Like James Madison, the fourth President of the United States and father of the U.S. Constitution who had misgivings about Chief Executives making religious pronouncements of any kind, I could dispense with annual Thanksgiving Proclamation from the White House. But still I enjoy the holiday and forgive Obama and most of his predecessors for engaging in a little liturgical theater each November.
Glancing at George Washington's declaration of the first Thanksgiving, in 1789, provides an interesting window into the Founders' faith. Washington prominently offers gratitude for the "religious liberty with which we have been blessed." He also prays for the "practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science," suggesting no incompatibility between the two but implying that greater understanding of nature's laws might be the best window into the mind of the creator.
Washington actually acknowledged "Almighty God" in this document, which was a rarity in his other proclamations. More often, he referred to the deity with the kinds of circumlocutions that dot the rest of this Thanksgiving announcement: "Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be ... Great Lord and Ruler of Nations ... Providence." Interestingly, Washington nowhere, in any of his journals or correspondence, ever uses Christological formulas to refer to the divinity, e.g. "Savior, Redeemer," etc. In his own way, and in the context of his time, he was searching for what we'd now call inclusive religious language that went beyond Christian sectarianism to unite Americans of all religious persuasions in a bond of fellowship, civic cooperation and goodwill.
It was not a bad dream. And in today's polarized religious climate--when Mitt Romney's Mormonism is again a campaign issue and Muslims are profiled as potential terrorists--the Founders remain a sensible model of how faith might yet become a force that unites rather than divides us from each other. I imagine even atheists might thank God--with a wink--for the First Amendment. So let's celebrate and give thanks:
For a world in which there are many faiths,
For a nation in which there is freedom of worship,
And a land where people of all creeds, colors and backgrounds can sit together
At the table of mutual care and respect.