This year marks the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln urged Americans to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November” as a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
This proclamation was issued in the midst of the Civil War, the most terrible war this nation has ever known. President Lincoln acknowledged that war when he suggested the need for “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” (What a contrast to the attitude of national pride and xenophobia that so often accompanies a nation’s march to war.) Lincoln also recommended that his fellow citizens remember in their prayers “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.”
As we celebrate this holiday once again, we can be thankful we are not in the midst of such a war. I am glad that American military action in Afghanistan is winding down and is over in Iraq.
There are many other things we can be grateful for this season. Let me suggest a few:
One of our blessings is living in a country where we can practice religion freely and without fear. As Americans gather in their mosques on Fridays, synagogues on Fridays and Saturdays, or their churches on Saturdays or Sundays, police do not break up the services or force them to join a state church.
Another is freedom of speech. I can criticize the government without worry about being thrown in jail. Indeed, I have the right to protest and rally with others – the right to assemble. A friend of mine said he was with a group at the National Archives peering at the original Constitution and Bill of Rights. Afterwards, one person in the group, seeing a group of protesters nearby, complained that there ought to be a law against such protests! Thankfully, there is a law – even a Constitution – in favor of the right to protest!
I also have the ability to read a free press, unrestricted by the government. I am thankful I can be informed about what is going on in government without censorship.
I am appreciative of the fact that I live in a nation with minority rights. Mitt Romney lost the election last year, but he can do as he wishes. In many other nations, he would have been thrown in jail, deported, or executed. The electoral minority has the right to try again and, if victorious as the electoral majority, take office. Such peaceful transition of power between opposition political parties is still a dream in many nations, but it has happened 23 times in the history of our nation as a Democratic president is replaced by a Republican one or vice versa.
I also am grateful I live in a society where people have so much compassion for each other that they are willing to support, through their tax dollars, programs designed to care for the poor and needy. With Social Security, the elderly poor can have a floor below which they will not fall. The poor of all ages can receive medical treatment through Medicaid. And through Medicare, the elderly can enjoy access to basic health care. I am grateful for welfare programs that offer people a way out of poverty.
Of course such programs are supplements to the private acts of kindness we all show each other, particularly at this time of year. Many such acts will occur in the next month as people give to their family members and neighbors in need, invite the lonely to their Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, participate in Sub for Santa programs, and give donations to food banks. I am moved at the thought of the love that will be shown so many times in the next few weeks.
There is much to criticize about public policy and governmental officers, and sometimes facets of our culture and system. But, at this Thanksgiving time, it is appropriate to take a few minutes and express gratitude for all we are thankful for and, particularly, to direct that gratitude to our “beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.