As D. L. Mayfield understands it, the American Dream offers a simple formula: “Anyone can make something of themselves if only they try hard enough.”
In one sense, I can’t argue with this formula because it’s been the story of my life. I’ve worked hard, and to a large degree I’ve built the life I want. Yet in another sense, I know it’s fanciful to believe I’m a purely self-made woman. My skin color, my family, my place of birth, my education, and my personal connections are just a few of the advantages I’ve enjoyed.
In her latest book, The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power, Mayfield calls upon Christians to reject the “work hard and achieve your dreams” formula as both false and dangerous. For some, she argues, trusting in the American Dream is a recipe for disappointment. (After all, plenty of hard-working people see their ambitions thwarted by misfortune, injustice, or structural barriers.) For others, the ones who do seem to succeed, the greater danger is self-satisfied complacency. Overlooking their privileges, they fail to ask why others can’t follow the same path.
To expose the insufficiency of the American Dream, Mayfield measures it against the prophecy found in Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus used to inaugurate his public ministry in Luke 4:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord ’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
Instead of orienting our lives around the false ideals of affluence, autonomy, safety, and power, Mayfield argues that God’s people in America are called to something different and better—to the Bible’s vision of the good life, as reflected in the person and work of Jesus.
The call of Mayfield’s book is clear: to pay attention—to one’s own life, the history and current landscape of the United States, and the story of white evangelicalism within it.
Mayfield—a writer and activist living in Portland, Oregon—has certainly paid attention, and it serves her readers well. Although her writing is strong and intense, she doesn’t create a spectacle. It ’s clear she ’s done the emotional work of processing her experiences growing up within white evangelicalism. This allows her to see certain flaws and blind spots that others might neglect.
Mayfield’s doubts about the American Dream are not, first and foremost, a function of her political beliefs. They arise, instead, from thoughtful observation of the lives of her neighbors. Much of her adult life has been spent working with and living alongside refugee groups, often in the capacity of teaching English classes. Seeing the struggles those refugees endure while trying to gain an economic and cultural foothold in the United States has moved her to fresh consideration of why the American Dream seems so cruelly unattainable to those on the lower rungs of society.
As Mayfield sees it, the ideals of the American Dream—the appeal of affluence, autonomy, safety, and power—are more a pagan than a Christian inheritance. Pushing back on the idea of American as a Christian nation, she instead argues that the United States bears a close resemblance to those nations in the Bible that oppressed God’s people. “It is important,” she writes, “for those of us who are embedded in the dominant culture of the United States to take the time to meditate on the ways of Pharaoh, who ruled off of predatory economic practices and was never satisfied. The Bible shows us example after example of empire and how it works in the world: places like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.”
These observations reminded me of my experience studying the book of Exodus a few years ago. Reflecting on Pharaoh’s use of Israelite slave labor to build his kingdom, I was spurred to consider the unseen, oppressive forces (both current and historic) that allow me to live with ease and comfort, enjoying access to good food, stylish clothing, and a mortgage for a home in a place of my choosing. Mayfield pushes readers to make these kinds of connections, identifying parts of ourselves that are more like Pharaoh than Moses.
Within American evangelical culture, one of the most influential exponents of the American Dream is Dave Ramsey, the popular personal-finance guru and radio host. Without identifying him by name (though it is plain enough who she is talking about), Mayfield writes perceptively about Ramsey and his money-management philosophy, which forthrightly holds out the pursuit of millionaire status as a good and honorable goal. She praises his rants against debt, his encouragement of frugality, and his warnings against chasing after a consumeristic culture in our spending habits. But she also beautifully captures the tension involved in marketing all this as distinctively “Christian” wisdom, especially when structural barriers in place prevent many Americans from putting it into practice.
Ramsey’s program, Mayfield writes, is “part advice column, part celebrating those people who have done it, who have achieved the American Dream of being debt free, of paying off their mortgage, of being a millionaire. The only problem is, being financially safe and secure isn’t a major theme of Scripture—but unjust economic practices are.”
