Two turkeys named May and Flower will not be carved up tomorrow after all. They were spared by a mock presidential pardon earlier this week. Do you care? Me neither, but I learned about it on the White House home page, in the course of looking for President Bush's official Thanksgiving Day proclamation. The pardon story is right there up front, whereas you have to drill down a layer or two to find the proclamation. This is what we've come to, 218 years after the First US Congress resolved to ask President George Washington for an official proclamation of national thanksgiving. He obliged with this masterpiece, which along with Lincoln's wartime proclamation of 1863 is probably the best known in the long line of annual documents.
I enjoy reading each year's proclamation, no matter who is in the White House. I grew up hearing them read in church services on the Thursday morning, prior to our family dinner around my mother's or grandmother's table. The menu was always turkey, but back then that wasn't the name of the day. The day was about giving gratitude to God for his favor upon our nation, and honoring Him in hope of its continuation.
In the 1950s in those towns where I lived in Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado, Americans still believed that "it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor," as Washington's 1789 proclamation puts it.
Many agreed with the Father of our Country, even then, that the prayers on Thanksgiving Day should go so far as to "beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions" as well as "to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue" in America.
Lincoln's 1863 proclamation is also worth reading in full and pondering. In the third year of a horrific civil war, the Emancipator was able to enumerate many blessings for which gratitude to God was due, summarizing: "No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."
Like Washington, he too urged that the day include "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience," and his recommended approach to praying for peace did not omit a submissive note, foreshadowing the Second Inaugural address 16 months later. Citizens, he urged, should "fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union" (italics added).
It's a long way from the sunlit America of 1789 to the agonized land of 1863 to the turkey pardon of 2007. I very seldom agree with Marx about anything, but you wonder if this is one of those cases he noted of history repeating itself -- first as tragedy and then as farce.
While President Bush's proclamation for this year contains little that God-fearing Americans may disagree with, there is almost nothing in it that challenges us to remember a Deity whom the first president called "that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be" and whom the 16th president referred to as "the Source... our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."
Bush mentions God only a single time in his own words about the present day, and only twice more in historical references to what earlier generations believed. This from a president who is undoubtedly a man of deep faith, directed to a country that has been called the world's most devout, "a nation with the soul of a church." It's a matter, I guess, of what any public official is now permitted (by the secularist watchdogs of mass media and cultural elites) to say upon any public occasion, even Thanksgiving Day. One is moved to cry out, not flippantly but in all earnest: God help us!