Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thanksgiving Then and Now

America has always been a land of diverse faiths. And in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, George Washington particularly enjoined gratitude for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

While nominally Episcopalian, he himself was never a formal communicant in that church, and his Proclamation avoided specifically Christian language. Indeed, Washington’s writings virtually never referred to the deity as Christ or Redeemer or Savior, and his Thanksgiving decree was typical in calling on God as “the beneficent author all good” and “the Lord and Ruler of Nations,” seeking in his own way to find an inclusive vocabulary that could unite rather than divide his fellow Americans.

Religion, Washington felt, should be force that brings people together across sectarian lines. So in a letter he wrote as President in 1790 to the Jewish Synagogue in Newport, he assured the sons of Abraham that all in the newly founded nation “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

Americans may finally be embracing what Washington called “the enlarged and liberal policy” of respect for religious differences. According to a Pew Forum poll conducted last year that interviewed 2,905 adults, only 29% of respondents surveyed agreed with the statement, “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” Solid majorities of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Evangelicals all agreed that other paths–even non-Christian religions–may lead to salvation.

Thanks largely to the separation of church and state, which our Founders so wisely instituted, the United States today has become the most spiritually diverse nation on earth. Harvard’s Pluralism Project counts 1660 mosques currently operating in our country, 724 Hindu temples, 2228 Buddhist centers, and 252 Sikh temples. For over two hundred years, devotees of most of these traditions have been able to co-exist amicably with their Christian and Jewish neighbors. Friendship, rather than strife, has been the norm.

As we gather round our tables in the spirit of George Washington’s Proclamation, that truly is a reason to give thanks.

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