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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving, politics, religion

- does America have a genius as seems to be suggested in Genius of America by Adolphe Yvon?

What kind of holiday is Thanksgiving ... political, religious? I'd never given it much thought but today I saw a post at the Georgetown/On Faith blog about it and I learned that Thanksgiving is a mix of religion and politics .... gratitude for the providence of God which has ensured the creation of this nation .... yikes! I must admit I don't like that idea - it sounds too much like manifest destiny, not to mention flying in the face of a separation of church and state.

Thomas Jefferson agreed with me about the church/state idea. Here's part of the post ........


Jefferson's Thanksgiving wish


Michael Kessler

Happy Thanksgiving. Simple words that conjure images of national traditions like pumpkin pie and roasted turkey, and family and friends gathered in holiday cheer. Central to that tradition is the presidential proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving.

You can read each of them from the beginning, when George Washington issued the first, fulfilling the "duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor - and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Such sentiments are widely shared, deeply woven into the fabric of our civil traditions. Likewise, expressing these sentiments seems harmless.

President Thomas Jefferson, however, famously did not issue such proclamations. Was this the omission of a curmudgeonly atheist? Not at all. He was motivated by concern for the protection of religious liberty. In reply to a letter from Rev. Samuel Miller as to why he refused to issue proclamations, Jefferson espoused not hatred for religion, but concern for the dangers to religion that could result if the civil executive of the country makes statements that give the appearance of sanction to religious practices. For the President to call for fasting and prayer is to usurp their proper role and enter into the province of ecclesial authority. Even without threat of legal sanction, the possibility of public pressure that might ostracize the non-compliant was too great for Jefferson to countenance. The full text of his reply:

To Rev. Samuel Miller
Washington, Jan. 23, 1808

--I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it's exercises, it's discipline, or it's doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

While Jefferson had formal and principled reasons for not issuing a Proclamation, since the 1860s, there has been a Proclamation in one form or another each year. Some are more explicitly generic (President Ford: "Let each of us, in his own way, join in expressing personal gratitude for the blessings of liberty and peace we enjoy today. In so doing, let us reaffirm our belief in a dynamic spirit that will continue to nurture and guide us as we prepare to meet the challenge of our third century.") and others are decidedly sectarian (President Reagan: "Although the time and date of the first American thanksgiving observance may be uncertain, there is no question but that this treasured custom derives from our Judeo-Christian heritage. 'Unto Three, O God, do we give thanks,' the Psalmist sang).

Regardless, the practice is here to stay. So, take your Thanksgiving advice from the President, if you will, but remember that your cleric, your mentors, and the wisdom of your traditions are resources in which you may more deeply and richly engage for yourself to find theological and spiritual meaning about gratitude and humility ........



Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

I had a professor at Chicago who one time just flat-out stated something to the effect that gratitude was the main or essential religious feeling.

I was perfectly healthy at the time, but it didn't resonate with me.

If it's theologically correct to see good stuff that happens to us as blessings, why isn't it equally correct to see bad stuff as active disfavor from God?

Seems like that's pretty much what the Law of Attraction says - something parallel and without reference to God - but thankfully, so to speak, Christians don't generally seem to share this view…

7:45 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

It's true that gratitude is stressed in Christianity. But like you I see an inconsistency, and even Jesus says in Matthew 5:45 ....

[...] our Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And in Luke 13:2-3, a tower falls on some people and kills them, and the disciples ask Jesus if that happened because those people were bad and deserved to die. He says "no".

Does God help us? I want to think so and I ask for stuff a lot, and I'm grateful for the good things that do come my way (and very upset about the bad stuff), but I also realize that somehow the way I'm thinking about all this doesn't really make sense.

9:17 PM  
Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

I do know exactly what you mean.

Even though I never felt that gratitude was central, I definitely have experienced religious or spiritual gratitude, mostly for very simple things when I was healthy - the sun, the wind, the smell of pine trees...

Maybe it's a really deep "good to be alive" feeling that we use the word "gratitude" for even though it's not exactly right?

12:14 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yes, that good to be alive feeling. Also there are some ways I've been lucky, like having my sister be such a good friend, and I feel grateful for stuff like that. But I'm not surte what that means then about people who aren't lucky in that way, or about the ways I've been unlucky. It's a total mess :)

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

In theological terms it's called Theolucky - the Problem of Lucky/Unlucky...

Today my word verification reads "nalkyway" - sounds kind of lucky to me. A Nalkyway Bar - maybe a candybar from another galaxy?

OK enough profundity for one Friday.

10:04 AM  

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