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Is Donald Trump the cause, or just a symptom of the broken American dream? Was that dream worth pursuing in the first place?
For the past six weeks, I have had the privilege of exploring the West Coast of North America with some of my family. Starting in San Francisco, we visited the awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley and then headed north up the 101 coast road until we reached our final stop in Vancouver, Canada. Along the way, we stopped in the Napa Valley, strolled through the mighty redwoods in the "Valley of the Giants" and took in some 4th of July celebrations. Without exception, the generosity of our hosts and the people we have met has been a blessing to us.
When all the stories we get out of the US are filtered through a political lens and dominated by the latest tweet from Donald Trump, it is easy to become a little cynical about America and what she stands for. Let me say it: the US is a beautiful country. The sights we have seen during the past six weeks would rival anything
New Zealand has to offer. The hospitality we have received would rival what we in the south of New Zealand are renowned for.
But something is going on in North America that is not quite right.
The three families we stayed with while away had worked in the agriculture, automobile and computer industries respectively; three industries which have shaped America during the past 100 years. All three families have been shaped by the Christian narrative that God is concerned with the wellbeing of the public and private lives of all people. Two out of three of these families will be in church every Sunday to thank God for His concern. But this narrative is being forgotten by many.
An economy which is based on Judeo-Christian capitalism, has flourished for 200 years in ways that has transformed the world. Entrepreneurial innovation walked hand in hand with Christian virtues of hospitality and generosity that ensured remarkable development and progress. Sadly, there were blind spots in the American dream that mean some people and races are casualties. Today, as the Christian narrative gets forgotten and the restraint and influence of Christian virtue is diminished, the cracks are being exposed. America is a beautiful country but it is a broken country.
Consider a few statistics: In 2015, 33,000 people died in the US from prescription opioids (drugs for pain relief). That means that 91 people every day are dying in the US from an overdose of painkillers. Something sinister lies behind the $11billion pharmaceutical industry that is causing so much death. What causes 33,000 people to be in such pain? The second shocking statistic that betrays the brokenness of US culture is homelessness. According to a recent report on one average night in 2015, 564,708 people were homeless in the US.
More than half a million people are on the streets or in temporary shelters. One quarter of these were children. The reasons why people opt out of living in a house (home) and take to the streets are complicated and varied. I could reflect on other "industries" like the American prison system and the American war machine that all say the same thing in my mind: "something is broken". The American dream is broken because they have forgotten who gave them the capacity to dream in the first place.
New Zealand is not immune from this brokenness.
In an election year, it is worth thinking through the consequences of where respective political party policies will take us. North American culture appears to be further along a road I’m not sure I want to travel. To believe however, that politicians will get us out of the mess Western culture is becoming, is to overestimate their influence. Politicians merely reflect the state of a nation.
I thank God for the political leaders we have in this land, both local and national, but I am more concerned about their character than their policies. I thank God for the natural beauty and resources we have been blessed with, but having just returned from one of the most richly-resourced nations in the world, and seeing America stumble, it concerns me that the West is forgetting what it means to be human and to live well.
Western culture cannot be understood apart from the Judeo-Christian narrative that we have inherited. Nowhere is that more true than in Aotearoa New Zealand. If you want to learn more about that story, then perhaps this Sunday morning you might set the alarm and worship God?
- Stu Crosson is Vicar of St Matthews, Dunedin.