Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Worthiness and the American Dream

Written by: on October 16, 2023

Achieving the “American Dream” is baked into the culture of the United States. We are told to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” to make enough money to provide a 2000 square foot roof over our heads and an SUV to hold our 2.5 kids and Golden Retriever. If we can accomplish this “dream” we are deemed worthy of being called an American. Of course, I am being somewhat sarcastic, but this is often what it feels like to live in this country I call home.

Hustle culture, the glorification of working long hours to achieve your professional goals and/or productivity goals is the norm. When asked “how are you?” it bumps up your social status if you reply, “Oh, I am soooo busy!” When my twenty-year old decided not to attend college the first questions I was asked by other parents was, “But what is he going to do to keep up? Where is he going to work? How will he get ahead?” And to be honest, I worried about these same things…because to be able to provide for oneself at the ripe old age of 22 is part of the “American Dream.”

Predestination and the Spirit of Capitalism

But really, this is just another version of the “spirit of capitalism” sociologist and economist, Max Weber refers to in his book, …. Trying to figure out the origins of modern capitalism, Weber turned to the reformers of the Protestant reformation. In separating with the Catholic church,  Martin Luther made popular the idea of “calling,” that all work done could glorify God. Therefore, one should approach one’s life and career with the same intensity and discipline used by monks in monastic orders.[1] In this way, Weber believed Luther made commerce safe for Christianity. Money making could be a godly pursuit.[2] But the real move to a spirit of capitalism, Weber says, was through the doctrine of predestination put forth by John Calvin.

Predestination, the theological conviction that God has already decided who is “elect” or chosen for salvation and who is “dammed” and there is nothing human beings can do to change God’s mind, caused anxiety in many. The best way to quell their unease was for people to visibly separate themselves from those they thought to already be dammed. If you could set yourself apart it might give you some assurance that you were bound for heaven even if nothing you could do could determine your fate, at least you might feel better.[3] This created a “spirit of capitalism” that saw making money not as something immoral but as a positive good, something you can and should dedicate your life to doing. In other words, working hard, saving much, investing well and consequently, making money, made you worthy.

While a capitalistic system was not the concern of the reformers, according to Weber, it was an outcome of the theology and doctrines they put forth, laying the foundation for modern capitalism and the spirit of capitalism. The Puritans brought this “work hard and be productive” ethos when they came to the USA and over time the spirit of capitalism seeped into the greater culture, gradually being secularized, losing its religious roots.

The Spirit of Capitalism is Changing

In his book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama argues that every person has an inherent dignity and that even more than economic advancement, we want that dignity to be recognized.[4] Yet, capitalism only glorifies a person if she can advance herself economically. If not, it is believed you obviously haven’t been diligent enough in your work, and it is often seen as a moral failing. And yet, in our country, it is becoming more and more difficult to advance oneself economically unless you begin in the “privileged” elite, meaning, you are white and male, your parents are educated, your family has important connections, etc. Even then, it can be difficult to make enough money to pay your bills and have any left-over! There is a disconnect between the need to be recognized for our inherent dignity and how our capitalistic culture defines worthiness of recognition.

Weber ends his essay on a very bleak note, not much different than how (I believe) many in our country feel today. He says that the spirit of capitalism has become an iron cage around us, there is no escape from this spirit of capitalism. Considering that Weber spent many years in a state of depression (footnote) having suffered a breakdown, one wonders if his depression might have been triggered by this belief.[5]

It also makes me wonder about the mental health crisis we are experiencing in our teenagers and young adults. In the fictional novel, Together We Will Go, the main character, a young man, wraps up the feelings of so many of our young adults today, echoing even the sentiments of my own son. With his parents expecting him to get a college degree he responds,

“When our parents said, ‘Go to college and get your degree so that you can get a job,’ we did it even though we know it doesn’t work that way anymore because we wanted to make you happy, because we wanted to believe what you believed, that the rules still applied, that you walked out of college with a degree in one hand as a recruiter shook the other, offering a job and a salary and a desk and maybe a pension plan that they’ll take away before you actually get to use the thing but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right? We will never, ever have the same opportunities you did. Full time jobs are fading fast, replaced by part-time jobs where you get paid $h!t money to work long hours that are constantly being shifted around so there’s no stability, no benefits, and no backtalk or you’re fired, and there is nothing you can do about it. And the American Dream of owning a home someday? How? With what? Everyone I know who graduated from college came out $50k-$80K in the hole for student loans they will never pay off, which by the way also shoots down their credit rating, so there’s no savings, no loans, nothing to invest, nothing to buy a home with, and the planet is frying and in thirty years most of us will end up climate refugees, so yeah, there’s *that* to look forward to. And in return we get $h!t upon from On High for living at home or not having ambition or putting experience ahead of owning stuff because in case you weren’t paying attention, we can’t afford anything!”[6]

