On Being Thankful for America at Thanksgiving
COMMENTARY: At Thanksgiving 2021, America should rediscover hope in its heart.
This Thanksgiving, no one living in the United States should be anything but profoundly grateful for the privilege of living in this country. No one.
That’s not necessarily a popular sentiment today. The country is amidst one of its periodic spasms of self-flagellation, amplified by political hucksters and charlatans of right and left (nothing new) and by social media demagogy (something new and ominous). And no doubt there’s a lot to ponder, and repent of, in the American past and present. But that’s true of every human society and will be until the end of time. What is worth giving thanks for in America — what demands our gratitude and our prayers of thanksgiving — is that the United States has built-in resources of renewal, as it has shown time and time again.
This Thanksgiving, think of the American story as an epic of ever-expanding inclusion: a country of flawed human beings that nonetheless strives, generation after generation, to give real effect to its birth certificate’s assertion that all human beings are created equal.
Concretizing that credal affirmation has never been easy. Irish and German immigrants had to fight for inclusion, as, later, did the Italians, Jews and Slavs. To vindicate human equality against the ancient practice of chattel slavery, Americans fought a civil war that cost three quarters of a million lives. Women were enfranchised by the 19th Amendment, the great civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965 were passed, and the physically handicapped afforded easier access to public spaces by federal law.
Each of our national achievements in widening the circle of common care and concern involved struggle. But inclusion won, time and again. And the victories helped create a society that few want to leave (including those who constantly decry it) but millions want to join.
Sadly, there was one moment of drastic inversion in this historical process of expanding the boundaries of the American community of the commonly protected. That was the Supreme Court’s odious 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, which summarily declared an entire class of human beings, the unborn, outside the circle of common care and concern.
So we should pray, at Thanksgiving 2021, that the Supreme Court will consign Roe v. Wade to the dustbin of history next year when it decides Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Then, as over the past half-century since Roe, it will be our obligation to provide ever more effective service to women in crisis pregnancies and their unborn children. By doing so, we will demonstrate yet again that those who take seriously the right to life celebrated in the Declaration of Independence believe that All Lives Matter — and act on that belief, thereby expanding the circle of mutual protection in America.
There is nothing more American than musical theater, and its 20th-century masters, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, are worth revisiting at any time — but perhaps especially at Thanksgiving 2021. For as Peter Tonguette points out in the December First Things, songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon provide a nicely subversive riposte to the America-haters among us today. Written in the late 1940s, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught, from South Pacific, is a well-crafted answer to the now-ubiquitous claims that racial prejudice is built into the human condition, and especially the American experience. No, Lt. Cable sings, prejudice is a behavior we learn, as the easy, innocent friendships among children of different races and ethnicities confirm. Are Americans a rootless people, so soaked in the dissipating juices of change and endless movement that we belong nowhere? That’s not what they sing in Oklahoma!, when the chorus exults, “We know we belong to the land/And the land we belong to is grand.”
And then there’s that paean to faith from Carousel: “When you walk through a storm/Hold your head up high/And don’t be afraid of the dark./At the end of a storm/There’s a golden sky/And the sweet silver song of a lark./Walk on through the wind/ Walk on through the rain/Though your dreams be tossed and blown./Walk on, walk on/With hope in your heart/ And you’ll never walk alone./You’ll never walk alone.”
At Thanksgiving 2021, America should rediscover hope in its heart. Doing so is not fantasy, nor is it something unnatural to us as a people. A hopeful heart is a truly American heart. Because as the Declaration of Independence affirms, we never walk alone, but in the care of the God who gave us life and liberty at the same time.