Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, a time to reflect on the many blessings bestowed on this great nation while enjoying the company of family and friends. It's hard to imagine that anyone could consider the celebration controversial or feel the need to censor Thanksgiving discussions among schoolchildren. But when it comes to political correctness, no holiday is safe. Having turned Christmas and Hanukkah into amorphous winter festivals, now some school districts want to rob Thanksgiving of its historical roots. Apparently some school officials worry that the religious overtones of Thanksgiving might represent a chink in the wall secularists insist separates church and state, so they proscribe any mention of Who it is the nation thanks on this day.
In Maryland, the Capital News Service recently reported, "students are free to thank anyone they want while learning about the 17th-century celebration of Thanksgiving -- as long as it isn't God."
George Washington had no such qualms when he proclaimed the first day of thanksgiving in 1789: "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." In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." In the midst of civil war, President Lincoln thought the day should be used to "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." And even President George W. Bush soberly reminded guests who came to the White House last week to witness the mock pardoning of the "First Turkey" that "in this nation of many faiths, we ask that the Almighty God continue to bless us and to watch over us."
Religious faith is at the heart of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were Puritan dissenters who left England as a form of religious protest against the Anglican Church, which they felt retained too much of the pomp and ceremony of Roman Catholicism. After surviving a brutal first winter in their new colony of Plymouth, the Pilgrims celebrated the harvesting of their first crops by giving thanks to the Creator Whose Providence they believed was responsible. But that part of the Thanksgiving story is largely missing from most public school curricula. Teachers may encourage schoolchildren to mimic the Pilgrims' dress -- wearing black hats, stiff collars, big buckles and white leggings -- or recreate the banquet the colonists enjoyed, but they forbid them from acknowledging the true roots of the holiday.
Ironically, some school guides devote more time to teaching about the origin of the Wampanoag traditions of thanksgiving than they do the Puritans'. Several guides mentioned the importance these Native Americans attached to giving thanks to the Creator for the crops they grew in each season. Apparently it is permissible to teach about the Indians' belief in a Divine Being, just not a Judeo-Christian one. In one online teachers' guide, I found references to Kiehtan, the Wampanoag name for the Creator, as well as lesson plans that encouraged students to thank "Mother Earth" for her bounty. Indeed, many of the study guides and teachers' resources available online placed greater emphasis on the role Indians played in the first Thanksgiving than that of the Pilgrims. While most of the guides depicted the Indians giving thanks to the Creator, the Pilgrims were largely confined to giving thanks to the Wampanoag for saving them from the ravages of the harsh Massachusetts winter.
No one is suggesting children should be forced to pray as part of their public school Thanksgiving celebrations, but they should not be denied learning an important lesson in American history. The founders of this nation were a deeply religious people, and Americans remain among the most religious people in the world. Religious faith has guided the development of our democracy and imbues our leaders still with a belief in the worth of every man, woman and child. When we sit down to our Thanksgiving feasts, we should remember and thank God for that.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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