Reflections on Civic Religion – public expressions of national faith in God
This year’s pandemic transformed holiday traditions have attempted to replace physical with virtual presence to mitigate the spread of the COVID virus. Perhaps those adapted to the virtual existence of social media platforms and video games find this unproblematic. But for those whose relational sensibilities remain embodied this altered state has an unsettling feeling. No doubt the recent increase in COVID infections give testimony to the reluctance of many to forego physical distancing and mask wearing while enjoying the company of friends and family as people move indoors in cooler weather and the habits of past Thanksgiving celebrations overcame public health guidance. Trying to be thankful while one’s family appeared on screens around the Thanksgiving table was likely an effort. At least it was for me.
Hoping to find a touchstone of thanks after the contentious messiness of the recent national election and its aftermath I sought some relief in reading about Thanksgiving and the holiday’s historic mixture of civic and religious sentiments. I was led to revisit the texts of past Thanksgiving Proclamations to see how our predecessors expressed their gratitude.
The first English settlers on the shores of North America in the late 16th century had little to be thankful for amid hostile locals, lack of food and ultimately did not survive (though some suggest any who did manage to escape death were assimilated by local tribes). However, by the mid-17th century successful colonies began to thrive. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of the governing council of Charlestown (near what is now Boston) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony dated June 20, 1676 was the earliest I could find. The attitude it reveals is remarkable for its sense of the tenuousness of their existence referring to the “afflictive dispensations” they understood God had visited upon them due to their sins. Yet the council nevertheless instructs that the people keep a day of “Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God” and “persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”
A century later in proclamations by the Continental Congress (1777), and the President of the United States, George Washington (1789) confession of the sins and transgressions of the nation against God continued to be included in the document. In asking for a day of Thanksgiving they also implore the nation to “prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost” and “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.” The following late 18th century Thanksgiving Proclamations by US presidents became an episodic tradition enjoining the nation to examine its sins and give thanks to God for all the blessings the nation had enjoyed.
In Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 (initiated and written by Secretary of State William Seward) after outlining the good that had come to the nation even in the midst of civil war he says, “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.”
After the Civil War the proclamations contain hardly any mention of “sins or transgressions” of the nation. But there are more frequent references to “pestilence” both avoided and experienced in the past year. Into the 20th century the proclamations take on a ‘pro forma’ character while continuing to acknowledge God as the source of the nation’s blessings, there is apparent a sense of the special character of the American people as a nation and as individuals. For example, this from President Theodore Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1904, “Our success will mean much, not only for ourselves, but for the future of all mankind, and every man or woman in our land should feel the grave responsibility resting upon him or her, for in the last analysis this success must depend upon the high average of our individual citizenship, upon the way in which each of us does his duty by himself and his neighbors.” The absence of humility in the face of our sins and dependence upon God’s grace through Jesus Christ is evident.
Reading through the Thanksgiving Proclamations into the 21st century one gets the impression similar to what Soren Kierkegaard expressed in describing attitudes toward the worship of God in his book “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing”. He used the metaphor of a theater (church) where the parishioners of his day would come to be entertained by the minister on stage who would be fed lines to speak by the Prompter (God). Kierkegaard shows rather that proper worship puts God in the audience as Spectator for Whom the performance of the people on stage (in their lives) glorify God, as the minister prompts them to virtue.
There is a sense that our nation remains a nation that worships. But for some parts of our ‘woke’ citizenry, especially the most elite, the object of our worship is no longer God but ourselves. No doubt there are some others who worship the Nation. For many in the political class God is a mere rhetorical trope, and sin simply no longer has any meaning. Perhaps a new Great Awakening will begin to move the hearts and minds of the American people to recognize our manifold sins before God, personal and national, such that we experience the grace of repentance and then as our predecessors once aspired, we may “even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.” Let us pray that the ‘woke’ will become Awakened, but I make no predictions and, in any case it would take many decades of many institutional changes to reorient the fabric of civil society. How this could come to pass without disruptive civil unrest is unimaginable. Only God knows.