The public policy of Thanksgiving

The public policy of Thanksgiving

It was in 1836 that William Leggett, the outspoken editorial writer for the New York Plaindealer, wrote of finding “something exceedingly impressive in the spectacle which a whole people presents, in thus voluntarily withdrawing themselves on some particular day, from all secular employment, and uniting in a tribute of praise for the blessings they enjoy.”

Mr. Leggett, generally recognized as the “intellectual leader of the laissez-faire wing of Jacksonian democracy,” was speaking of Thanksgiving Day. But his comments prefaced a most contrarian argument for his day, one that sometimes engenders the same kind of public policy debate to this day.

Against “a custom so venerable for its age” and “so reverently observed,” Leggett took great exception to the practice of our constitutionally elected leaders issuing Thanksgiving proclamations.

After all, he argued, in framing our grand institutions of governance, had not “the great men to whom that important trust was confided taught, by the example of other countries, the evils which result from mingling civil and ecclesiastical affairs”?

Indeed, they had. So, how can such a “failure” to keep separate affairs of church and of state be justified as an acceptable public policy practice?

Harry Truman not only did a pretty good job of that on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1952 (at the cornerstone-laying of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va.), he defined what the role of religion ought to be in our constitutional republic:

“In Thanksgiving,” President Truman said, “we have a purely American holiday — fashioned out of our own history and testifying to the religious background of our national life. That day expresses what we mean when we say that our form of government rests on a spiritual foundation.

“It is from a strong and vital church — from the strength and vitality of all our churches — that government must draw its vision,” he continued. “In the teachings of our Savior, there is no room for bigotry, for discrimination, for the embittered struggle of class against class, or for the hostilities of nation against nation.

“St. Paul, in writing to the early church at Colossae, said, ‘Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.’”

Concluded Mr. Truman, in churches we find “the seeds of our vision of society. But we cannot keep that vision strong, or carry it out, without God’s help. And the churches must help us keep that vision always before us.

“Religious faith is the strength of our nation, and the hope of all mankind.”

Truman’s words are those we ask everyone to ponder this week as they prepare to partake in what even contrarian William Leggett had to admit was a nation’s exceedingly impressive spectacle of pausing in unison to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).