Tony Tian-Ren Lin: Make America Dream Again

"Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream" by Tony Tian-Ren Lin

Today we welcome a guest post from Tony Tian-Ren Lin, author of Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream, out now from UNC Press.

In this immersive ethnography, Tony Tian-Ren Lin explores the reasons that Latin American immigrants across the United States are increasingly drawn to Prosperity Gospel Pentecostalism, a strand of Protestantism gaining popularity around the world. Lin contends that Latinos embrace Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that believers may achieve both divine salvation and worldly success, because it helps them account for the contradictions of their lives as immigrants. Weaving together his informants’ firsthand accounts of their religious experiences and everyday lives, Lin offers poignant insight into how they see their faith transforming them both as individuals and as communities.

Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream is now available in paperback and ebook editions.

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The American Dream is an enduring and inspiring claim about what defines our country. While the term was popularized in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, its principles were present before the founding of the nation. By 1782, the French American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote:

“What then is the American, this new man? . . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

The American Dream promises that anyone, regardless of their social position, can be as successful as they want. It is the myth of endless frontiers and infinite opportunities for all. It fuels the tale that upward mobility is possible for all who work hard, sacrifice, take risks, and follow the rules.

Yet despite its ardent devotees, the dream has not materialized for most. America is unrivaled in the inequality of its citizens.  Recently, the United States was ranked 27th in social mobility by the World Economic Forum. An American’s station in life is predetermined by the race and class they are born into. Social scientists have shown that the complexion of a person’s skin is a more powerful determinant of job acquisition than skills or education. Upward mobility may require hard work and sacrifice, but they are not sufficient for the majority of Americans.

The persistence of the American Dream in spite of evidence to the contrary is the paradox of America. This nation was founded on an ideal far from its reality. It promised a dream, but for many it delivered a nightmare. Millions were enslaved throughout the land when freedom for all was inscribed in its founding documents. Opportunity and a promise of equality and justice coaxed migrants from across the globe even as a racial caste system was inscribed into the culture of this nation. Personal responsibility and meritocracy were touted as the reason for individual achievements while genocidal westward expansion and government subsidies gave white Americans the right to claim what their hard work could not. The American Dream was hoarded through the power of a state in favor of some and against others, leaving a legacy of inequality.

As an immigrant and a researcher of immigrants, I know the American Dream thrives with us. Immigrants continue to come to this nation for the same core reason they have always come: In search of a better future. They come believing that everyone has a chance for success. That all those who work hard and follow the rules can go as far as their ambitions will take them. Yet these immigrants are not naive. They are well aware of the barriers hindering upward mobility. But when confronted with the prohibitive paths to the American Dream they do not give up. They put their faith in God. I spent years studying Latin American immigrants who converted to Prosperity Gospel. This form of Christianity teaches its adherents that if they work hard and have faith, God will bless them. Prosperity Gospel fuels the hope that they can succeed in the face of insurmountable obstacles. It teaches survival and coping mechanisms that lead to assimilation. Prosperity Gospel is an individualistic, meritocratic, and capitalist religion. It is the Gospel of the American Dream embodying the core characteristics of modern America.

The persistence of the American Dream in spite of evidence to the contrary is the paradox of America.

These immigrants know that hard work alone is not enough. They do not believe in meritocracy. They believe in miraculous meritocracy. They work hard, live moral lives, and stay relentlessly optimistic not because they will earn their reward but because they believe God will perform a miracle that will grant them their wishes. This faith in miraculous success drives them to start new businesses, buy homes, settle down with their families, and invest in the good of their communities even if deportation is a door knock away. They put their faith in miracles in part because we, as a nation, have not rewarded their hard work and integrity. We have failed to sustain the American Dream, not just for immigrants but for all Americans.

Today the dream is imperiled. Millennials will be the first generation to lapse their parents in life expectancy, economic achievements, and educational attainment. And they know it. The democratic process that empowered citizens to participate in their system of government is on the brink of collapse. The wealth of the few today is unattainable for most. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial harmony seems further out of reach under our moment of racial reckoning. The United States is now a nation where downward mobility is more likely than the other way. We live in an era where more people experience the American nightmare than the Dream.

America is in a dream crisis. As we approach this presidential election both candidates have offered regressive visions that promise to take America back to an era to which most Americans do not wish to return. One candidate dreams of making America great for white nationalists. He promises to take America back to its cruel history of oppression and exclusion. A place where citizens of colors lived under the terror of violence. The other candidate is promising to restore the soul of America. He is seeking to restore a soul that aspired for greater good while it allowed and normalized the very inhumanity his opponent wants to re-establish. Neither of these dreams point to a better future. Neither will capture the imagination of the nation. As the pandemic and our moment of racial reckoning tears down the scaffolding for the facade of America, we must seize this moment to chart a better course. We can learn from the newest Americans, these immigrants whose own dreams motivate them to strive for a better life. We must dream a better dream. A more realistic and inclusive American Dream that aspires to the true ideals of its founding. One where the core institutions of this nation serves all people. America needs to dream again.

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Photo by Melissa Alcena

Tony Tian-Ren Lin is Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Research at New York Theological Seminary.