• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

Is government observance of Thanksgiving a violation of the separation of church and state?

In a culture on the fast track of secular progressivism, I knew sooner or later I would read or hear a news report that proclaimed there is something constitutionally errant with the state recognition of Thanksgiving, a holiday that is at its heart about thanks-giving to God. With the Christmas culture war almost passé, it was only a matter of time before the day that honors the Christian Pilgrims came under attack. Secularists seek to seize your nativities – and now they are trying to steal your turkey.

Last week a Newsweek/Washington Post editorial labeled presidential Thanksgiving day proclamations “cracks in the wall of separation.” The author explained, “The problem with these proclamations, it seems to me, is that they pave the way for public acceptance of gross violations of the constitutional separation of church and state. …” What?!

Forget for a moment that nearly every president since George Washington and the Continental Congress before them have given Judeo-Christian proclamations for Thanksgiving (except between 1816-1861), as well as declared other national days of fasting and prayer. Secularists (like the author of the editorial) get almost giddy every time they highlight that Thomas Jefferson rejected the notion of proclaiming Thanksgiving speeches and prayers. But the truth is Jefferson was far from the modern-day secularist they make him out to be.

Sure, Jefferson was adamant (as we all should be) that there should be no federal subscription to any one form of religious sectarianism. That is largely what the First Amendment is all about – establishing the free exercise of religion, and restricting sectarian supremacy in government as well as government intrusion in churches.

But secularists make two grave mistakes when it comes to Jefferson and the First Amendment. First, they misconstrue his understanding of separation. Second, they overlook how Jefferson himself endorsed and intermingled religion and politics, even during his two terms as president. Let me explain, as I believe it is a timely reminder as we experience new rounds of battles in our Christmas culture war, too.

Liberals would have us believe that the First Amendment establishes a “separation of church and state.” But that phrase appears nowhere in the First Amendment, which actually reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The phrase “separation of Church and State” actually comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists. He told them that no particular Christian denomination was going to have a monopoly in government. His words, “a wall of separation between Church and State,” were not written to remove all religious practice from government or civic settings, but to prohibit the domination and even legislation of religious sectarianism.

Proof that Jefferson was not trying to rid government of religious (specifically Christian) influence comes from the fact he endorsed using government buildings for church meetings and services, signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that allotted federal money to support the building of a Catholic Church and to pay the salary of the church’s priests, and repeatedly renewed legislation that gave land to the United Brethren to help their missionary activities among the Indians.

Some might be completely surprised to discover that just two days after Jefferson wrote his famous letter citing the “wall of separation between Church and State,” he attended church in the place where he always had as president: the U.S. Capitol. The very seat of our nation’s government was used for sacred purposes. As the Library of Congress website notes, “It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church.”

Does that sound like someone who was trying to create an impenetrable wall of separation between church and state? If everything the American Civil Liberties Union said about the First Amendment were true, Jefferson would flunk their religious-state separation test. Liberal groups like the ACLU don’t want Americans to know that for the founders, Judeo-Christian belief and practice and government administration and policy were not separated at all. Denominational tests for public office were prohibited, but the idea that Judeo-Christian ideas and practices had to be kept separate from government would have struck them as ridiculous. The very basis for the founders’ ideas was rights that were endowed upon all of us by our Creator.

The ACLU and like-minded groups are not preserving First Amendment rights; they are perverting the meaning of the Establishment Clause (which was to prevent the creation of a national church like the Church of England) and denying the Free Exercise Clause (which preserves our rights to worship as we want, privately and publicly). Both clauses were intended to safeguard religious liberty, not to circumscribe its practice. The framers were seeking to guarantee a freedom of religion, not a freedom from religion.

As Judge Roy Moore of Alabama reminded us, “The issue was addressed 150 years ago when the Senate Judiciary Committee, while considering the congressional chaplaincy, said, ‘[The founders] had no fear or jealousy of religion itself, nor did they wish to see us an irreligious people; they did not intend to prohibit a just expression of religious devotion by the legislators of the nation, even in their public character as legislators; they did not intend to spread over all the public authorities and the whole public action of the nation the dead and revolting spectacle of atheistical apathy.’” Yet groups like the ACLU are spreading that “revolting spectacle of atheistical apathy” across our land, and in doing so they are not only changing our laws but revising our history.

So, would Jefferson have regarded any government observance of Thanksgiving as a violation of the separation of church and state? Absolutely not – though he personally preferred to demonstrate his own allegiance to (and freedom under) the First Amendment by declining Thanksgiving proclamations. To say he would have avoided Creator-language in any and all civil addresses is ludicrous. Remember, after all, he did write the Declaration of Independence with all of its Creator-language – a most supreme theistic treatise or proclamation, if you will.

In an 1808 letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, Jefferson consented it was to protect the church from the state (not vice versa) that was at the heart of his motivation: “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. … But it is only proposed that I should recommend not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer.”

Let’s face the present Thanksgiving facts. President Bush will likely give the last explicit Judeo-Christian Thanksgiving proclamation that Americans will hear for the next four to eight years, as President-elect Obama will likely coddle a form of godliness in his Thanksgiving addresses (if he indeed gives them) that appeases the masses with a deity that fits every politically correct dress.

But I’m an optimist. And, since so much attention is being given right now by the media and the president-elect himself regarding his parallels to and lessons learned from President Abraham Lincoln, I recommend Obama heed Lincoln’s Thanksgiving wisdom. Don’t mince or milk down the God of the pilgrims, as is being done in public schools across this land with the retelling of that first Thanksgiving. Boldly proclaim, as Lincoln and nearly every other president, thanks to our Creator for His providential care (even through tough economic winters).

Obama doesn’t even need a speech writer for Thanksgiving 2009. He can simply recite Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, in which he thanks the Almighty for America’s bountiful blessings (despite enduring a time of war and grave economic hardships). The content seems divinely timed for even such a wintery season as ours:

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Whatever your religious persuasion, don’t hesitate this Thanksgiving to bow your head, give thanks to God and follow Lincoln’s advice. And, when you do, don’t forget to say a prayer for our troops and their families. While they serve us so we can safely serve our Thanksgiving dressings, the least we can do is serve them a little honor and remembrance.


  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.