The Meaning of Thanksgiving – A Response to the Editorial of 11/23

The Daily Commercial‘s in-house editorial on Wednesday, November 23, 2011, sought to edify the readership on the significance of Thanksgiving. Of course, such pieces appear every year in newspapers across the country, and one might be forgiven for being rather tired of the lecture – especially when it completely misses the point.

Little mention was made of the retail workers who are forced to give up an American family tradition in order to serve the relentless forces of consumerism, though Thursday’s paper included a surprisingly long news story documenting the focus of the Occupy protesters on exposing the interface between corporate greed and consumer avarice.

Group of PilgrimsThe usual obligatory references were made to the blessings of liberty and to our brave troops who supposedly defend those liberties. (We shall leave for another day the question of from whom, exactly, they are attempting to defend our liberties, and whether they are, in fact, succeeding in this endeavor or actually undermining us.) The actual, historical origins of the holiday were glossed over as if they no longer mattered, which struck me as a glaring omission for more than the obvious reason that this is, in fact, why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

The curious aspect of this elision is that the right wing loves to present itself as the torch-bearer for America’s cultural and political history. The right misses no opportunity to remind us that we must be true to the intent of the framers, that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of its original meaning, and that the 1960’s undermined our most valued traditions. The economic policies of the right are all organized around the goal of returning us to the 1890’s, or at least some time before the accursed New Deal. And the social policies of the right seem to place women in particular in positions of subservience not seen a day later than the 1950’s.

So why, in this case, did an organ of the right (which is exactly what the Daily Commercial has always been) ignore an element of American history that dates all the way back to the very beginning? Because they sought to replace history with a version more to their own liking. According to the Daily Commercial, the reason we give thanks on this day is because we are children of God. That’s right, folks: Thanksgiving, the quintessential secular holiday based on history, has suddenly become a religious holiday.

This attempt to reinvent American history is a central part of the right’s desire to re-make the country – and its people – in its own image. (Ironic play on words very much intended.) The most conspicuous apostle of this revisionism is the self-styled “historian” David Barton, who is attempting to convince us all that the framing of the Constitution was some kind of quasi-religious event in the march to glory of God’s chosen people. The only problem with that pitch is that the framers were deists. While they believed there was a divine creator, they did not believe that he revealed his wisdom in the Bible or interfered in the terrestrial lives of men. The framers produced a document that mentioned religion only once, and that was to prevent the use of religious test oaths for office holders.

The First Amendment, drafted and adopted after the Constitutional Convention had finished its work, explicitly keeps the (then new) federal government out of the religion business. (The original purpose of the amendment was to protect state established churches from interference by the distant central power. As it turned out, those state establishments withered on the vine within about twenty years.) Many of the Daily Commercial‘s more ignorant readers insist that the Constitution did not create a wall of separation between church and state since that precise phrase is not in the document. I am tempted to say that such people ought to return to school to be straightened out, but if Barton and his ilk have their way – as we can see most graphically in Texas, Oklahoma, and much of the Midwest – the public school curriculum would be drastically revised to fill students’ minds with their version of history – which bears no more resemblance to the facts than any other story.

The Daily Commercial‘s take on Thanksgiving, while it will surely warm the cockles of the Bible-bashers’ hearts, must be rejected as part of an unacceptable larger agenda to reinvent the very meaning of America. This is not a Christian nation; this is a secular nation containing citizens of many faiths, all of whom enjoy equal rights to freedom of conscience. If the Christians think that, by force of sheer numbers, they enjoy a superior right to elevate their worldview above that of others, then they have completely failed to understand the genius of the country they profess to love.

James Madison’s great challenge in the late 1780’s was to engineer “a republican remedy to the diseases most incident to republican government.” (Refer to the Federalist Papers, Number 10.) And the most dangerous of these diseases was the tyranny of the majority. The Christian tyranny is no better or worse than any other, but it is decidedly un-American. Thus, pace the Daily Commercial, I will give thanks this Thursday that I live in, and am a citizen of, a country that was designed by men infinitely wiser than David Barton and the editors of the Leesburg Daily Commercial. Happy Thanksgiving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *