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William Pfaff on Thanksgiving

Reflections for a Thanksgiving Weekend*

*William Pfaff*

Paris, November 23, 2007 – Thanksgiving, the most generous of American
national holidays, has come under attack in some quarters because its
origin is Protestant and religious, and hence non-inclusive, connected
to events in American history to which the mass of immigrant America is

One would think this irrelevant, as those who have come to America, past
or present, joined an existing nation, and in courtesy and
responsibility should accept the terms of the nation’s existence and the
burdens and rewards of its history.

Of course the holiday is religious. What else could it have been,
originating in a Protestant sectarian community that had left England to
escape persecution for religious views unacceptable to the English
majority, and to the established Church of England?

The Pilgrims were dissident low-church Anglicans and Calvinist
non-conformists who abandoned the Anglican church in England because
they considered that notwithstanding its break with Rome, and its
adoption of a Protestant stance under Henry VIII and his daughter,
Elizabeth, it was still unacceptably tainted by Papism and heresy.

The rigorous and intolerant theological view of the “Puritans”
(originally a polemical term used by their enemies) asserted an
unadulterated biblical supremacy and a priesthood of believers. In this
respect they were American Protestant forerunners, American
Protestantism having remained predominantly low-church.

Through many vicissitudes Puritan beliefs softened in time into what
became mainstream American Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, and
under the influence of Enlightenment doubt, into Unitarianism,
Transcendentalism and Emersonian sentimentality.

The Puritans had other influences. They had come to America to find
religious liberty, but were unwilling to yield it to churchmen who
disagreed with them, or to the dissidents who were to emerge in their
own community.

They fell into the disorders of the witch-hunts, which regrettably were
to become something of an American cultural tradition, manifested in
what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics.
The Bush administration’s extraordinary exploitation after 9/11 of fear
of conspiracies, terrorists, and foreigners, and assertion of the
existence of an ineffable universal threat, demonstrated that this
factor in American culture lives on.

The Puritans provided the United States with its founding myth, of the
City on the Hill, appropriated for another age by Ronald Reagan. But
their City on the Hill was a theocracy, and in political terms a utopia.
They were out to build God’s kingdom on earth, a common religious
illusion, which since the reported death of God in 19th century western
civilization, has assumed secular form and given us death-dealing
totalitarian movements also building utopias on earth.

The Puritans were convinced that their austere settlement represented a
new start for humanity, and this idea has been appropriated by following
generations to mean that the United States possesses a unique moral
status in the world and a divinely-endowed mission to fulfill. There is
no reason whatever to believe that this is so, flattering as the idea
may be. However most of America’s foreign policy in the 20th and now
21st centuries has been constructed on this assumption.

When the Puritans landed in New England to establish their colonies,
there already were English settlers in Virginia with no such utopian
ideas, nor had any of the later settlements, which mainly were
commercial or proprietary. American religious utopianism is mostly

That first Thanksgiving, several days of feasting and festival following
a successful harvest, was attested to in detail by a letter home to
England from Edward Winslow in December 1621. He is the one who tells of
neighboring Wampanoag Indians (who had introduced the newcomers to
corn), attracted to what was going on, who contributed by entering the
forest to hunt five deer which they brought back for roasting.

The tradition of harvest festivals is old, and although from time to
time there were later presidential convocations of the American people
to give thanks to God, the modern holiday was proclaimed by Abraham
Lincoln in 1863, the third year of the Civil War, during which the
crucial battles of Chancellorsville, a Confederate victory, and
Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, all Confederate defeats, had
taken place.

In October Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanks for “the gracious gifts of
the Most High God Who, while dealing in anger with us for our sins, hath
nonetheless remembered Mercy.” He is thought to have chosen the date in
recollection of the Mayflower’s initial landing on November 21, 1620.

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day was to become an annual observance on the
last Thursday in November, until Franklin Roosevelt moved it back a week
to appease business demands for more shopping time before Christmas –
the first great step in Mammon’s recapture of Christmas from religion.

Thanksgiving in the 20th and 21st centuries has largely been
appropriated by food and football, but the sentiment and good will of
the occasion has largely survived, even when there is little to be
cheerful about, as this year; although what multiculturalism may do to
it in the future, God only knows – if one may be permitted the reference.

©Copyright 2007 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights

This article comes from William PFAFF <>

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