Assessing the ‘American Alpha-Achievement Culture’

How We Define ‘Greatness’

(photo: Register Files)

With a presidential candidate who promises that we’re going to “win so much we’re going to get tired of winning,” we should stop to ask what is so great about winning. Are we such losers in America, are we so far behind, that we need a president who is going to make “America great again”? 

Even if that were desirable, just what is our definition of being great? Any country or culture that cannot be self-critical is in danger. In this presidential-election year, we should stop and ask ourselves what we really believe will make us, our families, our communities and our country great.

The idea that winning is everything is the bedrock of what I call the “American Alpha-Achievement Culture.” This is the unquestioned assumption that success is the main purpose of life and that success is measured by winning. The idea that life is all about winning is woven through American culture at every level.

America’s passion for sports is about winning. America’s advanced technology is about winning. America’s economic muscle is about winning. America’s vast military supremacy is about winning. America’s educational system is geared toward winning. And even our social systems are often about winning and coming out on top.

Is winning really what life is all about? Let’s start with being positive. Accomplishment is a good thing. Reaching one’s potential is fantastic. Reaching for the stars and achieving excellence in sport, the arts, business, personal growth or family life is to be applauded. Our destiny is to grow up into the full humanity of Christ — to reach our full human potential and to become all that God created us to be. After all, Christ promises us life that is more abundant than we can ask or think.

What worries me about the American Alpha-Achievement Culture is that success stops being about personal excellence and reaching one’s full human potential and starts being about the American idol — the almighty dollar. For too many Americans, achievement means no more than financial success.

In a shallow culture where personal virtue is forgotten, achievement is no longer about being well educated, cultured and personally accomplished. Instead, success is indicated by being rich and famous, and along with the outward “accomplishment” of being rich goes the display of those riches.

American Alpha-Achievement Culture glorifies those who flaunt their riches. It demands that the successful show their success. The rich man must have the “trophy wife.” The trophy wife must have the cosmetic surgery to enhance her body. They must have the perfect family, the perfect home (or two or three homes) and the perfectly successful life in every worldly sense.

In the absence of personal virtue, the quest for success becomes values-free. If the only thing that matters is success, and success is measured by how rich you are, then the way you get those riches doesn’t matter.

If you are a woman who has sold your body for lewd photographs and married a rich old man for his money, then you have “succeeded” in America, according to many in modern culture.

If you have no talent except for self-promotion and have become a celebrity simply for being a celebrity, then the American Alpha-Achievement Culture hails you as a hero.

If you are a businessman who brags about buying politicians, has shady ties to the mob and does backroom deals to get richer, the American Alpha-Achievement Culture does not vilify you. It glorifies you.

When we stop to think and pray, we as a culture will soon realize that the American Alpha-Achievement Culture is not what makes America great, and those who swallow the sweet lie that this is what makes America great will soon find that the sweet candy is poisoned.

Because a culture that glorifies winners not because they have any true achievement, and not because they have won by any talent, hard work or skill, but because they have beaten the other guy, is all the poorer.

In glorifying winners, therefore, the American Alpha-Achievement Culture is glorifying bullies. It is glorifying the big rich guy who has enough muscles to pull off “good deals” by trampling the other guy and getting even richer, not by being excellent, but by beating the loser.

What is most disturbing is how avidly many Christians in America have bought into the American Alpha-Achievement Culture uncritically. Too many Americans who profess to follow Jesus Christ have swallowed the lie that the American Alpha-Achievement Culture is what will make America great again.

Have we forgotten the Gospel principles voiced in Mary’s Magnificat: “He has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek”?

Have we forgotten the Sermon on the Mount, which elevates the poor of spirit, calls “blessed” the meek, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Have we forgotten that we are called to follow Jesus Christ — the One who was trampled by the “successful ones” and crucified by “the winners”?

Someone has said, “The Gospel is only good news when it is subversive.” In this election year, Catholics need to remember the Gospel principles and remember what really makes people great.

The Blessed Virgin sings, “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” As individuals, as families, as parish communities and as a nation, we are great when we serve God and serve others.

We are great when we turn from violence and seek peace. We are great when we lift up the lowly, house the homeless, defend the unborn and nurture and protect children.

In other words, we are great when we are small; and when we join hands and hearts with the “losers,” we are the ultimate winners.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of

the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.