The American Dream is the Human Dream

The Statue of Liberty

This post is part of what I hope will become an ongoing series on Moltmann’s political theology. You can check out my first post in this series here. Since we are coming up on one of the most important American patriotic holidays this weekend – Independence Day – I thought it might be a good time to share what Moltmann has to say about the American Dream. What we find here is, I think, both a powerful affirmation of the American Dream as an ideal, and yet a sobering reminder of what it means for the rest of the world if the American Dream is only for America.

In On Human Dignity, Jürgen Moltmann has an essay called “America as Dream”, where he states: “Before there was the American dream, there was America as dream.” (p. 147) In other words, what we today call “the American dream” was a human dream long before it was identified with a certain place. It may be identified particularly with the United States as an important experiment and expression, but its aims are for everyone. It is both particularist (the mission of America) and universalist (for the good of mankind).

For the American dream to be truly good it must be good for the world, not just good for those who reside within its borders.

To quote Moltmann at length:

In this relatively short history the American people has experienced both the good fortune and the misery of political messiaianism. Through its dream it became united, active, and successful as no other people. But it has also suffered from its dream because the promise which is deeply embedded in it can neither be fulfilled nor discarded. The ambivalences which are found in the American dream also become plain when it conflicts with American reality.

The dream of freedom, equality, and happiness for all human beings –“we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — is a human dream. It can only be fulfilled by humanity as a whole. As long as human beings are alienated from each other by class, caste, race, and nation; as long as they live against each other and not for each other, this dream cannot be fulfilled.

Nor can it be fulfilled as an American dream; for as a nation, a world power, and a culture, America must take part in the alienation, separation, and oppression of human beings. The human dream cannot be Americanized without being falsified through the ideological self-justification of the American empire and the free enterprise of the multinational corporations. As a human dream, the American dream is a true and necessary one. As an American dream, however, it makes the human dream impossible.
Moltmann, On Human Dignity, p. 148-149

In The Coming of God, Moltmann states the problem even more strongly: If the American dream cannot be universalized it becomes the opposite of a dream; it becomes a nightmare.

If America has been chosen for the salvation of all nations and humanity in general, then its policies not only can but must be measured against their promotion of the liberty of other peoples, the self-government of these peoples, and their human rights. The idea of ‘manifest destiny’ is dangerous if it used to expel, to conquer and, for the sake of America’s own ‘national security’, to support dictatorships contemptuous of humanity. Its merit is to be found in the possibility of testing this power against its own claim. As a humane dream, the American dream is a good and necessary one; but if it is no more than an American dream, the humane dream turns into its very opposite.
TCG, p. 174

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