“Who still believes in the American dream?”
* A handful of hands, no more than five, were raised in a room of 220 students *
Fortunately, mine was one of those hands.
This was the question asked during the first orientation meeting of my semester spent in Austria. The Dean had just finished lecturing us on the moral decay of the United States amidst assuring us that Europe was just as safe if not more out of harm’s way then our school on the hill in Steubenville, Ohio. I believe the reason the majority of my fellow students kept their hands at their sides, was not due to a lack of patriotism. No, I believe they hesitated to respond because they had just been lectured on the moral decay, secularization, of a “Godless’ nation and then mistook the Dean’s questions as an inquiry into whether or not they stand by the current moral degradation of said nation.
I raised my hand, not because I was “gung ho!” over my increasingly secularized homeland. I raised my hand because the question asked concerned “the American Dream” and that dream is not that of the modern day rioting feminist or greedy politician. The American Dream is rooted in much thicker skin, and much wiser men. The majority may fail to live up to that dream, yet this does not change or nullify the credible foundation of that dream or of that country. No matter who sleeps in the White House, the voices of the dead can still be heard. They shout from their grave for a rebirth of the nation for which they stood, a nation under God.
By listening to the voices of the dead, we can discover the true essence of the American Dream. We can come to know our identity as Americans and the legacy, birthright, and duty which that contains. G. K. Chesterton called this “the democracy of the dead,” when we recognize the judgments of men and women of vision, intellect, courage and integrity, who have preceded us in time. (9) Therefore, let us strip our preconceived notions of America down to the bare bones and commit ourselves to inquire into the roots of what our great nation stands for, the deep seeded roots of its conscience. For a wise man once said (who you will be introduced to soon enough),
“Roots, linking together the generations that are dead, with the generation that is living and the generations that are yet to be born.” (“What Are American Traditions, Russell Kirk)
We can only hope that in studying the roots of our American identity we will come to a better understanding of the ideals and dreams which are worth living, defending, conserving, and fighting for.
To begin my search into the root of things, I naturally sought the aid of the wise and esteemed 20th century historian and American political theorist Russell Kirk. Russell Kirk’s works may appear too long for the common reader and too heavy for the common book bag, but if you are brave enough to take him on you are in good company for his great work The Conservative Mind was one Flannery O'Connor's favorites.
Russell Kirk’s is one of the voices of the dead who we must now turn our ears to so that we may not lose sight of the principles which have and will make our country truly great once more.
Kirk lists ten principles which he believes will ensure that our nation thrives. I will touch upon only one here: the enduring moral order. A principle which I believe is of significant value to our identity as Americans as well as to our understanding of the American Dream which many of us have taken for granted and long lost sight of.
To properly grasp the principle of the “enduring moral order”, as I have previously stated, we must dig down to it’s roots. Roots which can not be found within the notes of our founding fathers, but upon the stone tablets of Moses. Kirk claims, that if we are to truly uphold and defend our cultural inheritance we must recognize that it’s core is the Christian faith. Of our American inheritance he writes, “It is a legacy of belief, not a legacy of blood” (“The Common Heritage of America and Europe, Russell Kirk). So far as our moral order and civil social order is concerned it can not be denied that the majority of Americans, 70.6% to be exact, subscribe to the Christian faith. Whether they subscribe to it for traditional, sentimental, or deeply spiritual purposes is a different matter, the fact is that the beliefs which have underlined the American conscience take root in the the God of Abraham, Moses, and in Jesus Christ. For instance, our concept of human dignity, the sanction for rights and duties, the obligation to exercise Christian charity, and the insistence upon private responsibility. Our ancestors put down their plows for rifles and fought for their freedom time and again because their faith instilled in them the image that all men possess dignity worth defending because they are made for eternity, made to share in an order more than human, more than earthly. (The Roots of American Order, 14)
Why concern ourselves with such an archaic and “biased” moral order? In recent years, it appears that the morals, manners, and faith of our grandparents no longer holds any weight or precedence for the 21st Century of progressive thinker.
It may take another world war to bring my generation to their knees again. Perhaps our arrogant progressiveness can only be inverted when we are brought to realize through great tragedies that man cannot solve the vast problems and conflicts within our world. We must recognize that we are feeble and imperfect beings and therefore cannot be the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong, not within our own souls and certainly not within in our nation's. Kirk assures us that, “At the heart of every culture is a body of ethics, of distinctions between good and evil; and in the beginning at least, those distinctions are founded upon the authority of revealed religion” (The Roots of American Order, 14).
Russell Kirk’s traditional, conservative American order is paramount to our revitalization of the American Dream. For without it, we would live in in a chaos which would limit our freedom to pursue happiness, defend our dignity, and worship our God. Our immigrant ancestors sought a new world order, for this reason. This was their dream: a moral order which recognized their faith, their human dignity, their freedom, and justice. An order which stemmed, not from the town hall meetings of a few simple men. For I don’t speak of the dream of politicians, I speak of the dream of the people: those who sought to practice their faith freely, who sought the freedom to be able to live as he ought to, protect his family, and expect benevolence from his neighbors.
Nevertheless, the American Dream is not only the dream of our immigrant ancestors, it is our dream as well. A banner we must pick up and charge forward with, proclaiming with urgency and passion the words of the American poet T.S.Eliot,
“redeem the time, redeem the dream.”