by Harold Dean Trulear
Forty years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah changed the way we look at American religious history with his groundbreaking essay, “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah, who has since become better known as the lead author of Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1996), passionately argued that the United States had developed a national religion that, while echoing themes of Christianity, had moved to a different set of icons through which to interpret its sense of ultimate meaning.
In order to better understand this “civil religion,” Bellah explored American mythology, believing, like all social scientists, that a people’s stories about its past clearly influence its interpretation of the present. Just as the Jews’ stories of the exodus and deliverance help them to understand their current place in the world, so do Americans’ stories of our founding, past struggles, and historic achievements yield insights into how we view ourselves as a nation today.
Bellah believed that, although this new religion borrowed extensively from the official model of Christian faith, it had developed a distinctly American flavor. The exodus theme, for example, is alive and well in America. We see ourselves as a nation “delivered,” with the Revolutionary War standing in for the Red Sea crossing and George Washington as the American Moses. Our celebration of Washington, his character as well as his exploits, gives us a sense of our own national character (honesty, determination) and place in the world (fighters for freedom and democracy). No longer is Jesus the defining martyr whose sacrifice brought about the ultimate reconciliation. This role is now taken by Abraham Lincoln, whose life and death on behalf of a divided nation reconciled the seemingly disparate sections of our country, with peace made through his blood.
Holidays, too: “Holy days” are now much more about our nation than the Christian faith. Scan our “days of observance” and you will find the best that America has to offer: from military memorials to the celebration of labor. While Bellah does not spend much time in his essay on these holidays, he does point clearly to the Fourth of July as the new defining celebration of our time. Our celebration of national independence looms large in the national conscience. Contemporary observers such as Minnesota pastor and theology professor Greg Boyd have wondered aloud if the celebration of Independence Day in our churches eclipses in intensity and devotion the celebration of our ultimate freedom in Christ.
To truly acknowledge God involves causing considerable discomfort to the ego: It is hard to thank a bountiful God for the food on my table and not set an extra place for someone who is hungry of body or soul.
And what about Thanksgiving, which may loom even larger in the American psyche than the Fourth of July? The feast in which we partake on that day serves as much as a celebration of consumption as it does of gratitude. And in a nation that struggles with its violent history, nothing brings the folks together better than a football game. Football becomes the morality play that draws our aggression to its “proper” place, vicariously dramatized by well-paid heroes whose grit symbolizes what we believe to be the best of ourselves.
Which brings me back to the opening assertion of this essay: Thanksgiving Day makes no sense in a postmodern world. Wouldn’t a more era-appropriate celebration be “Appreciation Day”? Postmodern thinking has become so anthropocentric that “thanks” is hard to give. The concept of “thanksgiving” is implicitly transcendent; it assumes a sense of dependency on a Giver, and postmodern human fulfillment requires us to be dependent on no one.
Due to our contemporary tendency to credit the self—personal, corporate, and national—as the source of blessing and abundance, Thanksgiving Day has become an increasingly ego-driven celebration during which we engage in rituals that celebrate the best in us and our resolve to continue to be that way. We stop to appreciate what we have and who we are, but our national consciousness has no Transcendent Other to whom we can turn with gratitude; after all, we did it all ourselves.
We do have a national language that acknowledges God (Bellah notes the number of presidential inaugural speeches that have invoked the deity), but our operative theologies say otherwise. If you believe there is a God to thank, you ought to believe that God exists for other purposes than waiting for an annual Hallmark holler. Who is the God of Thanksgiving? Is it the God of the Bible, whose compassion for the poor, commitment to justice and peace, and heart for the hungry may go undetected by the simply appreciative?
Grateful people share—they pass along what they have been given. Appreciative folks first make sure they have theirs—and then give out of their excess. Grateful people know that what they have is a blessing bestowed. Appreciative folks value their stuff, but never acknowledge its true source. Why? Because to truly acknowledge God involves causing considerable discomfort to the ego: It is hard to thank a bountiful God for the food on my table and not set an extra place for someone who is hungry of body or soul. It is hard to feign total reliance on God as a people and then move preemptively as if God cannot be trusted to execute justice.
So, in an effort to be sensitive to the prevailing (civil) religion of our times, I wish you a very happy Appreciation Day! But if you persist in celebrating Thanksgiving, please, make sure to subject your ego to the proper degree of discomfort—share your blessings with those around you. Remember, “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required…” (Luke 12:48).
Harold Dean Trulear is director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and a fellow at the Center for Public Justice. He speaks and writes extensively on issues related to incarceration and is the coeditor of Ministry with Prisoners & Families: The Way Forward (Judson Press, 2011).