Abraham Lincoln knew he was in tricky territory. It was the first week of October 1863, and the president was issuing a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. The culmination of a campaign led by the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Lincoln’s words were calibrated to appeal to Americans of any religious inclination — and of none at all. Despite “the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field,” Lincoln wrote, the fields had been so fruitful and the mines so rich that they produced blessings of a scope that “cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . 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.”
Lincoln wanted the country to render thanks “with one heart and one voice,” but in acknowledging that many hearts and voices were, as he put it, “habitually insensible” to religious feeling, he signaled his grasp of the elusive nature of what Benjamin Franklin had called America’s “public religion” — the broad belief in a God who created the world, who was attentive to history and to prayers, who intervened in the affairs of humankind through providence, and who would ultimately reward or punish men for their conduct. This was the “Creator” and the “Nature’s God” of the Declaration of Independence and the God whom George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson spoke of in their public remarks. In America such talk was (and is) complicated, for the nation was founded on the principle of religious liberty — that, at the federal level, no one’s civil or political rights could be affected by his faith or lack thereof. As Washington said in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, R.I., in 1790, America “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And Jefferson approvingly wrote of “a wall of separation between Church & State” in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut.
How, then, do we reconcile matters when that same government, one pledged to defend the rights of nonbelievers, engages in essentially religious activity — the offering of prayers in legislative sessions; the employment, at public expense, of military chaplains; or, to bring things back to Lincoln’s proclamation, the appointment of days of Thanksgiving on explicitly religious grounds?
Chiefly by noting that Jefferson’s wall metaphor — one that the Supreme Court picked up again in the middle of the 20th century — is between church and state, not between religion and politics. Because politics is about people, religion will forever be a force in public life, for religion, like economics, is a factor in shaping ambitions, appetites, hopes and fears. History teaches us that the religious impulse is intrinsic. “All men have need of the gods,” said Homer, and John Adams remarked: “Religion always has and always will govern mankind. Man is constitutionally, essentially and unchangeably a religious animal. Neither philosophers nor politicians can ever govern him in any other way.”
The most fervent secularist, however, could justifiably argue that just because religion is prevalent does not mean that governments, particularly governments founded on liberty of conscience, should cater to the religious to the exclusion of the nonreligious. Why not have governments stay out of religious affairs altogether? The secular argument for this is obvious, and there is a strong theological argument for such a view. “Put not thy trust in princes,” advised the Psalmist, and Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The dissenter Roger Williams believed that “the garden of Christ’s church” should not be contaminated by “the wilderness of the world.”
But neither view has ever prevailed. The American habit, formed from the very beginning, when delegates to the Continental Congress prayed as a body for deliverance from the British, has been to choose to follow the forms of Franklin’s “public religion,” avoiding as much as possible sectarian references to the God of Abraham or to God the Father and keeping things as vague as possible. The ambiguity of exactly who or what we are referring to when we say “God bless America” or, as Lincoln called on us to do, when we thank “the Most High God,” makes the strictly religious uncomfortable, for to pray to an indistinct deity can feel idolatrous. Believers, however, must, as G.K. Chesterton said, “permit the twilight,” and most Americans have chosen to permit the twilight of public religion.
And so Americans have permitted Thanksgiving as well. The roots of the feast stretch back to 1619, to Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, and, more notably, to 1621 at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. By the time of the Civil War, Lincoln was convinced that a national day would promote unity — given the war, it certainly could not hurt — and he made the proclamation. To legal scholars, customs such as Thanksgiving fall under what is (infelicitously) known as “ceremonial deism” — long-standing, innocuous rituals. “It is an argument from history,” says John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. “The passage of time will show if this is a step along the way to establishment of religion or if it’s a ritual show of public spirit or patriotism.”
It is, admittedly, an odd argument to advance: Thanksgiving and its religious roots are acceptable precisely because the religious roots have proved benign, or at least so broadly inclusive that no single religious denomination can claim the day solely as its own. In its way, then, Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday: religious without being sectarian, with room for the nonreligious to simply pause and celebrate our common humanity. The origins of the day are inescapably theological, but there is much secular tradition on which to draw as well. Robert Ingersoll, the great 19th-century advocate of free thought, called secularism “the religion of humanity. . . . It does not believe in praying and receiving, but in earning and deserving. It regards work as worship, labor as prayer, and wisdom as the savior of mankind. It says to every human being, Take care of yourself so that you may be able to help others; adorn your life with the gems called good deeds; illumine your path with the sunlight called friendship and love.”
The American experiment in religious liberty goes on. Perhaps no one ever put the matter better than John Leland, a Baptist evangelist who worked with Jefferson and James Madison on religious freedom in Virginia: “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or 20 Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.” Madison took such sentiments to heart, and, late in his long life, at Montpelier, he continued to ponder the mysteries of religion and politics.
“The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion,” Madison wrote; he was debating whether the appointment of congressional chaplains was compatible with the First Amendment and with the ideal of religious liberty. “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative,” Madison acknowledged. Both pragmatic and wise, though, Madison concluded that “as the precedent is not likely to be rescinded, the best that can now be done may be to apply to the Constitution the maxim of the law, de minimis non curat” — Latin for “the law does not concern itself with trifles.”
Is, then, Thanksgiving a trifle, or the most solemn tribute a people can render to a God? The genius of America is that we are free to believe either — or something in between. Such freedom is something we should all give thanks for, today and always.