Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Turkey, stuffing, and sectarian wishes

The holidays are coming, so get ready for more stories like this one:

"An annual parade of boats on a Long Island river that dropped "Christmas" from its name has apparently lost lots of supporters.About 1,000 people showed up Sunday for the Patchogue (PACH'-awg) Boat Parade of Lights. That's 500 fewer than usually showed up when it was called the Patchogue Christmas Boat Parade."

Isn't it a bit surprising, given the clear religious history of Thanksgiving, that we don't hear the same controversy about the fourth Thursday in November as we do about the twenty-fifth of December? Where Christmas is concerned, the no establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment often winds up being litigated, perhaps most notably when the U.S. Supreme Court heard Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), a case involving Pawtucket, Rhode Island's display of a nativity scene. But I don't hear a lot of chatter about church/state issues involving Thanksgiving.

This absence of controversy may be a bit surprising. After all, take a look at all the religious words and themes in President George Washington's first Thanksgiving Proclamation:

"Whereas it is 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 and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness: "

"Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, 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; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation;
for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and,
in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

"And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us
all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and
constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

- Given under my hand, at the city of New
York, the 3d day of October, A. D. 1789. G.ø WASHINGTON."

Thomas Jefferson, incidentally, did not feel a President had the power to issue Thanksgiving Proclamations, and he issued none while he served as Chief Executive. Jefferson's refusal to acknowledge Thanksgiving probably had as much to do with his limited conception of federal authority as with the notion of separation of church and state. He believed any matter touching religion in any way should be left to the individual states rather than the national government. (See Currie, The Constitution in Congress: The Jeffersonians 1801-1829, 2001, p. 5; and Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, 1987, p. 244: "It is interesting that Jefferson opposed nationally-sponsored days of prayer as President, but supported state-sponsored days of prayer as governor of Virginia." )

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