Saturday, June 26, 2004

Meeting America at Disney World

During my recent four-day stay at Disney World, I became acquainted with a man named Thomas. He works in the food courts of two different Disney resorts. Thomas is thus employed at two full-time jobs. He came to America from India several years ago. "We always heard that America is the land where dreams come true," he told me with a smile. "My brother had lived here for awhile and told us how wonderful it is. So, we applied to come into the country."

Seeing that I was interested in his story, Thomas went on. "It took two-and-a-half years, but we were accepted."

"Do you like it?" I asked.

"We love it! You can do anything in America!."

Both Thomas and his wife work entry level jobs, although Thomas, at any rate, is an obviously well-educated person. For him, whether he attains financial success or not, the American Dream has already happened. In fact, that's precisely what he told me. Just living in a land that has the look, feel, and smell of freedom and goodness that America has (characteristics that those of us born in this country often take for granted) is nearly beyond the wildest imaginings of most people on this planet.

For several years now, I've been arguing that we need to recover the original meaning of that phrase, "The American Dream." Today, it's almost exclusively associated with having fat wallets. But that's not what it meant to the originators of the slogan, "The American Dream." For them, it meant the dream, unrealized in most of the world for any of recorded time, of freedom within the context of caring community. I've also argued that the dream is only possible when people are rooted in Christ, precisely the argument made by one of the Founders, John Adams. Without Christ, freedom degenerates into license, mobocracy, or materialism.

Among the things that make America unique--or at least, made it unique at its founding--is that it was a country that chose to come into being. It came together by compact, not by conquest, custom, or more traditional means. The thirteen original states entered a kind of marriage contract and announced to the world, "We're hitched."

The hitching coalesced, at least in part, around a set of common ideals, most of which we still don't fully live. But as one of my Political Science professors, B. James Kweder at The Ohio State University (later Cleveland State University) used to drill into our heads, the story of America is really the story of a nation fitfully but deliberately moving toward the expansion of the American promise embodied in the Declaration of Independence. All but a few of the amendments to the US Constitution have been about expanding the blessings of freedom within a community of caring and mutual accountability, thus embodying the ideals of our country.

Some days after the death of Henry Clay, a young Illinois politician gave a eulogy in Chicago. Clay was Abraham Lincoln's "beau ideal" of a statesman because Clay believed that America was more than just land sprawling across the Western Hemisphere. America was an ideal. America, in a phrase that Lincoln would later use, was the last best hope of the world.

Of course, I don't believe that America is the world's last, best hope. Only the God we know through Jesus Christ can claim that. America is a nation on a globe hurtling toward eventual extinction. God is immortal and eternal. He offers a spot in eternity to all who will place their hope not in temporary, earthly things, but in Christ.

But the American Dream, the American experiment, is noteworthy. Two-hundred, twenty-eight years after it bubbled forth from that laboratory in Philadelphia, that experiment--for all of America's faults, sins, and problems--is still working.

Thomas and people the world over who have come to these shores or who have ever wanted to, prove that.

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