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Madoff, AIG and the American "Gospel of Success"

04/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about the American gospel of success, which encourages "middle-class people to strive, risk and make money." The economic downturn has caused a brief lull in the relentless American success drive, writes Brooks, "But if there is one thing we can be sure of, this pause will not last. The cultural DNA of the past 400 years will not be erased. The pendulum will swing hard. The gospel of success will recapture the imagination."

Maybe. But it is also worth considering that the American people may have learned a sobering, valuable lesson: that the overpowering drive for money and success that has been a driving force in American culture (at least for the past 200 years since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution) may have been sorely tempered by the excesses of the past three decades. Unrestrained striving for money and success may have made sense in a world of unlimited resources and opportunities, but on an increasingly crowded, polluted and interdependent planet, the human race may not be able to indulge the "cultural DNA" of a society that has Darwinian opportunism as a credo.

Does this mean we have to throw in the towel? Admit that the future looks bleak with no hope for improvement? Hardly. Throughout our history, Americans have been both proud of and admired for an even more important cultural trait -- our unbridled optimism. What brought the Puritans to America was not the drive for money or success, but a hope for a better life for themselves and their children. Wave after wave of immigrants that have come to America are not lured by the "gospel of success" but the opportunity for greater freedom, equality and hope. Certainly, material comforts are an important part of a happy life, but most Americans also count community, family and security as equally key components of the American dream.

Somewhere along the line, our optimism and enthusiasm became confused with ambition and even greed. Our dreams for a better life were translated into "Dream and grow rich." In his column, Brooks quotes the late nineteenth century Baptist minister Russell Cowell, who traveled the country preaching the gospel of wealth: "I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich ... Money is power, and you ought to be reasonably ambitious to have it. You ought, because you can do more good with it than you could without it." Can we really say, after the Madoff scandal, the AIG bonuses and all the excesses of the past decades that we can do more good with wealth than without it? Experience suggests that the opposite is the case -- that men do more evil with wealth than good.

Even before the financial meltdown, Americans had begun to turn away from the blind "gospel of success." Barack Obama's message of hope was tempered by a heavy dose of reality. "Yes, we can" did not mean "Yes, we can become rich and powerful" or "Yes, we can dictate our values and way of life to the rest of humanity." Obama's message was that we can restore the core American values of common sense, community, pride and, yes, a sense of energetic optimism. In the fields of health care, education, environmental protection and other critical issues, Obama was not saying that we want to be "the greatest on earth," but rather that we ought to have health care and educational systems that reinforce our core values of equality and opportunity. In foreign affairs, he has adopted the view of partnering with the rest of the world, rather than striving to impose our values or our superior power on other nations.

While conservatives may argue that greed and self-interest will ultimately be restored and that the social Darwinism of the free market will triumph, most Americans are more optimistic. Call us cockeyed optimists, but those of us who embraced the message of hope over the past year believe in a more temperate future for America. We believe in a free market, but also in a level playing field. We believe in capitalism, but with a referee. And we believe that the core American values of equality, opportunity and fairness will always trump greed, ambition and self-interest.