Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thanksgiving Then and Now

America has always been a land of diverse faiths. And in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, George Washington particularly enjoined gratitude for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

While nominally Episcopalian, he himself was never a formal communicant in that church, and his Proclamation avoided specifically Christian language. Indeed, Washington’s writings virtually never referred to the deity as Christ or Redeemer or Savior, and his Thanksgiving decree was typical in calling on God as “the beneficent author all good” and “the Lord and Ruler of Nations,” seeking in his own way to find an inclusive vocabulary that could unite rather than divide his fellow Americans.

Religion, Washington felt, should be force that brings people together across sectarian lines. So in a letter he wrote as President in 1790 to the Jewish Synagogue in Newport, he assured the sons of Abraham that all in the newly founded nation “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

Americans may finally be embracing what Washington called “the enlarged and liberal policy” of respect for religious differences. According to a Pew Forum poll conducted last year that interviewed 2,905 adults, only 29% of respondents surveyed agreed with the statement, “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” Solid majorities of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Evangelicals all agreed that other paths–even non-Christian religions–may lead to salvation.

Thanks largely to the separation of church and state, which our Founders so wisely instituted, the United States today has become the most spiritually diverse nation on earth. Harvard’s Pluralism Project counts 1660 mosques currently operating in our country, 724 Hindu temples, 2228 Buddhist centers, and 252 Sikh temples. For over two hundred years, devotees of most of these traditions have been able to co-exist amicably with their Christian and Jewish neighbors. Friendship, rather than strife, has been the norm.

As we gather round our tables in the spirit of George Washington’s Proclamation, that truly is a reason to give thanks.


Tom Van Dyke said...

James Madison, who was even more conscious of the separation of church and state [although that term is not in the Constitution], walked that fine line himself.

I just ran across this [thx for yr post, Gary], where it would be difficult to claim Madison for one "side" of the culture wars or the other. His position seems entirely right to me, neither establishing religion nor banishing it, yet still acknowledging it:

"There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive proclamations of fasts and festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of INJUNCTION, or have lost sight of the equality of ALL religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the executive trust, I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere DESIGNATIONS of a day on which all who thought proper might UNITE in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith and forms. In this sense, I presume, you reserve to the Government a right to APPOINT particular days for religious worship. I know not what may be the way of thinking on this subject in Louisiana. I should suppose the Catholic portion of the people, at least, as a small and even unpopular sect in the U. States would rally as they did in Virginia when religious liberty was a Legislative topic to its broadest principle..." (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822).

[CAPS are Madison's.]

Gary Kowalski said...

Madison, like Washington, was ever mindful of religious minorities (like the Catholics, who constituted a tiny portion of the population in those days), and was careful of how official observances or proclamations would affect them. Madison, to my recollection, did issue a presidential advisory to the nation inviting people to pray for the success of American arms in the War of 1812. But after receiving much criticism from those who considered his petition insufficiently pious, he later regretted issuing the proclamation at all. Better to leave people to pray in their own time and in their own manner, rather than at the behest of Executive summons.

As always, thank you for your judicious comments.