I love Thanksgiving, not just for the most commonly cited reasons, but for “professional” reasons: it is one of our more interesting and theoretically rich public holidays. As an occasion that is at once both religious and civic, it breaches, or at least straddles, the supposed wall of separation between church and state. Thus in their Thanksgiving proclamations, our presidents often call upon us to give thanks, not to our friends and family, nor to our fellow citizens, but to a higher power, one they address by various appellations, but who is usually recognizable as the God of the Abrahamic tradition. And in a commonplace formula, the date of the proclamation is noted as taking place, as President Obama styled it earlier this week, “in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.” In this nation “under God,” our time is measured against two points of reference, one worldly and one transcendent. Not for us the relentless secularism of the French revolutionary calendar or the politically correct styling of the “Common Era.”
Over the years, I have become something of a connoisseur of these Presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving, offered occasionally for our first century, but regularly since the Lincoln Administration. The proclamations range from theologically sophisticated meditations (such as one offered in 1887 by Grover Cleveland, the son of a Presbyterian minister) to spectacularly banal exercises, such as Richard Nixon’s 1971 celebration of “a small band of people, believing in the essential sanctity of their own being, [who] went in search of a land in which their individuality might be the highest national value, before any arbitrary limitation or duty placed upon some men by the whim or design of others.” You’d think he was writing about New Agers at Big Sur, not the passengers on the Mayflower. (In many cases, the banality stems from an effort to avoid the obvious being to whom we’re giving thanks, turning the event into a mere historical ritual commemorating a past event and thanking ancestors and contemporaries for our present circumstances, which we can’t rightly call blessings.)
I could go on and on with my bouquets and brickbats, but I want to focus this year on giving thanks in hard times, when there may not seem to be much for which to be thankful.
In 1930, Herbert Hoover took one approach, managing to remind his fellow citizens that “[n]otwithstanding that our forefathers endured the hardships and privations of a primitive life, surrounded by dangers and solaced only with meager comforts, they nevertheless bequeathed to us a custom of devoting one day of every year to universal thanksgiving to Almighty God, for the blessing of life itself and the means to sustain it, for the sanctuary of home and the joys that pervade it, and for the mercies of His protection from accident, sickness, or death.” Whatever may be our circumstances, he seemed to suggest, the Pilgrims had it worse, and yet they were thankful. He also called upon Americans “to remember that many of our people are in need and suffering from causes beyond their control, and suggesting that a proper celebration of the day should include that we make sure that every person in the community, young and old, shall have cause to give thanks for our institutions and for the neighborly sentiment of our people.” If we share our bounty, however meager, everyone will have reason to be thankful.
In his first proclamation as President, FDR didn’t quite tell us that happy days were here again, but did call upon us to be “grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil…[and] for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common better of mankind.” A year later, he noted that “we have been given courage and fortitude to meet the problems which have confronted us in our national life,” a gift that he implies comes from the being he is unafraid to call “Almighty God,” from Whom, he said (in 1937), “comes every good and perfect gift.” In 1935, he closed by urging us to “offer our devotions and our humble thanks to Almighty God and pray that the people of America will be guided by Him in helping their fellow men.”
We are, in other words, not alone in confronting our greatest challenges, but can turn in prayer to God for assistance in meeting them. Indeed, in 1940 FDR actually urged his fellow citizens to offer the following prayer “on the same day, in the same hour”:
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 honourable 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 in Thee to fail; Amen.
George W. Bush’s last Thanksgiving proclamation, in 2008, fell squarely in this tradition, opening in the following way:
Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to gather together and express gratitude for all that we have been given, the freedoms we enjoy, and the loved ones who enrich our lives. We recognize that all of these blessings, and life itself, come not from the hand of man but from Almighty God.
But his only reference to our tough times was an oblique one:
Americans are also mindful of the need to share our gifts with others, and our Nation is moved to compassionate action. We pay tribute to all caring citizens who reach out a helping hand and serve a cause larger than themselves.
Since there are always people in need—even in good times—and always those who serve them, our former President could be taxed with failing explicitly to note our predicament and the gifts that we might especially need to weather our economic storms.
This brings me to our current President’s first proclamation, which follows his immediate predecessor in failing squarely to confront our hard times. Once again, there is an oblique reference: “As we gather once again among loved ones, let us also reach out to our neighbors and fellow citizens in need of a helping hand.” The proclamation contains the almost obligatory references to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and the only mention of God (aside from the already noted recognition of the date) comes in a quotation from Washington.
For President Obama and his proclamation writer, Thanksgiving seems first and foremost to be a commemoration of that first “harvest celebration between European settlers and indigenous communities.” It is a tradition whose “history traces the American narrative,” a “unique national tradition we all share. Its spirit binds us together as one people, each of us thankful for our common blessings.” Recognizing “the contributions of Native Americans, who helped the early settlers survive their first harsh winter and continue to strengthen our Nation,” President Obama follows a trail blazed by Jimmy Carter, whose 1980 proclamation opened in the following way:
The greatest bounty of our Nation is the bounty of our heritage—our 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 commemoration—of the day America’s 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.
Here we have almost an alternative reading of the meaning of Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition that binds us together while still acknowledging our diversity. In this narrative, giving thanks to God may have a traditional place, but that’s situated in the past. What matters is how we’ve used that story to come together as a people. Thanksgiving is then like what Christmas has become (for some): a cultural event that has grown beyond its religious roots, with meaning built (through accretion) by the practices of generations. A visit to the mall Santa, presents under the tree, and the holiday blockbuster movie (in which it inevitably snows) take their places alongside the live nativity scene, the Christmas Eve service, and the midnight Mass as markers of the season.
One might argue that in a religiously diverse country, the religious significance of Thanksgiving has to be subordinated to its unifying civic function. We can all share the story (and add our chapters to it), even if we can’t share the faith of those who began it.
But I can’t help but reflect on what might be lost in this redefinition of the holiday. We lose the recognition of our own finitude, replacing it with a (false?) confidence that we can through our common effort prevail on our own. We lose humility, in other words, and are encouraged, instead, to share in a collective pride. We lose sight of the spiritual resources that might lead us to persist against the odds, to bear suffering with fortitude, and to share our mite with our needy brethren. It’s perhaps no accident that we less willing to talk about suffering on Thanksgiving and more willing just to exhort one another to share. But moralism without a divine source is even preachier than its religious counterpart. Jimmy Carter again comes to mind: in 1978, he called upon “Governors, Mayors, and all other state and local officials to broaden [!!] the observance of Thanksgiving to include the practice of Thankful Giving in their celebration, inviting Americans to share with those abroad who suffer from hunger.” The short shelf life of that exhortation—bet you’d forgotten it until now!—bodes ill for its successors. We give out of gratitude, and when Thanksgiving becomes a commemoration, rather than a giving of thanks, there will likely be less giving of any sort that ensues.
For my taste, I’d rather that in the future President Obama looked more to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and less to Jimmy Carter as he composes his Thanksgiving proclamations. Let’s recover rather than transform the meaning of the holiday.
Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.