75 people with whom I spoke defined the American Dream in the traditional sense – house in the suburbs with the picket fence, family pet, two-point-whatever kids, and a nice car in the driveway. Freedom to live the life of one’s choosing; freedom to make one’s own decisions; freedom to pursue one’s passions; and the freedom of religion were identified as central to the American Dream. Even some who did not consider themselves “religious” discussed the importance of religious freedom in the context of who we are as Americans. Alone these are not novel findings, but nestled within the larger conversations we were having about economic security they become more interesting. Freedom is part and parcel to who we are as Americans and thus it is not surprising that we view our economic success as tied to our ability to live lives unencumbered by the strictures others might impose. While studies show the nation as a whole is becoming less religious, our findings suggest that the right to religious freedom remains firmly rooted in the American ethos. You can’t be an American without holding fast to religious freedom even if you yourself are not religious.

I’m not sure what the gentleman next to me was thinking when we penned the word “freedom” as the reason people come to America. It is part of this crazy thing we call the American Dream. A dream, for many, rooted in religious beliefs and faith in a God who acts even in the most mundane.

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