Skip to comments.Thanksgiving and Our Civic Religion
Posted on 11/23/2005 7:13:34 AM PST by Valin
This past Sunday, the elderly gentleman who presides over our Sunday School class handed out copies of Abraham Lincolns 1863 Thanksgiving Day proclamation. After doing so, he pointed out the fact that if the ACLU had been around in 1863, it would likely have raised a stink about the proclamation.
Thus is the state of modern America. Even in the mind of someone born roughly eight decades ago in the Deep South, our culture war has come to overshadow what people around here once called the War of Northern Aggression.
In one sense, our Sunday School leader is right. Thanksgiving seems to be the most problematical of civic holidays for a nation with an allegedly high and impermeable wall of separation between church and state. Our purely national holidays, like Memorial Day and Independence Day, commemorate past events and national heroes. Our purely religious holidaysChristmas and Easter, for examplehave been Americanized, but clearly dont refer to simply American things and are not celebrated only by Americans. As a result, they sit uneasily in some quarters of our national consciousness. In our schools, for example, Christmas and Easter become the winter and spring holidays. In our commercial lives, they become associated with secular or secularized symbols like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And the department store clerks and beer commercials usually wish us a happy holiday, not a merry Christmas.
Thanksgiving, however, is different. Its a national holiday in which were called upon to give thanks to God for the blessings we have received over the past year. Presidents have called upon us 152 times to be thankful to Almighty God (George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and many, many others), the Bestower of Every Good Gift (John Adams), the Beneficent Parent of the Human Race (James Madison), the Great Disposer of Events of the Destiny of Nations (Madison), the Almighty Father (Lincoln), the Divine Majesty (Lincoln), our Heavenly Father (Lincoln), the Almighty Ruler of Nations (Andrew Johnson), the almighty Creator and Ruler of the Universe (Johnson), the bountiful Father of All Mercies (U.S. Grant), the Great Ruler of Times and Seasons (Rutherford Hayes), the Giver of All Good (Chester A. Arthur), the Giver of Every Good and Perfect Gift (Grover Cleveland), God, the beneficent and the all-wise (Benjamin Harrison), the Dispenser of All good (William McKinley), the Lord of Hosts (McKinley), the Giver of Good (Theodore Roosevelt), the All-giver (William H. Taft), God the Author of all blessings and the Master of our destinies (Woodrow Wilson), gracious Providence (Calvin Coolidge), the Heavenly Source of our earthly blessings (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), the Father of us all (FDR), Almighty Providence (Harry Truman), the Divine Giver of our bounty (Truman), God Almighty (Richard Nixon), the Lord and Ruler of Nations (Ronald Reagan), the Author of Liberty (Reagan), the loving Source of all Life and Liberty (George H.W. Bush),the Almighty (George H.W. Bush), Divine Providence (Bill Clinton), and, finally, One greater than ourselves (George W. Bush).
Another indicator of the dual nature of Thanksgiving is the manner in which the proclamations cite the date, almost always self-consciously referring both to the year of our Lord and the year of the Independence of the United States of America. Unlike the French revolutionaries after 1789, we acknowledge that our history is embedded in a larger and longer history.
While almost none of the proclamations have been explicitly Trinitarian (John Adams and Abraham Lincoln are the only obvious exceptions), they have all been theistic, indeed monotheistic. Many have acknowledged our religious diversity by calling upon us to pray in our homes or respective places of worship and in our own way, but many, also, have quoted Scripture. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt proposed that we all, on the same day, in the same hour, offer the following prayer:
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust to fail in Thee; Amen.
In 1944, Roosevelt suggested a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Day:
Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the Scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.
But, for the most part, our common national prayer is to be accomplished by each of us in our own way, in our own words, and at the place of our own choosing. In our unity, we acknowledge our diversity within measure, of course, since the official point of the holiday is prayer to God.
Given its explicit purpose, Thanksgiving is quite hard to secularize. We could call it the Fall Festival, or the Harvest Festival, I suppose. Or we could dwell on family fellowship, as opposed to worship and prayer, making it something like Homecoming, with football on TV, rather than in the stadium, and turkey at the table, rather than a tailgate party. We could, in other words, ignore the explicit official proclamations of Thanksgiving (to whom? for what?) and focus on turkeys, football, shopping, and dragging out the Christmas decorations to see which strings of lights still work.
But from the ACLU point of view, that still leaves us a problem. When Presidents issue proclamations calling upon us to give thanks to God, whatever appellation they use, they seem to be, in the words of Justice Sandra Day OConnor, endorsing religion. And in many instances such an endorsement, according to Justice OConnor and enough of her brethren generally to constitute a majority, runs afoul of the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion.
One way to finesse this difficulty, increasingly taken since the Kennedy Administration, is to stress the civic and historical dimension of the holiday. Thus, in 1961, President Kennedy called upon the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England thanksgiving, thus to impress upon future generations the heritage of this nation born in toil, in danger, in purpose, and in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through mans efforts persevere and come to fruition with the blessing of God.
Similarly, in 1965 Lyndon B. Johnson asserted that:
Our real blessings lie not in our bounty. They lie in those steadfast principles that the early pilgrims forged for all generations to come: the belief in the essential dignity of man; the restless search for a better world for all; and the courage to defend the cause of freedom wherever on earth it is threatened. These are the eternal blessings of America. They are the blessings which make us grateful even when the future is uncertain. They are the blessings which give us the strength to complete the unfinished tasks that remain before us.
