Has the American Dream Morphed into Materialism?

By Dr. H. Rondel Rumburg


Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

     Was the American Dream always so materialistic and pragmatic? A materialist is one who denies the existence of spiritual values and sets his affections on things of the earth ignoring the requirements of God. Jesus the Lord described the materialist as saying, “And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided” (Luke 12:19-20)? Then Jesus applied those words by saying, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Jesus had said, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

     The idea that we get these days from myriads of political speeches and discussion groups is that the American Dream is about a non-moral culture (a culture that lives without an acknowledgement of God and His requirements) giving everyone an opportunity to get a lot of stuff. Is self-aggrandizement the aim? Perhaps the poster child for the neo-American Dream is the media environment, Fox Business News, the financiers of Wall Street or the socialist icon in the White House. Perhaps the preeminent guru is pictured for us in the fictional character in the film Wall Street Gordon Gecko who espoused: “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Greed! Is this the American Dream? Is this the reason people hazarded stormy seas, faced savage circumstances, endured the wilderness, often experienced an early death by wild beasts, buried many of their children in infancy, fought starvation or battled disease? Or is the American Dream a byproduct of a people who fear God, trusted in Christ alone for salvation, practiced the Biblical work ethic and sought to practice the Bibles admonitions about faith and life?

     Based on the modern materialistic model of the American Dream one concerned person spoke of the present toxicity of the American Dream, and then asked, “Is the American Dream, at its root, toxic?” Then he added: “A lot depends upon how one defines ‘the American Dream….’” What is the American Dream historically? Why ask this question? Revisionist history has obscured truth-in-history and sought to sanitize it of Christianity and virtue which favors materialism.

     Is the American Dream accurately redefined into one word—GREED! Is the American Dream like Silas Marner the weaver whose sole joy in life was to be able to count his gold coins in private at the end of the day? Or is it more like Silas Marner after providentially meeting the golden haired baby girl named Eppie and making her needs and life his purpose and love?

     W. H. Hudson the novelist described an early incident in his life in South America. Caesar the family dog had died and had been lowered into the grave. The schoolmaster looked at the boys who were solemnly gathered at the graveside and uttered with great solemnity: “That’s the end. Every dog has its day, and so has every man, and the end is the same for both. We die like old Caesar and are put into the ground and have the earth shoveled over us.” This is the existential concept of materialism and its end. What a hopelessness without God and His Son.

     Remember what the Lord Jesus Christ God’s Son said about a wealthy materialist, “the rich man … being in hell in torments, he lifted up his eyes” (Luke 16:22-23, Geneva Bible). There is not only a great gulf between Lazarus and the rich man, but there is a great gulf between why the early settlers came to these shores and the present views of those political figures discussing the American Dream.

     In the pursuit of the American Dream why did the settlers come to America? Susan Pendleton Lee the daughter of Rev. Gen. William Nelson Pendleton, Gen. R. E. Lee’s artillerist and pastor after the war, wrote in her New School History of the United States, “They declared that they had come to America seeking ‘freedom to worship God’….”

     John Rutledge (1739-1800) of South Carolina as well as others were appointed to “draw up a declaration, to be published by Gen. Washington upon his arrival at the camp before Boston.” The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms was agreed upon July 6th, 1775, and in the second paragraph note:

     Our forefathers, inhabitants of the island of Great-Britain, left their native land, to seek on these shores a residence for civil and religious freedom. At the expense of their blood, at the hazard of their fortunes, without the least charge to the country from which they removed, by unceasing labour, and an unconquerable spirit, they effected settlements in the distant and inhospitable wilds of America….

     The America that Alexis de Tocqueville described was the place where “Christianity reigns without obstacles, by universal consent….” However, what did the early documents in the establishment of the Colonies describe as their official purpose:

The First Charter of Virginia (April 10/20, 1606) said in Section III,

     We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those Parts, to human Civility….

The Second Charter (1609) and Ordinance of Virginia (1621) were similar.

The First Charter of Massachusetts (March 4/14, 1628/9) noted,

     … and disposing of all other matters and things whereby our said people, inhabitants there, may be so religiously, peaceably, and civilly governed, as their good life and orderly conversation may win and incite the natives of [that] country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Saviour of mankind, and the Christian faith, which, in our royal intention and the adventurers free profession, is the principle end of this plantation….

The Charter of Maryland (June 20/30, 1632) in section XXII is stated,

     … provided always, that no Interpretation thereof be made, whereby GOD’s holy and true Christian Religion or the allegiance due to US…, may in any wise suffer by Change, Prejudice, or Diminution….

Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (Jan. 14/24, 1638/9) begins,

     Forasmuch as it hath pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of His divine providence so to Order and dispose of things that we the Inhabitants and Residents of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield are now cohabiting and dwelling in and upon the river of Connecticut and the Lands thereunto adjoining; and well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to god, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require … to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practices among us….”

The New England Confederation (May 19/29, 1643) began,

     Whereas we all came into these parts of America, with one and the same end and aim, namely, to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to enjoy the liberties of the Gospel, in purity with peace; and whereas in our settling (by a wise providence of God) we are further dispersed upon the Sea-Coasts, and Rivers….

