Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For most Americans in 2021, Thanksgiving means a day off from work, perhaps also an occasion to gather with family to eat more than one should. Its history and its cultural meaning are shrouded for most of us. Perhaps elements of a mythologized colonial event come to mind—fondly, for some, but with the venomous spite of woke resentment for many others. Few think of Thanksgiving as a broad cultural ethic that should extend beyond a day late in November to the entirety of American social life.  

This is because we are so embarrassingly far from the healthy cultural space that produced the Thanksgiving ethic. Contemporary American culture has two dominant faces, seemingly opposed but in fact deeply symbiotic, neither of which can sustain us as a people.

The first American cultural attitude is that of Egoist America. It is blustering, overconfident, and superficial. It is the attitude of many who exercise the lion’s share of power in this society—financial power and, through their control of the economy, cultural and political power as well. One might imagine a statement of Egoist America's core values thus: “I alone am the best, clearly superior to all others who do not even deserve to be ranked because the game at hand can have but one winner. My superiority is evident in my material success. Look at all the things I own! Look at how my power increases daily through my production of things coupled with my efforts to convince my fellow citizens, often against their own best interests, that their lives are unfulfilled and incomplete unless they purchase and consume, in abundance, the things I make!”

The second American cultural attitude is that of Victim America. It is equally interested in wielding power, but it does so through a moral mechanism it borrowed (and then warped) from a Christian religious ethic that it despises. The assertion of power takes place through claims of moral superiority as an eternally suffering victim. The core values of Victim America might be expressed in words like these: “I am the best of all, clearly superior to all others because I suffer more than they do. Look at all the ways in which my identity is disadvantaged, disparaged, discriminated against, and disregarded! Look at how my superiority shows through in the righteous anger I have about the injustice of every single moment of my life!”

Imagine a third possible American cultural attitude, one that took seriously the ethic of Thanksgiving.  

That ethic is grounded in humble gratitude, in quiet and respectful thankfulness for every undeserved gift we have been given by a God who owes us nothing. Every one of us, no matter how high or low, regardless of our personal story, has received such gifts. Every one of us is the recipient of overflowing bounty that we manage, in our conceit and inattention, to overlook and forget: the health we enjoy; the love we receive from our family and friends; the purpose of our work; the lives we live, however troubled, however fraught with cares and concerns and stress and struggles; the mere fact that we are here, and that we experience being in this world, breathing, feeling, seeking.  

Such an ethic was present in America at the beginning. Our first president, at his first inaugural address, outlined this ethic for us as a national political project. On April 30, 1789, George Washington pledged to take up his office with zeal and dedication, notwithstanding his strong desire to retire to the calm of private life after the incalculable service he had already given his country. He spoke, in a humble language, of his anxiety that he might not be up to the magnitude of the task. But he found the required courage in invoking the moral force outside him to which he gratefully acknowledged an unpayable debt:  

It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than those of the United States. Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.  

In early October of that same year, at the request of both houses of Congress, the first president proclaimed that November 26 should be a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. Thanksgiving as a national holiday was not officially enshrined in its present form until after the Civil War, but Washington set the tone from the earliest moments of our Republic.  

Finding the way back to the ethic of thanksgiving, to the moral space articulated by our first president—and not just for a day in November, but always—is perhaps the only means by which we can save ourselves from the inevitable dissolution of Egoist America and Victim America.   

Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by GPA Photo Archive via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles