Thanksgiving: A Time to Reflect on the Role of Religion

Michael Metzger

Thanksgiving is a good time.  It’s a time for family, a time for celebration and a time for reflection. Most cultures celebrate a thanksgiving — an autumn festival where friends and family come together to thank God for plentiful crops, good fortune and other blessings received during the year.   So too in America.

<that's why this week is a good time to think about the role of religion in American society — particularly now, with the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, America's first Catholic president just a year ago.

Unlike most nations, established on the battlefield or by the power of ethnic ties or shared historical experience, the US was established on a foundation of ideas — ideas like liberty, equality and freedom, especially religious freedom.

But President Kennedy argued that "religious freedom has no significance unless it is accompanied by conviction," a characteristic, he said, of the "Puritans and Pilgrims of my own section of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Catholics of Maryland, the Presbyterians…Methodists and Baptists who came later."

America's basic documents contain ringing affirmations of fundamental religious and moral convictions.  The Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."  These Judeo-Christian ideas permeate the Mayflower Compact, the Constitution, Federalist Papers, the Bill of Rights, state constitutions and other documents of origin that give life and legitimacy to our civic institutions.  These ideas are also expressed by our nation's leaders.

In his Farewell Address, George Washington said, "Morality is a necessary spring of popular government …and let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."

One hundred years later, Theodore Roosevelt said, "The most perfect machinery of government will not keep us as a nation from destruction if there is not within us a soul."  Roosevelt added, "…a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoff at their religious needs, is a community on the rapid down-grade."

President Eisenhower said an America "bereft of spiritual purpose could be nothing more than a rudderless ship of state and eventually a victim of the fury of international storms and internal decay."

Until the 1960s, American society was generally tolerant of religious beliefs, religious expression and religious practices.  Then things changed as a more secularized America emerged from a flurry of court cases and legislation that undermined and in some cases removed religion from our public life, including our schools.  During this Thanksgiving celebration — as we think about school violence, teen pregnancy, youth gangs, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, pornography and other pathologies that plague too many of our nation's families and neighborhoods — we might ask whether the City of Man can long endure without the City of God.  Can reason substitute for faith?  Can "New Age" philosophy handed out by school counselors, social workers, probation officers and corporate trainers answer the problems in our streets?  Or do we need something more, something transcendent, something immutable.

It's a conversation we need to have — with ourselves and with our families and friends.  Thanksgiving is a good time to do it; listing our blessings is a good place to begin; and asking whom we are thanking is guaranteed to get the conversation moving.

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