The First Charter of Carolina (March 24, April 3, 1662/3) stated in the 3rd section,

     And furthermore, the Patronage … of all the Churches and Chapels, which as Christian Religion shall increase within the Country … shall happen hereafter to be erected, together with license and power to build and found Churches, Chapels and Oratories, in convenient and fit places….

The Charter of Rode Island and Providence Plantations (July 8/18, 1663) stated in the first paragraph,

     … in America, that they, pursuing, with peaceable and loyal minds, their sober, serious and religious intentions, of godly edifying themselves, and one another, in the holy Christian faith and worship as they were persuaded: together with the gaining over and conversion of the poor ignorant Indian natives, in those parts of America, to the sincere profession and obedience of the same faith and worship….

     What did they believe gave them security. Later on that document said, “A full liberty in religious and concernment; and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty….”

The Charter of Georgia (June 9/20, 1732) stated,

     And for the greater ease and encouragement of our loving subjects and such others as shall come to inhabit in our said colony, we do … ordain, that forever hereafter, there shall be a liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God, to all persons inhabiting, or which shall inhabit or be resident within our said province, and that all such persons … shall have a free exercise of religion, so they be contented with the quiet and peaceable enjoyment of the same, not giving offense or scandal to the government.

     A multitude of documents could be summonsed to attest to the Christian purposes of the founding era that was the basis of the American Dream. M. E. Bradford in his Original Intentions asserted regarding the Framers that they were ordinary Christians in good standing with their Christian communions. “Of course, the most unmistakable Christian evidence of orthodoxy comes in references made by the Framers to Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Son of God.” Then he quoted from Virginian Patrick Henry’s words to his sister, “O may we meet in heaven, to which the merits of Jesus will carry those who love and serve him.” In Henry’s will he wrote, “This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ will give them one which will make them rich indeed.” John Jay of New York wrote, “Unto Him who is the author and giver of all good I render sincere and humble thanks for His merciful and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by his beloved Son.” George Mason of Virginia declared, “My soul I resign into the hands of my Almighty Creator, whose tender mercy’s are all over His works, who hateth nothing He hath made, and to the Justice and wisdom of whose Dispensations I willingly and cheerfully submit, humbly hoping … through the merits of my blessed Savior for a remission of sins.” One could multiply such testimonies from John Witherspoon, James Madison, Roger Sherman, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Dickinson, William Few, etc.

     Consider the words of President George Washington, “… it is impossible to govern rightly without God and the Bible.” Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) a Founder wrote in A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to Which Are Added, Thoughts upon the Mode of Education, Proper in a Republic (published in 1786 in Philadelphia). The following quote is taken from section [15]

     … I beg leave to remark that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and with virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.

     Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments…. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is the religion of JESUS CHRIST.

     Consider what Rush had communicated. Without the religion of Jesus Christ there can be no virtue and without virtue there can be no liberty thus the American Dream ends. Another Founder Samuel Adams warned in a letter to John Scollay, “I have long been convinced that our Enemies have made it an Object, to eradicate from the minds of the People in general a Sense of true Religion (that is the religion of Jesus Christ) and Virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their Point of enslaving them.” The only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence (John Witherspoon) said, “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty preserved entirely.”

     Larry Burkett in What Ever Happened to the American Dream explained, “… it is impossible to talk about the American Dream from an economic perspective without also viewing it from the social aspect. Clearly the financial situation merely reflects the moral and spiritual values of any society. Historians of the past accepted this as a given.” This writer has pointed out that true Christianity was a norm in the purpose of America’s origin and the desires or dreams they entertained. Again to quote Burkett, “The dream that the founders gave us was not one of perverted materialism–indulgence for the sake of indulgence. It was an idea: that God had created all men to be equal in opportunity, so that each could elect to work hard and prosper or lay around and suffer hunger. Obviously the founders also knew the biblical admonitions about helping the needy.”

     Sadly the American Dream has in our day morphed into rabid materialism. Only a people who get right with God through His Son the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will be able to experience the true American Dream. A Harvard MBA is hopeless as a substitute for the Prince of Peace. Burkett warned that our declining morals, our growing debt, our proliferation of crime, our abusive environmental regulations are only a part of the problem. Americans are whistling in the dark, and hope all will end well because we are America. Surely most believe everything will work out ok if we could only elect the right man. Remember the teaching of Scripture, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”(Prov. 29:2). “Like people like prince, like prince like people.” God’s judgment is here! What are we going to do? Burkett asserted, “The battle we are fighting is spiritual as well as material. Those who would destroy our way of life are totally dedicated to their agenda. Unless we are equally dedicated to God’s agenda, we will lose.”

     Oh, that we would listen to the admonition of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Thus saith the LORD; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD…. Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is” (Jer. 17:5, 7). Is Jehovah Jesus our hope and the object of our trust–Jehovah never fails but the arm of man shall fail? In this same chapter Jeremiah concluded, “He that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool” (Jer. 17:11). The right way to get riches is with a God honoring motive and purpose as well as honest hard work.

     In the end materialism shall be punished eternally by God as the Rich Man in hell realized! Paul charged that men should not “trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God” (1 Tim. 6:17). God is unchanging–the same yesterday today and forever, but riches are changeable–they shall be burned up in the end (2 Pet. 3:10-11)!