I just read President Obama’s annual Thanksgiving proclamation , which is more or less of a piece with its predecessors. (You can read every single Presidential proclamation of thanks here . I’ve read them all; some are genuinely impressive exercises in public theology, others just leave me scratching my head and sighing.)
This one moves toward the latter end of the aforementioned scale. As part of the manner in which the Obama Administration places native Americans in the foreground in these proclamations, we’re told that the original Thanksgiving feast “honored the Wampanoag for generously extending their knowledge of local game and agriculture to the Pilgrims.” This takes some liberty with the purpose of the feast, which, the keepers of the Pilgrim flame in Plymouth tell us , was to celebrate the harvest in accordance with English customs.
There are also two almost ritual references to proclamations by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (who each make their third annual cameo appearances in President Obama’s proclamations). These references to a tradition of giving thanks to God (or to “the divine”but can one give thanks to an impersonal being?) are supplemented by two references to God in President Obama’s own name. Here’s the first:
As we gather in our communities and in our homes, around the table or near the hearth, we give thanks to each other and to God for the many kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives.
And here’s the second:
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-sixth.
The latter is, of course, merely an expression of “ceremonial deism,” which means precisely nothing. In the former, God shares the stage with us. When we give thanks, we’re not just thanking God, but one another. Indeed, President Obama urges us more frequently to thank one another than to thank God. Consider, for example, this statement:
In times of adversity and times of plenty, we have lifted our hearts by giving humble thanks for the blessings we have received and for those who bring meaning to our lives. Today, let us offer gratitude to our men and women in uniform for their many sacrifices, and keep in our thoughts the families who save an empty seat at the table for a loved one stationed in harm’s way.
Perhaps I’m misreading this passage or reading to much into it, but isn’t the President suggesting that “those who bring meaning to our lives” are “our men and women in uniform”? Now, I’m as grateful as the next guy to our men and women in uniform, and honor them whenever I can. I’m glad that we have Veterans Day and Memorial Day, not to mention Armed Forces Day (not a national holiday, to be sure). But President Obama seems to wish to go to great lengths to avoid the original import of the holiday.
I guess I’m glad that most of us don’t pay all that much attention to what Presidents proclaim about this holiday. It ought to be a teachable moment, but Professor Obama is a little too politically correct for my taste.
For my previous reflections on the political theology of Thanksgiving, go here , here , and here .