While LBJ asserted that we should be thankful to God for these blessings, they seem above all to be human attributes and human accomplishments that we should live up to.
President Jimmy Carter took up this theme in his 1980 proclamation:
The greatest bounty of our nation is the bounty of our heritageour diversity as immigrants and descendants of immigrants, our common identity as Americans. We have set aside one day a year to give thanks for all that we have. Yet Thanksgiving is more than just a day of celebration. It is also a commemorationof the day Americas earliest inhabitants sat down to table with European colonists.
That occasion was historic not only because it established a national holiday, but because it marked the start of a national tradition of cooperation, unity, and tolerance .
As we pause on Thanksgiving to offer thanks to God, we should not forget that we also owe thanks to this countrys forefathers who had the vision to join together in Thanksgiving, and who gave us so much of the vision of brotherhood that is ours today.
Our heritage of community comes not from the Bible, not from the call to universal neighbor love or the denial of difference in God, but from the practices of our ancestors. That is what we commemorate and celebrate in Thanksgivinga national heritage, not a common dependence upon a Creator.
The apotheosis (if I may use such a word in this connection) of this approach can be found in Richard Nixons 1971 proclamation (emphasis added):
One of the splendid events which shape mans destiny occurred when a small band of people, believing in the essential sanctity of their own being, went in search of a land in which their individuality might be the highest national value, before any arbitrary limitation of duty placed upon some men by the whim or design of others.
They went in search of a land where they might live out their own commitment to their own ideal of human freedom. In the purpose of their search, the human spirit found its ultimate definition, and in the product of their search, its ultimate expression.
With this essentially humanistic expression of the historical task of the pilgrims, any reference to God seems almost a meaningless or ceremonial afterthought, sanctioned perhaps by tradition, but carrying no theological or religious weight or freight. We have entered the world of ceremonial deism, of the merely ritual invocation of a civic deity. Only the most hypersensitive of ACLU lawyers, or perhaps Michael Newdow, would object. And few, if any, Supreme Court Justices would listen.
It is fitting, I suppose, that the restoration of the original dual meaning of Thanksgiving was undertaken by Ronald Reagan, whose 1983 proclamation hearkened back to Abraham Lincoln:
As was written in the first [sic] Thanksgiving Proclamation 120 years ago, no human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God. God has blessed America and her people, and it is appropriate that we recognize this bounty.
In 1986, Reagan made the point more clearly still:
Rooted deeply in our Judeo-Christian heritage, the practice of offering thanksgiving underscores our unshakeable belief in God as the foundation of our nation and our firm reliance upon Him from Whom all blessings flow.
President Reagans successors have, for the most part, followed his lead, frankly offering thanks to God for our blessings. At the same time, they have stressed our responsibility to share our blessings with those less fortunate and acknowledged the manifest religious liberty and diversity our country enjoys. They participate in the great tradition of humbly celebrating our dependence upon and gratitude for Gods gracious gifts, but not in such a way as to exclude others. This is not mere ceremonial deism, an afterthought in an essentially humanistic celebration. George W. Bushs 2004 proclamation is characteristic:
We are grateful for our freedom, grateful for our families and friends, and grateful for the many gifts of America. On Thanksgiving Day, we acknowledge that all of these things, and life itself, come from the Almighty God.
There is, in my view, no evading this truth. If we are called to be thankful only for things our ancestors have done, if were called only to emulation of past human accomplishments, then we are incited ultimately to pride and overweening. The balance struck by most Presidents in their proclamations, looking outward at the nation while also looking upward to God, reminds us of our limitations and our responsibilities, and of the resources beyond ourselves upon which we can call to overcome the one and fulfill the other. This is a civic religion, but not one that glorifies the country or the state. It conjoins liberty and limited government, on the one hand, with responsibility and limitless love, on the other. It acknowledges and indeed cherishes our religious diversity, seeking to include all rather than to exclude any. Only an exceedingly crabbed view of the First Amendment would prohibit this. Only a spirit at the same time proud to the point of vanity and fearful to the point of timorousness would be threatened by this.
Let us all be thankful for the opportunity to give humble thanks. And let us also be thankful that Michael Newdow hasnt gotten around to filing a lawsuit about this.
Joseph Knippenberg is a professor of politics and associate provost for student achievement at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a weekly columnist for The American Enterprise Online and a contributing blogger at No Left Turns.
Moo! To you & yours, neighbor... and happy Thanksgiving.
Actually, I thought it was Chirac picking his way through the streets of Paris after the 'unrest by Beur yoots' ... and the turkeys are saying 'wasn't moo-slims, wasn't moo-slims...
The constitution protects the freedom of the American people to worship God Almighty. It does not require us to be neutral about religion nor to have any secular purpose when endorsing free religious expression.
We should thank God for giving us our lives and our rights and our freedom, just as our Founders did.
If for no better reason than to watch my socialist Brother-in-Law's head explode, LOL!
Everyone should have a hobby. :-)
and a happy, healthy TURKEY DAY to all my fellow FReepers!
Thanks Fred. :')
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Whats on the menu for future space feasts?
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