Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, Nov 21, 2023

For Thanksgiving: Two Visions of Religion in America

Illustration: Puritan hi-res stock photography and images. Credit: Alamy
            Thanksgiving is upon us. 
            Growing up, and then working in a combination of congregational and campus settings, I have always enjoyed Thanksgiving as a civil holiday, friendly to religious engagement, although not the property of any denomination.  When the war over Christmas heated up in America, beginning in the late 1970’s, I cherished the hope that Thanksgiving would be spared, and that we could continue a tradition of ecumenical bonhomie on the eve of the holiday, a spiritual appetizer for the feel-good satiety of the Thanksgiving meal the following day.
Alas for disappointed hopes! In our polarized political climate, when even apple pie is parsed for its right-versus-left nuances, can Thanksgiving avoid becoming a political football?
As we listen to the rival commentators expounding the meaning of Thanksgiving, we hear two sharply opposed expressions of what religion means in the United States of America.
            For one camp, associated with right-wing thought in America, Thanksgiving is a celebration of our Puritan heritage.  The first colonists to celebrate the harvest were giving thanks to the God they knew through their tradition. This was a Christian God of a particular sort—not the Anglican understanding of God, not the Catholic understanding of God, but rather a Calvinist one. This God had chosen the Puritans to be his New Israel. With more than an ordinary degree of Divine Providence, God was guiding them closely, adhering to the Biblical model. Parallel to the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, God was leading the Puritans to make an Exodus from the insufficiently-Christian society presided over by the moderation-seeking Church of England. Continuing the parallel, these Puritans trekked across the watery wilderness of the ocean, a recapitulation of the Israelites’ trek across the Sinai.  And like the Israelites of old, these New Israelites were coming to a Promised Land, where they would be free of the restrictions on their Calvinist desire to establish a new holy commonwealth, and in which they would prevent any dissenting voices from being heard. Freedom for them meant the denial of freedom to others.
            Over the course of four centuries of American life, this view has had more and less stringent iterations. In its starkest form, this view of the role of Christianity in America is now associated with Christian Nationalism.
            Christian Nationalists hold that America was a Christian nation at the time of its founding, and that the Separation of Church and State is a monumental mistake. They call for the elected leaders of the country to declare formally that America is a Christian nation.  Christianity needs to be privileged in the public square.

Illustration: Insurrectionists at the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.  Credit: “What is Christian Nationalism, anyway?” Religionnews.com
            In their view, Christianity is, in fact, especially connected to Americanism.  But Americanism means some things and not others.  Americanism does not mean the promise of the Statue of Liberty.  Americanism does not mean that the American government helps the poor. No, that is the role of the individual. God is opposed to the New Deal, the Great Society, and other attempts to use the machinery of the state to alleviate poverty and inequality. God is also opposed to large-scale immigration of non-Whites or non-Protestants, since that may dilute the purity--- almost a racial purity—of Americans, God’s Chosen People.
            As Christian Nationalists understand God, He (definitely, the male gender applies) favors traditional heterosexual families dominated by the man of the house. God favors the death penalty. God also favors unrestricted gun ownership.
            For Christian Nationalists, God—their particular God-- favors this country.  The patriotic symbols of this country are in the good company of religious symbols. During worship, God is pleased when the pulpit is dominated by gigantic American flags.
            But this God has a punishing side.  When Americans stray from fidelity to this vision of godliness, God withdraws the umbrella of protection from America, allowing attacks such as 9/11 to succeed. Yes, the success of Osama bin Laden is, theologically, the consequence of the sinfulness of the liberal side of America. 
            The ideology at its most blatant was on display during the would-be coup against the United States on January 6, 2021.  Among the religious and political symbolism deployed by the marchers at that rally was one poster of Jesus, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

Illustration: Finley Peter Dunne, ironic commentary on Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, “The First Thanksgiving”. Credit: Pinterest

            But there is another view of the history and the role of religion in America, and for this other view, Thanksgiving means something quite different than in the Calvinist version.  This other view recognizes the intolerant strains of American heritage but insists that America represents a promise…. Never fully realized, but never fully abandoned…. A promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
            This view, like the Christian nationalist one, has a historical perspective and a programmatic application.  In this second view, the American founders included Deists as well as Christians, and among the Christians were Enlightenment-Era rationalists as well as evangelical enthusiasts. In any case, this coalition of people understood the danger of wars of religion and were determined to avoid the fratricide, bred of religious zeal, that had consumed the Old World. Hence, the prohibition of any religious tests for federal offices in Article VI of the Constitution, and hence, the First Amendment prohibition of Congress passing any law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
            As a minority in America, Jews have understood the importance of religious toleration. Indeed, we are the canary in the coal mine in that respect.  Intolerance will soon turn upon us.
            For Jews, it has become virtually a Thanksgiving tradition to read the letter sent by the new president, George Washington, to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in response to that congregation’s letter congratulating him on his election. I am pleased to continue that tradition at this time. I recite the words of the Father of our Country in the hopes that they may be heard with the heart as well as the head.


Illustration: Facsimile of George Washington’s letter to the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport”
Letter to the Jews of Newport


While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

            I wish all of my hearers and readers a happy Thanksgiving, and may the holiday once again reflect the inclusive spirit of George Washington.  To close with an allusion to the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, who issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation: Such a Thanksgiving would find happy company among “the better angels of our nature.”