Our younger generation is still faced with the immense pressure of the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism, but most young adults aren’t able to make enough capital to even pay off their student loans making achieving the American Dream almost hopelessly impossible. It’s enough to make anyone depressed!

Whether or not, Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic is the only reason for the spirit of capitalism, and it would seem, Dr. Jason Clark, among many other critics, provides a strong critique to some of Weber’s claims including his use of Benjamin Franklin who was “who is shoehorned into the role of exemplar for a Protestant ascetic and ethic,” when he was instead a “deist with an orientation towards money that was politically motivated” rather than theologically motivated by the doctrine of predestination,[7] for better…but maybe for worse, the Protestant Work Ethic and the spirit of capitalism seems to have saturated our culture.

[1] Schultz, Will, Why This Text Matters, The Protestant Work Ethic, accessed on YouTube, October 14, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2SDBExBxHs

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 2018, accessed on Scribd, location 19.

[5] Schultz, Will, Why This Text Matters, The Protestant Work Ethic, accessed on YouTube, October 14, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2SDBExBxHs

[6] Straczynski, Michael, Together We Will Go, Scout Press, NY, accessed on Scribd, location 20.

[7] Clark, Jason Paul, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” 95.

About the Author

Kally Elliott

Mom of four. Wanna-be Broadway star. PC(USA) pastor. Wife. Friend. Sometimes a hot mess. Sometimes somewhat together. Is this supposed to be a professional bio?

12 responses to “Worthiness and the American Dream”

  1. mm Kim Sanford says:

    You make a really interesting connection between the spirit of capitalism and our modern mental health crisis that I hadn’t considered. If I’m remembering correctly, your NPO deals with mental health in the church, so I’m guessing you could say a lot more about that. Specifically I’m wondering how you approach the generational divide that you reference in your post? How do you talk to parents who want their children to pursue the American Dream? How do you counsel young adults who live in the reality of fewer job opportunities, etc. than their parents’ generation had?

    • Kally Elliott says:

      As a parent of a young adult who decided he did not want to go to college for many of the reasons stated by the author of the book, Together We Will Go, I’ve had to wrestle with my own feelings! I am still not completely on board with him choosing not to go to college, especially since for his entire academic career the kid had over a 4.0. He is smart and thoughtful. He reads a lot. He cares about he world. I could go on and on…because I am his mom and think he is the world’s best kid (along with my other three). Anyway, I say all this because the only thing I could say to other parents facing this with their own kids is that you have to let them forge their own path. I tried to force him to go to college. My husband and I made him do community college for a semester (we were really trying to make him do it for two years but we failed at that). By the end of the semester he refused to go back. He was done. He had been clear that he did not want to go to college but that he wants to make a career in video editing – something he can do without college. He does not want the debt of college. Since we can’t pay for college without loans I can’t argue there.

      The proverbial jury is still out as to how this will work out for him. He still lives at home, pays us rent, and is super helpful with giving rides to my younger kids (though not as helpful when it comes to cleaning up after himself…we are working on that). He is working on his video editing and has odd jobs that seem to pay his bills.

      Meanwhile my second child is in college on a football scholarship, studying business. It’s only his first year so again, the jury is still out on how this will end up for him.

      I am definitely interested to see how this all pans out for these fantastic young adults. I have a front row seat…

      My compassion is with parents whose kids don’t make the choices they think their kids should make. My compassion is also with the kids who feel they need to forge their own path. There is no “right” answer. There is only support and love.

  2. mm Russell Chun says:


    You wrote, “for better…but maybe for worse, the Protestant Work Ethic and the spirit of capitalism seems to have saturated our culture.”

    Yesterday, I too a visiting Hungarian and Ukrainian Worker into Scheels sporting goods shop. The first thing you see is a massive aquatic tank made into arches. Through the arches you see the massiveferris wheel. Yes a Ferris wheel in the entry way.