And we shouldn’t be surprised to see those unjust practices persist, Mayfield warns, so long as our imaginations are captured by the prospect of making millions rather than a vision of prosperity that promotes our neighbors’ flourishing in systemic ways. It isn’t enough for Christians to follow the American dream, get rich, and then donate their excess wealth to the needy. For Mayfield, that pattern only entrenches the conditions that create neediness in the first place. Instead, she argues, we need to recover the Bible’s full witness on economic life, which includes Old Testament Jubilee texts that often sit uneasily with the philosophy of free-market capitalism.
Mayfield is perhaps most scathing in her excavation of a childhood spent in the homeschooling and white-conservative subcultures of the United States. The aim of this education, she writes, was “to train conservative Christians to take up influential positions in the world, uncorrupted by the evils of modernity and liberalism, and to return America once more to the biblical morality that is supreme above all others.”
Describing her homeschooling history curriculum, she recounts learning of a “pristine wilderness” discovered by Europeans, a sacred Constitution written by a heroic, God-fearing group of Founding Fathers, and a Civil War that was mostly unfortunate because “it splintered our nation.”
But of course, these lessons glossed over the displacement and murder of indigenous peoples, the tensions and compromises involved in crafting the Constitution, the heterodoxies of the Founders (to say nothing of their all-too-human moral flaws), and the centuries of terrible racial injustice whose wounds are still with us today.
Living the Questions
As I finished the book, several questions surfaced. First, what role does the church, both local and universal, play in this discussion?
In theory, the church should stand as an outpost of God’s kingdom in our place of exile, modeling sacrificial love of God and neighbor in a world devoted to affluence, autonomy, safety, and power. Mayfield is correct to fault certain strains of white evangelicalism cozying up to power and blurring the boundaries of Christianity and the American dream. But it helps to consider the black church as a counterpoint—a community living out the values of God’s kingdom while too often being denied basic forms of freedom and respect, much less affluence, autonomy, power, and safety. While Mayfield is quick to quote nonwhite Christian activists, scholars, and clergy members, The Myth of the American Dream would have been benefitted from a more sustained look at the faithful witness of the black church.
My next question gets a little more personal: If one wants to reject the idolatry of the American Dream, to what extent does that entail, in Mayfield’s judgment, making the same choices she does? Because her own story is so tightly intertwined with the argument of her book, Mayfield’s personal accounts can easily give off a fairly prescriptive impression.
I felt this most acutely while reading about her decision to send her daughter to public school. For Mayfield, this was an act of solidarity with her neighbors and a means of exposing her daughter to diverse people and perspectives. As someone (like Mayfield) who grew up in a conservative Christian homeschooling subculture, I’m thankful for robust discussions on schooling that look beyond an individual family’s desires to consider the racial and socioeconomic consequences of our choices.
Yet I did not sense Mayfield conceding much room for opting out of public schooling without bowing to the American Dream. While I cheer on my friends who send their kids to public school and participate in the life of our own public schools as best I can (without school-age children), I also firmly believe that parents or caregivers can make different choices without being unduly influenced by a desire for racial, economic, or cultural self-segregation.
Should more parents scrutinize their reasons for avoiding public schools? Absolutely. Will that result in more decisions for public schooling? Not necessarily.
My life situation diverges from Mayfield’s in many ways. And while her epilogue points to anecdotes of friends and family members who live out biblical ideals under different circumstances, I still felt a nagging sense of guilt as I read her book. How can someone like me resist the American Dream and live a life defined by the lordship of Jesus? Should I leverage my affluence, autonomy, power, and safety for kingdom purposes, after the example of biblical figures like Lydia, Phoebe, Esther, Joseph, and the Roman centurion of Luke 7? Or is the only solution to throw it all away?
As I ponder these questions, I’m reminded of the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
In the meantime, I’ll keep paying attention.
Abigail Murrish lives in Norwood, Ohio, where she works for her church and curates the newsletter “Given Appetites.” You can subscribe to her newsletter and find her online at abigailmurrish.com.