Giving Thanks to God

Report Religious Liberty

Giving Thanks to God

November 26, 2003 3 min read
Matthew Spalding
Vice President of American Studies

When President Bush issues his Thanksgiving Proclamation-inevitably noting the many blessings, as well as the great responsibilities, of our liberty-he will be participating in a tradition that affirms once again that, while we are committed to upholding religious liberty, we remain one nation under God.


This is because President Bush is following in the footsteps-and speaking in the voice of-America's Founding Fathers, who saw religion as a necessary and vital element of their experiment in republican government.


Founders' Original Meaning

America's Founders sought the official separation of church and state, just as they favored government encouragement and support of religion in public laws, official speeches and ceremonies, on public property and in public buildings. They did not believe for a moment-concerned, as they were about the moral character of citizens-that government should be neutral toward religion.


The United States Supreme Court has taken a contrary view, arguing that any endorsement of God is an unconstitutional establishment of religion; violating the vast "wall of separation" it has built over the past half decade. The Court holds that government must be neutral, not just between particular religions but also between religion and non-religion-allowing no affirmation or endorsement of religion.


Thanksgiving Proclamations, being official statements of the executive, underscore the American Founders' view of religious liberty and show how far our understanding has changed from their original meaning.


The day after it approved the First Amendment and its protections of religious liberty, Congress called upon the president to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God."


President Washington responded by proclaiming November 26, 1789 the first official Thanksgiving, noting, "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 implore his protection and favor."


John Adams proclaimed, "A day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer; that the citizens on that day abstain as far as may be from their secular occupations, [and] devote the time to the sacred duties of religion in public and in private."


Thomas Jefferson was the exception, not the rule: his famous, and over-emphasized, "wall of separation" letter was written to explain his refusal to proclaim days of prayer and thanksgiving.


James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, and chief sponsor of the Bill of Rights, proclaimed as president that, "The eyes of all should be turned to that Almighty Power, in whose hands are the welfare and the destiny of nations" and recommended that citizens should address "their vows and adorations to the great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe" and "render him thanks for the many blessings he has bestowed on the people of the United States."


Such proclamations are not limited to early presidents: In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Suggested a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas" so that the people "may bear more earnest witness to our gratitude to Almighty God."


Nor are they limited to one political party: President Clinton recommended, "We set aside our daily routines to acknowledge the bounty and mercy of Divine Providence," and urged citizens to "gather in their homes and places of worship to express their heartfelt gratitude for the many blessings of our lives." Ronald Reagan called on every citizen, "To gather together in homes and places of worship and offer prayers of praise and gratitude for the many blessings Almighty God has bestowed upon our beloved nation."


Religion & Liberty

Thanksgiving Proclamations recognize that, even though religion "never intervenes directly in the government of American society," as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, it determines the "habits of the heart" and is "the first of [our] political institutions."


In America, throughout its history, religion has flourished-and so has liberty. For that, and for the freedom to proclaim and testify to our faith, all Americans ought to the thankful.


Matthew Spalding

Vice President of American Studies