Thanksgiving for American Exceptionalism

By Michael Novak on November 21, 2012 in General Articles & News
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One of the traits that makes the United States distinctive, the great Tocqueville writes, is that here religion and liberty are friends, not at enmity, as in France. “Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights.” For this reason, Tocqueville called religion “the first of their political institutions.”

Almost all foreign visitors to America notice the distinctiveness of our festive occasions — on nearly all American holidays, a central role is given religious acts including prayers and invocations. But on Thanksgiving the whole theme is to give thanks to the Creator. And why? For his “signal” blessings during yet another year.

From at least 1776 until 1828 (the publication of Webster’s Dictionary) Americans defined “religion” as “the duty we owe to the Creator and the manner of discharging it.” This very definition implied different manners of discharging that duty. It implied freedom of individual conscience. Thus the public declaration of Thanksgiving Day dramatizes the root of individual religious liberty.

Our Framers thought this truth to be self-evident: Anyone who knows the meaning of the terms “Creator” and “creature” sees at once the duty of gratitude owed to the Creator. For the creature receives everything from that Source. Even Tom Paine felt this, and no Christian, he. One does not need to be a Jew or a Christian to sense it.

Further, this duty gives rise to a right. If I owe a duty to my Creator, no one else may interfere with it. I have a right to discharge this duty as evidence commands my mind to do so. This right precedes the State, it precedes civil society, it takes precedence even over the solicitations of family and friends. This right is grounded in the freedom of the individual mind, as Jefferson puts it, bestowed by Almighty God himself.

Today, of course, many do not think in these terms. They think these terms are a roundabout, old-fashioned way of coming to the point: individual liberty of conscience. But that old way is how our Framers did come to see this point. John Adams did not see this point from the same direction as Jefferson, nor Madison from the same direction as the Quaker Ben Franklin. But they did see all get the point. They learned the duty to respect the consciences of others, as they wanted theirs to be respected. What more pleasant way than to sit down together for a hearty meal.

From 1776 onwards, the Congress of the United States followed an irregular custom. They mandated a public prayer of Thanksgiving “for the signal blessings of Divine Providence that we have witnessed during the War.” “Signal” – as if these events stood out as starkly in the dark as a beam from a lighthouse. “Witnessed”—experienced, plainly observed.

Every year during the War of Independence brought several such signals – the timely discovery of Benedict Arnold’s plan to surrender a crucial fort to the British, the capture near Boston of a British vessel laden with munitions just as the Patriots surrounding the City lacked sufficient ammunition to attack. Again and again, such events helped (even rescued from defeat) the cause of Liberty.

These public, official and national acts are among the most beautiful prayers ever written in this land. In fact, a committee of Congress wrote the texts, as they commended to the president that he call for a Day of Thanksgiving by presidential decree.

These prayers were official, national, and publicly promulgated Prayers, by act of Congress and presidential decree. They were acts of civil liberty in union, respectful of the many different manners in which diverse communities and individuals might discharge them.

It was quite possible for atheists and agnostics (if then there had been many such) to have taken these laws and precedents as popular celebrations of liberty of conscience. By taking part in them, one did not have to be a Jew or a Christian. In time, Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Liberty and Madison’s “Remonstrance” laid out sound arguments in ways both reasoned and redolent with traditional religious conceptions.

“Almighty God hath created the mind free,” Jefferson wrote. “All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion.” The freedom of free minds is in line with Judaism and Christianity.

These days, our own government is stepping between the conscience of individuals and their Creator. It is deciding for them which activities are religious: only those in places of worship, our government now says; not those in religious hospitals, clinics, universities, shelters for the poor, and the like. It is obliging American citizens to pay tithes and carry burdens if they do not pay for what their consciences reject. For many small universities such as Ave Maria in Florida these fines are now slated to be extremely severe. They will be unconscionably punitive even to larger, older, and better endowed universities, such as Notre Dame.

We may be thankful once again to Thomas Jefferson: “All attempts to influence [the human mind] by temporal punishments or burthens are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion.” They are also an offence against the free mind.

This year, as in every past year, this nation has enjoyed a bounty of blessings. After a sometimes bitter election campaign, we have once again peaceably elected a President, in whom our hopes are now vested. We thank the Lord again for this nation’s most precious commitment, like the Lord’s, to making the human mind free.

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