A Thanksgiving Ideal
Thanksgiving 1998 is almost upon us, and I’ve been thinking about the history of the holiday, about who we’re “thanking,” and why. When the Pilgrims first celebrated Thanksgiving, they prayed to a Christian god. After all, that was more than 150 years before the U. S. Constitution was written, and ironically, even though many of the Pilgrims were religious dissenters in Europe, they established theocracies in the American colonies.
As I pause to think about my life, and those who have shared and enriched it, I give silent thanks to scientists who eradicated polio so parents could rest easier, to farmers who grow the vegetables and fruit that sustain us, to others who keep warmth and light in our homes… to teachers, doctors, artists, the list is endless. But a speech given long ago reminds me that we mustn’t take for granted something which the vast majority of humankind has never been lucky enough to experience. Just before Thanksgiving of 1979, not long after the Pope visited the United States, Rep. Paul McCloskey, a California Democrat, delivered a speech concerning separation of church and state to the House. It’s remarkable for its candor, and its message of principle, as shown in these excerpts, is just as important today as it was almost twenty years ago.
Rep. McCloskey began speaking, thanking the Pope profusely for his visit. Then he continued: “… an even greater cause for thanksgiving lies in the quiet reflection that our unique American constitutional heritage allows us to view the Pope in perspective as only one leader of one religion; that no longer can a single religion command that its beliefs be accepted by others upon pain of death at the stake or upon the rack. We are reminded that our first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 to mark the survival and good fortune of new arrivals to a rocky and forbidding land. At the same time, and for two centuries thereafter, Pope John Paul II’s predecessors in Rome were presiding over the Inquisition, torture and execution of thousands…..
“Our own continent, less than three centuries ago, saw the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition raised over the Pueblo indians of New Mexico. … In our colonial days we saw executions for witchcraft and banishment for differences in religious beliefs… As a result we adopted in the very first addition to our Constitution, Article 1 of our Bill of Rights, with its clear declaration of principle: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
“The Pope’s visit… could not help but refocus our thinking on the benefits of our own separation between church and state. The Pope saw no problem in urging that our laws be changed to reflect the moral precepts of his church. On abortion, he was specific… “right to life must be recognized and fully protected by law.” As to church law, we agree. But as to civil law, we think the Pope was uncharacteristically unaware of our history when he said “must.” No religious view “must” be written into law… Is it not best that we maintain the separation of church and state which has served us so well for nearly 200 years?
“We have learned, at great cost, not to delegate the same power to those in civil authority which your church accepts as its due. We respect your views on abortion and contraception, but our laws are otherwise… We have studied and understand the derivation, from St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, of your view that women should not be accorded equal rights in your church, but we hope you will understand our pride in our own 1964 Civil Rights Act which guarantees women equal rights in their legal relationships.
“We respect your church’s progress since the Inquisition, as we revere our own fortunate progress away from religious persecution since our first Thanksgiving. We will celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday this year with a special blessing for your reminder to us of the unique and priceless heritage we enjoy of freedom of religion… and freedom from religion, if we so choose.”
Why should I find this speech extraordinary when reading it so many years later? Are these not the ideals taught in American history class? Why shouldn’t we expect our leaders to rise and pound the podium in defense of keeping the state separate from religion, rather than be surprised when they do? As we watch latter-day Pilgrims exert unprecedented religious influence over our government and culture, smug in their wrong-headed belief that they know better than we do what’s good for us, do Rep. McCloskey’s words not haunt us even as their meaning today appears less treasured and more out of reach? Why must we sue our government over such obvious violations as “In God We Trust” on our currency and “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, only to have the judiciary turn a blind eye to these unconstitutionalities in the name of “tradition,” and a very brief tradition at that?
We who are unbelievers have so much to lose. The fire in the belly for freedom of conscience can be quelled when threatened, and the lips can be forced to mouth words. But the mind of the unbeliever, once opened to the fact that nothing supernatural exists either to worship or to fear, cannot be stilled without paying a great price. It is all too evident that life is a struggle for power by some human beings over others, and history has shown time and again that the most effective weapon for grabbing that power is religion. Will history show ours to be proof of the maxim that free societies don’t last?
I have an investment in this country, in whether I can say, as Clarence Darrow did, “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose,” or put a Darwin fish on my car if I want to, and in whether my children will continue to live in freedom throughout their lives. So this Thanksgiving, as my family gathers together, I’ll think of Paul McCloskey’s words, and be grateful that we live in a land where people are not put to death at the stake or upon the rack by a government hand-in-fist with religious Inquisitors… yet.