Presidents Give Thanks, But to Whom? By Tyler Zoanni

Posted on November 25th, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics


Last November, as President-elect, Barack Obama gave his first major Thanksgiving speech. Unsurprising at first glance, it’s a “Yes We Can” speech, though a sober one. Invoking Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamations from the Civil War, Obama acknowledges our own “difficult times.” He praises Americans’ “hard work, innovation, service, and strength,” while holding up the prospect of a “new beginning.”

Presidential boilerplate, right?

Not exactly. Take, for comparison, former President George W. Bush’s 2008 proclamation. Bush and Obama address many of the same themes—family, hard work, community service, soldiers’ sacrifices. But something central to Bush’s speech is absent from Obama’s.

That something is God. With claims of divine favor, Bush ends his proclamation by calling citizens to a type of prayer: “On this day, let us all give thanks to God who blessed our Nation's first days and who blesses us today.” We may be tempted to think that the anomaly is not Obama, but Bush, the man who named Jesus as his favorite philosopher. Not so, however. In his 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation, George Washington made a bold assertion: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” Almost 75 years later, Lincoln was not so confident about “the duty of nations.” But he did remain convinced of the holiday’s upshot: “We recognize that all of these blessings, and life itself, come not from the hand of man but from Almighty God.”

From Andrew to Zachary, Coolidge to Clinton, the vast majority of American presidents have invoked the divine before the last Thursday in November. Still, there have been a few notable exceptions. Gloomy John Adams preferred days of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” Jefferson’s anxieties over the First Amendment’s establishment clause led him to halt the proclamations. In a draft of the famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson condemned “even those occasional performances of devotion.” Madison seems to have felt the same way, and he stopped the tradition after his second year in office. Then, for nearly 50 years, no president offered a Thanksgiving address.

With the Civil War, Lincoln resurrected both the proclamations and the tradition of using them to give thanks to God. But President Obama’s speech this year suggests that he intends to stay different. He again invokes the expected themes—service to neighbor and country, gratitude for freedom and its costs. But once again, the role of the divine is minimal. This time, true, Obama does mention God, but only once and indirectly, in a quote from George Washington. Here, the point is to recount the history of Thanksgiving, not praise the Almighty.

Yet a religious sensibility is apparent in Obama’s Thanksgiving speeches. Obama is talking about national reverence, after all, and the “spirit that binds us together as one American family.” But this is a minimalist religion, one that doesn’t rely on claims or practices regarding the divine. Instead, it is concerned with “our common blessings,” and the rituals of a “unique national tradition,” not of synagogues, mosques, temples, or churches. If Providence is at work in America, then it’s a fate we make ourselves: “we can renew our nation…by coming together to overcome adversity.”

If Obama invokes religion in a general way, why downplay God in 2009 and skip the Almighty altogether in 2008? Unlike Jefferson, Obama probably isn’t worried that the First Amendment is threatened by religious language for what is now a day of football and food comas. And unlike a handful of past presidents, Obama is devout. (So devout, in fact, that his church attendance, not the lack thereof, was maligned during the campaign.)

Rather, I suspect that Obama, as a man of faith, has de-emphasized God in his Thanksgiving speeches because he is trying to practice what he preached in 2006: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” Obama is striving, in other words, to keep values at the center of the Thanksgiving proclamations. But for him, these values must be stated in language acceptable to all Americans, language that Hindus and humanists can speak, alongside Jews and Muslims. These speeches, then, are attempts to express gratitude in a genuinely inclusive manner. As we see with the nod to “indigenous communities” in his 2009 proclamation, the President is wrestling with the nature of leadership in a pluralistic country. He is trying to figure out what it means to speak for citizens who, as he says, “hail from every part of the world” and “observe traditions from every culture.”

In the United States, this incredible diversity is a fact. It’s certainly a blessing, a rich resource for a vibrant nation. Yet it is also a challenge. And so many questions confront Obama’s approach. Is this the best track for a Christian who leads what is possibly the most religiously diverse democracy in human history? Is such rhetoric, inclusive but arguably vague, really compelling? Finally, what might these Thanksgiving speeches forecast about the President’s developing vision of religion in America?

Some thoughts to ponder after the turkey or tofurkey.



Tyler ZoanniTyler Zoanni is Associate Publishing Editor of The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™. He was born and raised in rural Montana. He attended the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with honors and Phi Beta Kappa. While an undergraduate, he co-founded and led a student interfaith group and was a member of the Interfaith Youth Core's Fellows Alliance. Tyler is currently in the M.Div. program at Harvard Divinity School, after serving a year in Lutheran Volunteer Corps.

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