Are we ready to leave God out of Thanksgiving? Let’s hope not.
Every Thanksgiving, it is good to reflect on the things for which we are grateful. These include family, a roof over our heads, and friends and colleagues who stand by us in times of hardship as well as ease.
But it is also good to reflect on the following: to whom, exactly, are we grateful?
The Puritans who celebrated the first Thanksgiving had no doubt. All good things, including tribulations whose purpose we cannot discern at the moment, come from God.
Once again, we find ourselves in debates over whether crèches should be seen in public. Recently, it wasn’t clear to some whether “so help me God” in the presidential oath of office was appropriate. The issue of “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance continues to inspire rancor.
Thomas Jefferson and the great-souled generation who declared independence from Britain had no doubt where our rights came from, and it certainly wasn’t government: men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Many of the chapters in our history of which we are the most proud are unthinkable without appeal to the higher power. The abolitionist fervor in the 1850’s which led, ultimately, to the end of human bondage was deeply evangelical in nature. The strategy of containment which led, ultimately, to the fall of the Soviet empire was supported by the theology of Reinhold Niehbur and others — thinkers who recognized our moral limitations here on earth. The Civil Rights movement of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s drew heavily on religious symbolism. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the Promised Land, even though he knew he would not get there.
The problem lies with a faulty interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Secularists believe it sets up a wall between church and state. Any mention of God in the public square, according to them, is oppressive and exclusive.
The Establishment Clause does no such thing. The point was to prevent the federal government from establishing a taxpayer-supported national church — hence the name. There was not to be a national Episcopalian, or Presbyterian church — no official, state sanctioned way to pray. Not among those whose forefathers had chafed at England’s high church establishment.
The Establishment Clause also says nothing about expressing religious preferences in public. Or voting based on them. There was to be no Habermasian policing of the public sphere or anything remotely approaching it.
Did Lincoln (routinely) violate the First Amendment? With Steven Spielberg's Lincoln out and Thanksgiving tomorrow, we might do well to consider whether the aggressive secularist is right in saying he did. In words of solace that sought to make comprehensible what in 1864 was not — the slaughter of 600,000 young Americans — Lincoln framed the issue of the day in a spirit that both conservatives slipping into defeatism and liberals bordering on superciliousness should heed: “Yet if God wills that it [this mighty scourge of war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Lincoln wasn't afraid of speaking about God in public life. This Thanksgiving, and any other holidays when it is appropriate to give thanks, neither should we.