- - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Thanksgiving is the time when America’s religious roots and traditions are publicly displayed. While we think of feasting at tables filled with food and drink, and imagine the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony inviting neighboring Indians to join them to celebrate a plentiful harvest, Thanksgiving Day has a much more religious meaning. It was not uncommon in the 17th and 18th centuries for individual colonies to set aside days for prayers of gratitude to our Lord.

In 1671, the governing council of Charlestown, Mass., proclaimed June 29 “as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favor.” Annually from 1777 through 1784, as the American colonists fought for their independence, the Continental Congress issued proclamations each fall, calling for days of “public thanksgiving and praise” and “humble supplication” to Almighty God.

Similar declarations followed. In 1789, the first year of his presidency, George Washington designated Thursday, Nov. 26 as a day for “prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” both in thanksgiving for his “signal and manifold mercies” and to request him to “pardon our national and other transgressions.” President James Madison proclaimed days of prayer and fasting three times during the War of 1812.

During the Civil War, the Union and Confederate Congresses both called for days of thanksgiving. President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, urged that the last Thursday of November be observed “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” for his “singular deliverances and blessings” and “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”

The date for Thanksgiving was not fixed, but Lincoln’s choice became the precedent. In 1941 Congress formally enacted that the holiday would be celebrated, as it currently is, on the fourth Thursday of November.

The tradition of a national declaration of gratitude to God has continued, with every president since Lincoln issuing a proclamation annually. President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1942, called on the American people to observe both Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day “in prayer, publicly and privately.” The following year, in “gratitude to Almighty God,” he requested “a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas.”

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower requested “all of us” to gather on Thanksgiving Day in “our respective places of worship and bow before God in contrition for our sins, in suppliance for wisdom in our striving for a better world, and in gratitude for the manifold blessings He has bestowed upon us and upon our fellow men.”

President Ronald Reagan, in 1984, urged: “Let us pause from our many activities to give thanks to almighty God for our bountiful harvests and abundant freedoms. Let us call upon Him for continued guidance and assistance in all our endeavors. And let us ever be mindful of the faith and spiritual values that have made our Nation great and that alone can keep us great.” In 2004, President George W. Bush wrote: “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.”

President Obama has continued the tradition, at least ceremonially. His proclamations frequently refer to God obliquely through a statement about George Washington’s or Abraham Lincoln’s gratitude to the Almighty, or to express praise to the Wampanoag Indians for aiding the Pilgrims.

While these public prayers have been called proclamations of thanksgiving, they have expressed much more than gratitude over the years. As all prayers, they have been used to petition God for assistance, to thank him for his mercy and abundance, to atone for our personal and national sins, and to praise him as the “Lord and Ruler of Nations.” These declarations are an overt recognition that while America has a government that neither promotes a given religion nor prohibits the free exercise thereof, belief in God is an integral part of the nation’s history, culture and society.

In spite of continuing efforts to remove any reference to God from our public conscience — from our coinage, the Pledge of Allegiance, our schools — the dispositions and traditions of the American people still reflect a religious, indeed a Christian, ethos within which political leaders must govern if they are to achieve their personal aspirations. As long as the people as a whole have not rejected all public reference to God nor abandoned religious practices, and if principles based on religious teachings continue to regulate their societal behavior, it will be possible to maintain a spirit of virtue to advance the well-being of our republic and its populace.

On Nov. 26, we celebrate Thanksgiving. It will be a day marked by parades with marching bands, floats and balloons, by football games from morning until late evening, by amounts of food and drink that surpass our capacity to consume, and by the beginning of a month-long marketing blitz seeking our consumer dollar. While we enjoy the camaraderie and festivities of the day, do not forget its central purpose — to thank God for His innumerable blessings on us, our families and our nation. What an expression of faith it would be if everyone could begin the day with an act of recognition of God, attend a church service, say more than a superficial prayer, and perhaps, just perhaps, decline that extra piece of pie.

Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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