From a Distance
This editorial began nearly 40,000 feet above the yellow-hazed landscape of Saudi Arabia on an Emirates flight from Dubai to London. It was one of the last legs on what turned out to be an around-the-world pilgrimage with my family to spend some quality time in my Australian homeland. I have always marveled at the magic carpet effect of jet travel, which enables us to board an aluminum-and-steel container and, after a meal or two and a movie or two and a few catnaps, to emerge on the other side of the world to flipped seasons and cultures as different as those Marco Polo found. That wonder is now confirmed after several trips on the still-new Airbus A380 double-decker superjumbo, which dwarfs the jumbos of the 1970s and reduces jet engines to distant white noise and even slows down any sense of speed.
It was hard to tell from the air that below us were scenes of historic turmoil. True: Dubai has been like some oven-baked version of earthly paradise, with sky-piercing structures, absurd examples of architectural excess, and crowds of beautiful people and beautiful cars. But what about the real world?
I was reminded of the words of a song Bette Midler sang a few years back. “From a distance the world looks blue and green/and the snowcapped mountains white/From a distance the ocean meets the stream/and the eagle takes to flight…. From a distance you look like my friend/even though we are at war.”
The reality down below me was/is not pretty. The Arab Emirates themselves are all but at war in a Saudi-led boycott of Qatar for its support of radical Islam (Operation Hypocrisy comes to mind). The Saudis are bombing rival Islamist forces in Yemen. The Iranians—visible across the Persian Gulf at cruising altitude, are meddling in the conflict in Syria—just to the left of our crossing of Turkey. A conflict that has killed tens of thousands, and among hundreds of thousands of refugees in general, ejected Christians wholesale. And off to our right as we continued, was the blighted land of Iraq, still fighting sectarian warfare and preoccupied with the ISIS insurgency. Not a pretty sight close up.
The entertainment system of the super jet is enough to guarantee that you forget the hours. But this was not my first flight of the trip—I’d had about 20 hours to get used to the programming. So, I ventured off into the audio offerings and happened upon a podcast discussion entitled “Is the American Dream Dead?” Not the sort of discussion usually offered in the friendly skies, but one that does resonate with much of the civilized world today.
It was a very reasonable discussion, with little pejorative inclination—it was a U.S.-sourced podcast, after all. But as I listened, something struck me. It is not at all clear anymore what the American dream is.
I think that dream once embraced big cars and conspicuous consumption: but Dubai epitomizes the internationalization of that urge. And across the globe, home-grown consumerism means that for an emerging middle to upper class the dream is palpably theirs.
I’ve done my time at the history books, and I know that a big part of the American dream was wrapped up in manifest destiny. But it’s been a long time since Lewis and Clark. The cities spread from sea to shining sea today, and in many ways the metaphor of expansion can easily be conflated with fracking. The days of gunboat trade expansion begun in Tokyo Harbor may not quite be over, but post 2008 there is not quite the same dream of eternal economic dominance.
Much of the dream has been idealized in the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, replete with the poignant words of the Emma Lazarus poem.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Those words still touch a deep well of optimism in me when I read the—as they no doubt do for many Americans. But can they truly be said to be the dream for today? As I traveled the world I noticed that various national media were abuzz with the ongoing U.S. attempts to close the war for would-be immigrants from a number of majority Islamic countries. But the policy goes beyond a fear component: a sports team from a small repressive country went missing recently on a visit to the US. After a while, it was found that two of them had made their way to Canada as a more welcoming destination. An embarrassing but true event that illustrates both perception and reality.
Part of the American dream has always been freedom and self-determination. And a big success of that dream was how it spread. President George H.W. Bush once observed that democracy seemed to be breaking out everywhere. While not always clear, that tendency is still operative. What is troubling and a clouding of the dream is that we have allowed technology and fear of terrorism to bind us with digital chains that ultimately affect our ability to live free.
But after listening to the podcast and musing on the world “such as she is,” I think that in all honesty the dream as it remains now hinges on what was always a significant marker of what it is to be American: religious freedom.
The history books might sometimes overplay the role of religion in the settlement of the American colonies. After all, England was a mercantile imperial power, and the pattern of settlement comported with her aims. But many of the individuals were fleeing repressive religious situations. Englanders fled England in large numbers both before and after the disastrous religious civil war. Protestants of many stripes throughout Europe fled to the new world to find a religious haven. I think it axiomatic that while the overall American dream embraced land and wealth and new financial obligation, for most there was the expectation of religious freedom.
Which brings me to the bottom-line thought for the editorial. How can we maintain this bottom-line marker of “the dream” in a post-Reformation-awareness era?
I am acutely aware of the Reformation as the historical bedrock for what we hold today as the right of religious liberty. Until the Reformation that right was not given or adequately imagined. In the ancient civilizations religious conformity was demanded as a marker of tribal loyalty, and if a ruler did grant freedom to be different religiously, it was a boon, not a right. The reformation brought not just a discovery of forgotten biblical truths about God, but self-determinism in all things—a radical religious and political development.
We are closing out the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It’s been wonderful to reach back and rediscover this most amazing of religious and political developments. But can a dream remain real for 500 years (contradiction intended)? After all, so much has been done to erase it. The Council of Trent is of course unrevoked no matter the kind words of late, but that is to be expected and not even to be diminished for the goodwill it may represent. But the real damage is the loss of memory. A loss of memory that could enable historical revisionism that would paint the Reformers as misguided. A historical revisionism that forgets the 30 years of European religious warfare. Memory loss at the role of the Reformation in the rise of mercantile systems, educational systems, civil rights awareness, and political structures that based their power on the people and the disestablishment of state-supported religion.
The engines of modernity hum on as we look down on the Reformation. Is it in flyover country? Or is it still the stuff dreams are made of?
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."