‘Thanksgiving to Ye Almighty God’
“ M an is by his constitution a religious animal; atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts,” wrote Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. The revolution of which Burke wrote perverted the definition of freedom through its assaults on religion and its elevation of the state to the divine. Throwing out God, the revolutionaries substituted themselves.
In America, on the other hand, the founding fathers humbly recognized the critical role religion must play in a society of limited government, knowing that men are not angels. “The politician who loves liberty … knows that [with] morality overthrown (and morality must fall without religion) the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man, and confine him within the bounds of social duty,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, articulating a view held by much of our founding generation.
There was indeed a consensus in the early days of America that God was the “superintending Providence” over our nation. While we disagreed—sometimes in very lively ways—about the specifics of our theology, in general we agreed that there was a Creator, and it was that Creator on whom we depended for our lives and fortunes. It was that Creator to whom we both owed thanks and would one day be accountable—as a nation and as individuals.
When religion, that is, a humble recognition of an omnipotent creator God, is chased from the public sphere and relegated to the realm of private affections—such as an individual’s preference for music or desire to play with marbles on Mondays—the government necessarily and even unwittingly adopts a practical atheism as its working creed. It operates as though God is not real.
Religion thus becomes a matter not to be discussed in public, and it fades from serious discourse, both public and private. Released from the restraints of religion, politicians see no limits, and their science becomes purely the art of the possible—with no bounds as to what they think can be achieved or submitted to their control. And when the people lose religion, they look to the state for their salvation.
In the former Communist countries of Europe, where religion was under official assault, religion nevertheless often thrived. Knowing that their faith was being attacked, people courageously decided to take religion seriously. But the subtle silencing of religion in the public domain, allowing people to whisper their beliefs only in private is, in the end, a better way to destroy religion. Not realizing that their religion is under attack, people gradually fall away from their faith, and the public silence turns into private apathy.
On the other hand, the simple public recognition of the “providence of Almighty God”— far from being an establishment of religion— puts the political realm in its proper perspective. In his 1863 Thanksgiving
Day proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, even during the troubles of the Civil War, found reasons to thank God, and in doing so, humbled himself. This simple, ecumenical acknowledgment reinforced the necessarily limited, imperfect role of government—and served as a reminder that government exists so that the people may engage in higher pursuits, which includes governing themselves through the religions to which they freely offer their assent.
Thanksgiving is, therefore, an essential American holiday. Because our various religions celebrate different feasts, our forefathers had the wisdom to establish one common feast for the nation. It is the one day all Americans can unite before their Creator. The very name of the holiday, and the pageantry that surrounds it, remind us that there is one sovereign upon whom all others rely, that we have duties to each other as families and nations, that true liberty can only flourish in a nation that practices self-control, and that life is a freely given gift. If life is “gratis,” then gratitude should be more than saying a prayer before our Thanksgiving feast; it should be an attitude that pervades our lives every day.
Thanksgiving is a time to put our lives in perspective and to reinforce the bonds necessary to sustain free society in America. For that, we give thanks.