Getting Thanksgiving Right

In The Good Shepherd, Robert DeNiro’s film about how the CIA was founded through old, mostly WASP networks at Yale, Matt Damon (playing a CIA operative) visits Joe Pesci (playing a Mafia figure) in a Miami café. They work out an agreement that the mob will help the U.S. government take out Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro. Then Pesci – curious about the stiff WASP sitting in front of him – leans across the table:

“Lemme ask you a question. Italians, we got the Church, we got family. The Irish, they have their homeland. The Jews, they have their tradition. Even the n*****s got their music. What do you people have?”
“The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”

Things are no longer thus for ethnic Americans, partly because there are so many of them in the CIA, FBI, and the government generally that, it would be difficult for America to function without them. But there is still a warning here. For a large swath of us now, some formerly on the margins, America has become our religion.

Today is the day we traditionally give thanks for the many blessings God has showered on the United States and its people. And it’s entirely fitting because we live in one of the greatest nations in human history, despite great problems: from slavery in the earliest colonies to the current financial crisis. As we celebrate, however, it’s also a good thing to remind ourselves that the first Thanksgiving was not organized to thank God for the Pilgrims’ per capita income, the might of their military forces, tolerance of others, or the multicultural society they had formed with the Indians. The Pilgrims were grateful just to have survived and been allowed by God to continue their search for real liberty and holiness. That is always the true spiritual note of gratitude.

In recent years, Thanksgiving has sometimes gotten lost in extreme politicization between the saccharine sentimentalism of American boosters and the bitter radicalism of America’s critics. Both sides have made America into a kind of secular religion, for good or bad, praise or blame, perfection or perdition. For example, David Gerlernter, the victim of a terrorist bombing at Yale, produced a remarkable book last year, Americanism: the Fourth Great Western Religion, which, though marred by his exaggerated main thesis, combines great insights about the spiritual and moral values our country has added to its Jewish and Christian heritage – and to the world.

A temptation lurks here, however, that has recurred historically. If you don’t believe – and strongly at that – in a God Who transcends and needs to save the world, you will be strongly tempted to believe in some lesser god substitute. A nation is a perpetually plausible alternative because it participates in divine attributes. Authority over other men and, at times, power over life and death, are not just another set of practical arrangements within a commercial republic. The mysterious ways that a regime and its laws and lands, peoples and history, grow into a living human society, though by no means divine, reflect something at work in history beyond us. For that very reason, if Christianity does not remain faithful to itself, it can quickly be absorbed into a kind of divinized politics. This is true whether you believe in Americanism as a religion or in some anti-American liberation theology.

Among the things it is good for a Catholic to remember today, because they anchor us in a reality outside the quite proper human fellowship we will be celebrating, is the Eucharist, which means, literally in Greek, giving thanks. St. Paul says “give thanks (eucharisteite) always” (1 Thess 5:13) and reports that Jesus Himself even “on the night he was betrayed” gave thanks. (1 Corinthians 11:23). Catholics can bring to the American mix precisely this sense of a gratitude that extends beyond the good things of life as most people understand good, to something much greater, even in the midst of immediate evils, something that exists on an entirely different plane than the greatest regimes, however much we are grateful for them in our human way.

Even the modern philosophers have caught echoes of this truth. Some years ago I was reading Martin Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher most used by postmodern professors to terrorize university students. In his later, more mystical period, Heidegger often cited the old German Piestist saying, Denken is Danken, to think is to thank. Whenever we take the trouble to know the real truth, we render a kind of gratitude to reality. And the truth is that we are fragile creatures in a vast universe, but destined for eternity. As Chesterton put it: “It is the root of all religion that a man knows he is nothing in order to thank God that he is something.”

I love Thanksgiving Day and have no doubt schoolchildren thousands of years from now will learn in that obscure and dead language, English, all about our odd habits such as turkeys (including the one pardoned every year by the president), cranberry sauce, and pro football – in much the same way that we study the social ways of ancient Greece, Rome, and China. But I also hope that their teachers will be better than ours in making clearer the whole range of what it is that America celebrates today and Who it is that Thanksgiving is meant to thank.

[Editor’s note: because of a technical glitch, yesterday morning’s column by George Marlin first appeared in only partial form. For a fuller explanation of the charts on Catholic voting 2004-2008, please see the version now on this website.]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.