God’s Starring Role on Thanksgiving
Andrea Neal column for Nov. 26
Look for a lawsuit any day now challenging the President¹s authority to declare a national day of thanksgiving and prayer. If people take offense at the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, they surely won¹t stand for a holiday whose purpose is to thank the Almighty for blessings bestowed on America.
Take your pick of the three different stories of the first Thanksgiving. No matter which you tell or how you tell it, God has a starring role.
Story No. 1: The Pilgrims. Each year at this time, children study the Pilgrims and the three-day meal they enjoyed in the fall of 1621. They learn that what many call the first Thanksgiving was not a traditional religious event, but a celebratory autumn feast shared in neighborly fashion by Native Americans and the 52 Pilgrims who survived the first winter in the new world. (Bloody conflict between the two groups came some years later). They learn that a more sacred "thanksgiving" was observed by the Pilgrims in 1623 after 14 days of rain arrived to end a life-threatening summer drought. It is a story of courage and hope against all odds. It is a story of pious and persistent Christians seeking freedom to worship God.
Story No. 2: George Washington. In October 1789, when President Washington declared the first National Day of Thanksgiving, the Constitution was barely a year old. A joint committee of both houses of Congress had requested Washington designate a day of prayer and thanksgiving in order to acknowledge the Lord¹s favor, which He had made known by allowing Americans "to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness."
As with most political issues, opinion was not unanimous. Rep. Thomas Tucker objected that "the House had no business to interfere in a matter which did not concern them. Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do? They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness." President Washington had no such qualms and declared a national day of thanksgiving for Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 — a day to "be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be."
Story No. 3 – The Civil War. In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a permanent national holiday, the United States was embroiled in the war that would end slavery. In his proclamation, Lincoln urged Americans to seek forgiveness for their "national perverseness and disobedience" and to give thanks that "in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict." These achievements, Lincoln insisted, had nothing to do with Americans¹ own efforts but were "the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."
So enjoy Thanksgiving while you can folks; it could be struck down as unconstitutional by the courts any day now. Just last week, President George W. Bush issued a Thanksgiving proclamation asking God "to continue to guide and watch over our country." That kind of talk has got to make somebody mad.
Until the 9th Circuit or some similarly misguided federal court intervenes, let us pray loud and clear: Dear God, on this Thanksgiving, we thank you for the Pilgrims who overcame fear through prayer and crossed an ocean to start a new life where they could worship you as they saw fit. We thank you for wise Founding Fathers who wrote a Constitution that guaranteed liberty for future generations. We remember that many gave their lives on Civil War battlefields to fulfill the words penned in our Declaration of Independence that all "are created equal." We haven¹t reached our goal yet. We pray, Almighty God, that you¹ll help us get there — lawsuits or not.
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Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is columnist and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.