    I had to buy shoes specified by my podiatrist and I thought they might like to see Scheels. Instead I was embarrassed.

    These young men have little, they work in places that are facing war and the best I could do was show them tropical fish (sigh).

    As we work out the hurdles of working in Ukraine, I am beginning to think how “American dollars” are dominating my plans. How donors and fund raising strategy will help me expand the kingdom in a war torn country.

    Yuck, I think I am making myself sick.

    Need to rethink this…thanks for your insightfulness.


    • Kally Elliott says:

      Interesting that American dollars are dominating your fundraising plans. I get it – there was no judgement in my comment about it being interesting. You have way more expertise in this area than I but your comment made me wonder how Ukrainians can fund the work done in their country right now. Maybe the world needs to step up and help them for the time being…and when peace once again is present in their country they can help others? (I mean, in an ideal world…) Just a thought.

  3. Travis Vaughn says:

    I’ve not read the book, Together We Will Go, but the quote from the book you shared, and the sentiments that go with it are real. I’ve been talking through some of these things with the oldest of my three children recently. My son and his wife are both in healthcare (physical therapy), now in their late twenties (27/26)…but honestly they seem to have a better grasp of “work-life balance” than folks in my generation and my parents’ generation had at their age.

    I do appreciate, even though it was a bit painful, my oldest’s push-back in that conversation. Actually, it was a back and forth, quite lively text exchange. Some of what he shared is consistent with the thinking of Straczynski. But the push-back (and he did so in a loving and careful way) my son gave me was to remind his dad how work can become idolatrous and can become a driving force to the extent (in our culture) that it cuts into life expectancy. He even shared statistics with me.

    • Kally Elliott says:

      I also think some of the younger generation has a better work, life balance than some of us Gen Xers. That said, we can easily put our own expectations on to them and then make them feel less than when they don’t live up to our expectations (I say this from experience!).

      Your son sounds wise and balanced!

  4. mm Tim Clark says:

    I just ordered the novel “together we will go”. You helped unpack something for me that’s super helpful for my NPO, that focuses on Gen Z’s attitudes towards church leadership and how we can adjust local church culture to engage them. Observationally many Gen Z’ers I know lean socialist, which though I don’t hold to doesn’t bother me, but the REASONS they may be doing so are so important. For some reason I hadn’t tied that back to my NPO and now am questioning whether our churches are too stuck in the spirit of capitalism to attract those who see they have been brutalized by that same Spirit.

    Great post, as always, Kally.

    • Kally Elliott says:

      INTERESTING connection! “(I am) now am questioning whether our churches are too stuck in the spirit of capitalism to attract those who see they have been brutalized by that same Spirit.” As we try to discern how the Spirit is leading us to be the Church now and in the future, this is a great insight!

  5. mm John Fehlen says:

    I’ve always appreciated the words and wit of Thomas Merton:

    “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

    Your post gave great focus to a rising generation, and I see how so many young people (we were all young once!), have discovered that their ladders were leaning against the wrong wall. They are coming to a revelation that involves simplicity. I love that. I want to keep fanning that flame in young people.

    • Kally Elliott says:

      I don’t know if you struggle with this as a parent, but I sure do: wanting to “fan the flame” of simplicity and balance in my own children’s lives but also, being a product of the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant Work Ethic, I can’t help but to also “fan the flame” of productivity and achievement. Gah! My daughter is pushing against this right now and she is only in 6th grade! “You signed me up for too many activities! I’m tired and they are not fun anymore! I just want to skip soccer, basketball, etc…” She is correct. I *did* sign her up for too many activities. And I did so, because I want her to be “successful.” (Also, because I don’t want her to play Minecraft until her brain melts.) She’s my fourth child…and I still learning how to do this parenting thing well.

  6. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    “Hustle culture, the glorification of working long hours to achieve your professional goals and/or productivity goals is the norm.” Ugh, ya nailed it! I appreciate how you brought in motherhood into this, as we have opportunities as parents in this time, to help create some counter culture ways of thinking in this capitalist world. I think it requires a good therapist on speed dial though!

    • Kally Elliott says:

      I just replied to John’s comment about this very thing. I am still learning as a parent to not sign my child up for every activity under the sun to make sure she ends up being “successful” and “able to keep up” with her peers. I need to chill and trust my kid to know what she needs – and not teach her that her worth is in what she is able to do or accomplish. I’m learning…

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