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Salvation in the Land of Opportunity

News & Features | November 3, 2014

Republicans and Democrats running for midterm elections have different ideas about the extent to which class mobility is possible in contemporary America. However, their frequent references to the American Dream suggests that candidates of both parties essentially retain the belief that hard work guarantees prosperity regardless of one’s class. In fact, mention of the American Dream appears so often in electoral politics that it’s difficult to imagine a mainstream political candidate running for office without making a testimony of their faith in the American Dream at some point. However, recent studies that reveal that class mobility in America has remained consistently lower than in many European countries for the past forty years. This suggests politicians don’t invoke the American Dream again and again because it constitutes an accurate description of reality, but rather because of its enduring significance in the American political imagination.

Recent economic research suggests the American Dream might be little more than myth. A joint Harvard and University of California, Berkeley study asserts a child of parents in the bottom quintile of the income distribution has a 8.1% of moving to the top income group. Since 1971 this rate has remained static, proving that in over 40 years there has been little or no progress in making the American Dream any more accessible. Meanwhile, Americans identify growing class immobility and inequality as the most pervasive threat to this nation’s future, according to a new Pew Institute of Research Study.

It appears paradoxical that the American Dream retains its popularity with politicians even as its promises are questioned by the American public and undermined by comprehensive economic studies. In order to understand the enduring political significance of the American Dream, it is crucial to address its historical roots. At its core, the American Dream articulates the belief that if individuals continually strive to work harder they will achieve prosperity. While most interpreters of the American dream trace its roots back to the enlightenment ideals of the founding fathers, who promised “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” its origin is in fact rooted in the theology of some of America’s first European settlers, the Puritans.

Between 1620 and 1640, over 20,000 Puritans left Britain in a mass exodus known as the Great Migration. After arriving in New England, the Puritans established theocratic communities they hoped would serve as righteous models of piety for the rest of the Christian world. In opposition to earlier Catholic theology that chastised excessive absorption in temporal affairs, Puritan beliefs placed great emphasis on earthly work. Their doctrine of vocation taught that individuals’ occupations were particular callings given to them directly by God. Through determined striving towards efficiency and success in their work, the Puritans taught that believers could demonstrate they were among the elect, or those predestined for heaven. Puritan theologian Richard Baxter called on believers to “be laborious and diligent in your callings… and if you cheerfully serve [God] in the labour of your hands, with a heavenly and obedient mind, it will be as acceptable to him as if you had spent all that time in more spiritual exercises.” Another English cleric, William Perkins, placed an even higher premium on the value of work: “The main end of our lives,” wrote Perkins, “is to serve God in the serving of men in the works of our callings.”

The Puritan conviction that continually striving to work harder brings about individual prosperity outlived the original generation of Puritan settlers. As successive generations gradually relaxed some of the stricter aspects of religious doctrine, Puritan beliefs about the value of work persisted and became increasingly ingrained in American culture. The enduring prominence of Puritan ideas about work surfaces in Benjamin Franklin’s publication, Poor Richard’s Almanac, a bestseller from the 1730s-50s that voiced prevailing ideas about work – publishing original maxims such as the famous adage, “time is money.” Over time, the idea that hard work merits salvation transformed into the belief that diligent labor inevitably ensures economic success. The goal of work was secularized, but the underlying emphasis on the necessity of constant striving remained the same. The belief that hard work guarantees success still constitutes the core of the American Dream, even as the definition of success has changed over timew.

The Declaration of Independence articulates the American Dream as the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Later, the central tenets of the American Dream resurfaced in the late 19th-century “rags-to-riches” novels of Horatio Alger, describing the stories of young men who achieved upward class mobility through thrift and diligence.  In his 1931 book Epic of America, Historian James Truslow Adams coined the definition of the American Dream that is consistent with the way politicians present the American Dream today: “Life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” irrespective of social class. Even as the aspirations described by the Puritans have morphed into secular goals over time, the American Dream continues to restate their doctrinal belief that prosperity and self-actualization are attainable through tireless work.

While candidates on the campaign trail are more likely to quote John Adams than John Winthrop, aspects of America’s religious beginnings are still alive in some of our most widespread and frequently contested political beliefs. However, the legacy of Puritan beliefs is not limited to the enduring significance of the American Dream. While they lived together in tight-knit communities, the Puritans advocated an individualistic mindset. They believed that individuals were responsible for proving they were worthy of salvation. Likewise, contemporary interpretations of the American Dream emphasize the attainment of individual aspirations, while not typically stressing the importance of communal goals. In contrast, Chinese political leaders have increasingly used the term “Chinese Dream” to describe individuals striving to achieve the common good. In 2013, President Xi called on Chinese youth to “work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.” A focus on individualistic aims, ingrained in American culture since the times of the Puritans, might be one reason why finding a collective solution to class immobility has proven elusive.