WASHINGTON, D.C.—When America publicly gives thanks to the Almighty, it opens a window into the soul. In times of war we glimpse the torments and the hopes of a nation struggling to realize, or salvage, its founding ideals.
Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Thanksgiving Day proclamation saw a divine role in the forces for freedom and union during the Civil War. “It has pleased Almighty God,” he said, “to vouchsafe signal victories to the land and naval forces engaged in suppressing an internal rebellion.” Lincoln’s army would suffer signal defeats as well, viewed by Confederate leaders as proof that Almighty God was on their side. Nevertheless, as the conflict wore on, it became impossible to imagine that God was indifferent to the crisis over slavery or the struggle to resolve it. Two years later, with victory in sight, Lincoln would offer thanks for the “fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity.”
As Europe was convulsed by the carnage of the Great War, Woodrow Wilson saw not only “the tragedy of a world shaken by war and immeasurable disaster.” He managed to see blessings as well: the chance to join a global struggle against the forces of aggression and lawlessness. “We have been given the opportunity to serve mankind as we once served ourselves in the great day of our Declaration of Independence,” he said in his 1917 proclamation, “by taking up arms against a tyranny that threatened to master and debase men everywhere and joining with other free peoples in demanding for all the nations of the world what we then demanded and obtained for ourselves.” Cynics about American power remind us that America’s entry into the conflict did not “make the world safe for democracy.” They forget what in fact it did accomplish: the speedy conclusion of the war, the saving of thousands of lives, and the preservation of what was left of any democratic ideal in Europe.
Twenty years later the European powers would be aflame in the ideologies of Nazism and fascism, while America returned to its isolationist nest. By the time Franklin Roosevelt issued his Thanksgiving Day
proclamation of November 1941—barely two weeks before the Japanese
attack at Pearl Harbor—Britain stood virtually alone in the contest
against the “evil and slavery” of Hitler’s Third Reich. FDR noted that America was “sending succor” to those nations “bravely defending their homes and their precious liberties against annihilation.” But Britain and
her European Allies needed more than succor, more than diplomatic
gestures, more than prayers for “freedom, brotherhood and justice”
being offered by the American president. They needed war material—much
more than was being delivered via the Lend Lease Act approved earlier
What the European democracies needed, of course, was America’s all-out commitment of its military and economy power to the life-and-death struggle against totalitarianism. Not until the United States was attacked would the nation be prepared to make such a commitment. When it finally came—most visibly in America’s special alliance with Great Britain—even then the cost in human lives to overcome Hitler’s terrorism would be staggering. Only after D-Day, when 156,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy, could President Roosevelt use a Thanksgiving address to anticipate victory:
“In this year of liberation, which has seen so many millions freed from tyrannical rule, it is fitting that we give thanks with special fervor to our heavenly Father for the mercies we have received…for the blessings He has restored, through the victories of our arms and those of our allies, to His children in other lands.”
Roosevelt knew that even if the European campaign were successful, there would be much fighting and dying left to do, thanks to the viciousness and suicidal fury of Japanese aggression. Perhaps this is why FDR went on to encourage every American to participate in “a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures” from Thanksgiving to Christmas of 1944. The aim, he said, was for every citizen to draw strength from “those eternal truths” that have helped inspire the nation’s political and economic achievements.
We’ve journeyed far, both here and in Europe, from this earlier vision of faith and democratic freedom. The vision could be faulted for its presumption of Divine favor, its self-righteousness, its confusion of true religion with political ideals. Yet the boorish secularism that seeks to replace it, here and in Europe, seems somehow vacant and ghost-like: It is unable to offer anything but a languid, lumpish, listless defense of human dignity and democratic government.
We can be grateful that this apparition has never overwhelmed America’s democratic faith, and remain hopeful that it never will.
Joe Loconte is a commentator on religion and politics for National Public Radio and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.