Published November 24, 2005
Ever since John Winthrop proclaimed in 1630 a mission to establish "a shining city on a hill" to inspire the world, America has grappled with notions of a national destiny led by the hand of God.
Now questions of a divine national purpose are playing out in a new setting: the Thanksgiving table. Agenda-driven groups are equipping gatherings nationwide with reflections on the holiday's meaning.
To look closely at these reflections is to see distinct worldviews aiming to define what the holiday - and the nation - are all about. The efforts to define Thanksgiving's deepest meaning, one dining room table at a time, mirror larger, sometimes political, agendas to shape how Americans understand their country as one nation under God.
Thanksgiving "has a series of possibilities that are built into the institution," says anthropologist Bradd Shore, director of the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's about America, it has the Pilgrims, it has thanking God, it has turkey."
He said suggested reflections are "an attempt to renegotiate a holiday that was ambiguously religious" and added that if groups can get enough people to accept their vision of Thanksgiving, "then you've changed the culture."
That's exactly what Barbara Rainey, an evangelical Christian, says she had in mind when she authored Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember, a 2002 reflection that takes about 45 minutes to read or hear on a newly released compact disc.
Rainey worried that schoolchildren weren't hearing about the faith that had inspired Pilgrims to reach the New World, she says, so she begins the book by characterizing Thanksgiving as "both distinctly Christian and exclusively American, a holiday for celebrating faith, family and freedom."
She goes on to tell how early European settlers nearly starved on their God-given mission to establish a haven for religious freedom, but "sustained by God's grace," they survived.
"Children growing up in American don't really understand our Christian heritage," says Rainey. "I just want to see Americans become more grateful for the privileges we have because we may not have them always, and the surest way to lose them is to lose understanding of where (this freedom) came from and why we have it."
Other evangelicals share a similar goal. Colorado-based Focus on the Family posts five Thanksgiving-related reflections on its Web site this month.
On the other hand, the American Jewish Committee and 10 other organizations are offering another type of reflection, on the immigrant history of America, emphasizing human rather than divine agency.
This 20-page reflection, downloadable free of charge from the American Jewish Committee's Web site, tells the stories of eight contemporary immigrants who found refuge and opportunity in America. It contends preservation of this tradition rests squarely on human shoulders.
"We are the stewards of America," the text says. "In America, each of us is entitled to a place at the table."
But it notes those rights haven't always been protected.
"Not every journey was easy," the text reads. "The first arrivals sometimes shunned those who followed. Not every journey was voluntary. The first African slaves landed in Jamestown a year before the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth. Not every journey was righteous. Native Americans were devastated by a new nation's need to conquer, cultivate and build."
In its reflection, United American Indians of New England (UAINE) is even more critical of American history. On Thanksgiving Day, Native Americans from as far away as Hawaii will gather with an estimated 1,000 white sympathizers in Plymouth, Mass. for the organization's 36th annual National Day of Mourning.
When coverage of the event arrives via television in living rooms, perhaps between football games, organizers hope to get viewers thinking about America's failure to practice moral righteousness from the beginning.
Despite a checkered history, others see a nation inextricably tied to God.
Among them is Ken Masugi, a senior fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute in Claremont, Calif. In the most recent of his annual written statements on the meaning of Thanksgiving, he argues presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln established the tradition to be "a holy day, a day for prayer and recognition of Almighty God's authority over man."
A nation that remembers its permanent relationship with God, he says, will be happier, healthier and less inclined to seek financial benefits from government.
"Thanksgiving is something everyone understands, but we have lost touch with its highest meaning," Masugi says. "What we are as a nation relies on a recognition of something transcendent, and that something is religious. ... Without an appreciation of our dependence on the divine, I think we're lost as a people. Trying to find satisfaction purely in the material world is a hopeless chase."
To straighten the nation's course, he recommends doing what he does at Thanksgiving: reading aloud from Lincoln's proclamation of 1863, which offers thanks for "gracious gifts of the Most High God" and ends by offering "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."
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