"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." – George Washington, president of the United States, 1789
Thanksgiving should be a tricky holiday in the land where church and state are rightly subject to a degree of separation. The First Amendment of course says Congress shall pass no law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That was first on the list for the Founders, who knew their new nation had its origins in their ancestors’ escape from the interminable religious wars of Europe and the bloody struggle over state-sanctioned religion.
That natural fear of state-endorsed religion or religious mandate led to a constant debate over just how much religion is appropriate in the public sphere. The Supreme Court, regularly tip-toeing through this constitutional garden, has ruled that religion need not be expunged, but that neutrality be strictly observed.
Just a few days ago the Supreme Court heard arguments in yet another public prayer case, this time being asked to decide if the town of Greece, N.Y., may open its council meetings with prayers that sometimes make reference to Jesus Christ.
"We are a very religiously diverse country," said Justice Samuel Alito during oral argument. "All should be treated equally. So I can’t see how you can compose a prayer that is acceptable to all these" religions.
In a nation known to fret over the mere government reference to a deity, we have as one of or first government-sanctioned festivals, a day of "thanksgiving." Setting aside a national day of thanksgiving presupposes a higher being. You must give thanks to something, after all.
Atheists counter that it is possible to give thanks to friends and family and farmers and veterans, etc., but national tradition and presidential proclamations in the hundreds do not follow that line of reasoning. Said Abraham Lincoln in the his first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, "No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."
I suspect that Thanksgiving is a holiday so beloved, and so obviously wholesome and good, that the nagging people who might fight to keep a nativity scene out of a public park or a Christmas tree out of a courthouse, will just take it easy. Gratitude is an appropriate emotion, no matter to whom or what you are grateful.
Presidents declared national days of thanksgiving sporadically after Washington’s first effort. Lincoln established the tradition of an annual day of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, a date affirmed by Congress as a national holiday in 1941. The day is always preceded by a presidential proclamation, a tradition that continues. To spark my memory I reread just one, issued by President John F. Kennedy in early November 1963 for a holiday he would not live to celebrate:
" ... Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers - for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them," Kennedy wrote.
"Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings - let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals - and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world. ..."
Tracy Warner is a Wenatchee World columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.