The Political Theology of Thanksgiving

Joseph M. Knippenberg

November 1, 2005

Each year since 1863, the President has issued a Thanksgiving proclamation. A habit soon hallowed by tradition, it hearkened back to even older roots, to the earliest colonial celebrations, in Plymouth, Virginia, and St. Augustine, and even, according to Ronald Reagan in 1984, to the native Americans, whose “Thanksgiving antedated those of the new Americans.”

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday, at once civic or national and religious. It commemorates and celebrates human accomplishments, like our purely civic holidays, but insists that they are all in some way dependent upon God’s will. Thus many of the 19th century proclamations expressed gratitude for “exuberant harvests, productive mines, [and] ample crops of the staples of trade and manufactures,” in the words of Rutherford B. Hayes. Others made grateful reference to our “civil and religious liberty” (U.S. Grant) and to “liberty, justice, and constitutional government” (Chester A. Arthur). Still others thanked God for “the blessings of peace” (Benjamin Harrison). While it’s hard to overlook the contribution of human effort to all these accomplishments, it’s also hard to ignore the way in which at least some of them seem dependent upon God or fortune.

The origin of Thanksgiving in the celebration of a successful harvest goes a long way toward accounting for this complication. Farmers recognize the limits of their own craft, their dependence upon forces beyond their control. When they can actually reap what they sow, they know that something other than their own efforts has played a part, providing rain and sunshine in the right amounts at the right time. Yes, human beings must do their share, but they cannot hope to succeed solely by their own efforts.

Looking to God for what might otherwise be regarded as the gifts of fortune, we might come to share in the theologically discriminating judgments expressed in Grover Cleveland’s 1887 Thanksgiving proclamation (emphasis mine):

The goodness and mercy of God, which have followed the American people during all the days of the past year, claim their grateful recognition and humble acknowledgment. By His omnipotent power He protected us from war and pestilence and from every national calamity; by His gracious favor the earth has yielded a generous return to the labor of the husbandman, and every path of toil has led to comfort and contentment; by His loving kindness the hearts of our people have been replenished with fraternal sentiment and patriotic endeavor; and by His unerring guidance we have been directed in the way of national prosperity.

We should be grateful, Cleveland says, for protection from what we are wont to call “acts of God,” for the generous recompense for our efforts, for the love we share with our neighbors and fellow citizens, and for our leadership.

Some of these sentiments might seem to jar the modern ear. How does God show us the path to peace and prosperity? That’s what statesmen are for, we might say. In any event, we surely hold—are surely holding—Presidents responsible for our domestic economy and our international troubles.

Part of the explanation can be found in George Washington’s second Thanksgiving proclamation (1795), much less frequently cited than his first. Calling upon us “to meet together and render… sincere and hearty thanks to the Great Ruler of Nations for the manifold and signal mercies which distinguish our lot as a nation,” he urges us as well to:

Humbly and fervently… beseech the kind Author of these blessings graciously to prolong them to us; to imprint in our hearts a deep and solemn sense of our obligations to Him for them; to preserve us from the arrogance of prosperity, and from hazarding the advantages we enjoy by delusive pursuits; to dispose us to merit the continuance of His favors by not abusing them; by our gratitude for them, and by a correspondent conduct as citizens and men; to render this country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries; to extend among us true and useful knowledge; to diffuse and establish habits of sobriety, order, morality, and piety, and, finally, to impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.

Yes, we have intelligence and ingenuity, but unless we recognize them as gifts of God, we are prone to abuse and misuse them, exalting ourselves in our arrogance and deluding ourselves regarding our potency. By reminding us of our limitations, giving thanks to God humbles us. We ought not to be confident that we know it all, that we have all the answers. And we ought not to regard our capacities as ours alone, to be used as we please. We are accountable for them, not just to our fellow citizens, or to the voters, but to God.

John Adams calls attention to this last point when, in his 1799 Thanksgiving proclamation, he cites Proverbs 14:34 (KJV): “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Presidents have often used the occasion of Thanksgiving to remind us of our shortcomings and to call us to redress them. Thus Abraham Lincoln in both his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamations invoked “the influence of [God’s] Holy Spirit” “to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the divine will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace” and told us that “the Most High God” was “dealing with us in anger for our sins.”

Others have been gentler, simply reminding us that we are a long way from perfection, both as individuals and as a society. For example, in 1901 Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that, “as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as the lips, and shows itself in deeds.” In 1908, he refined and sharpened his call:

For the very reason that in material well-being we have thus abounded, we owe it to the Almighty to show equal progress in moral and spiritual things. With a nation, as well the individuals who make up a nation, material well-being is an indispensable foundation. But the foundation avails nothing by itself. That life is wasted, an worse than wasted, which is spent piling up, heap upon heap, those things which minister merely to the pleasure of the body and to the power that rests only on wealth.

Similarly, in 1956 Dwight Eisenhower urged us to “give a good account of our stewardship by helping those in need and by rendering aid, through our religious organizations and by other means, to the ill, the destitute, and the oppressed in foreign lands.” Others, like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, reminded us of needs and problems at home and abroad. As Ronald Reagan put it, simply and elegantly, “This should be a day of giving as well as a day of thanks.” Also simply and elegantly, George H.W. Bush observed that “[o]ur ’errand into the wilderness,’ begun more than 350 years ago, is not yet complete.”

But there is a risk in this orientation. It’s tempting to focus on the giving at the expense of the thanks, to regard the problems as merely human problems with merely human solutions. There are occasions when presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving have essentially lost sight of the divine in their emphasis on the human. One of the most egregious examples can be found in Richard Nixon’s 1971 proclamation:

One of the splendid events which shape man’s 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 or duty placed upon some men by the whom 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 its search, its ultimate expression.

While he later mentions God, the subjectivism and humanism of this conception of the “errand into the wilderness” could not be more manifest.

Others have been more subtle. In 1998, Bill Clinton urged us to “be thankful for the many contributions each generation of Americans has made to preserve our blessings,” from “the brave patriots who have fought and died to defend our freedom and uphold our belief in human dignity” to “the countless quiet heroes and heroines who work hard each day, raise their families with love and care, and still find time and energy to make their communities better places in which to live.” We all, he said, have “reason to be proud of our part in building America, and each of us has reason to be grateful to our fellow Americans for the success of these efforts.” On one level, it is difficult to quarrel with this formulation. Gratitude for God’s bounty ought to beget effort, and effort is indispensable to success. But we celebrate American heroes and heroines on many other occasions—Labor Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day. On one day, Thanksgiving, we focus, not on them, but on the Being Who sustains, inspires, and guides them. By shifting the focus of our thanks, from God to the people, President Clinton encouraged the very pride Thanksgiving is intended to counteract.

At the outset, I observed that Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday, blending the national and the religious, the human and the divine. We are called to be grateful, and to respond in gratitude, to be humble, penitent, and generous. Presidents are fallible, as are their speechwriters. They can get the words wrong and the mixture of sentiments wrong. Fortunately, it doesn’t depend just on them. They have all reminded us to express our thanks at the time and place, and in the way, of our choosing. The other complicating element of Thanksgiving is our religious pluralism: we’re called to unite in prayer, but pray in our own ways. Some of us, somewhere, sometime, may get it just about right. Here’s hoping (and praying) that you, my dear readers, are among them.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.