God, America, and Thanksgiving

Posted: Nov 25, 2003 12:00 AM

The second verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner" depicts these United States as "the heav'n-rescued land." And that was more than a century before Kate Smith and Irving Berlin entered their now-familiar plea that God "bless America." The anecdotes -- musical, historical, whatever --- could go on endlessly. America's love affair with the Lord is well-attested

The affair, by some evidence, would seem to have encountered a rough patch. There is Iraq, where the bloodshed and violence continue despite the best efforts of American war- and peace-makers. If we're so holy, why aren't we winning, huh?

The likes of Madonna and Britney don't precisely adorn American culture. The very notion of a nation "under God" is under assault by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and in Montgomery, Ala., the Ten Commandments have been wheeled out of sight at the behest of judges working, as they see it, to prevent civic scandal. (A sacred text! Eeeeek!) The better to accommodate gay couples, a closely divided Massachusetts high court has undertaken to declare that restricting marriage to the church's old-time one-man, one-woman terms just may not wash in these more enlightened times.

It could be argued that such developments, atop the secularizing tendencies of the past half century, cast a heavy pall over the giving of thanks on Thanksgiving. Thanks to whom? Or what? The question was never before in our history difficult to answer. Thanks to God. Who else? Henry Alford's famous Thanksgiving hymn would have it so: "God our Maker doth provide/For our wants to be supplied."

But, then, you know, maybe we've had it wrong all this time. You could certainly infer as much from the temper of modern times, when the pre-eminence of God looks to many like a matter of opinion. And maybe not even enlightened opinion. Say, aren't we all dedicated these days to pluralism and preference? To "your truth," "my truth," "Dave's niece's truth"?

It often enough seems that way -- less conspicuously so when federal judges inform us that the right to desire God's removal from public places (e.g., the Alabama Justice Center) takes precedence over the right to insist on leaving Him there. That's "pluralism"? That's "diversity"? By whose exceedingly odd definition?

On the other hand, as John Milton so nicely phrased it, "God doth not need man's works or his own gifts." Meaning, among other things, that the sovereign majesty and power of God in no way depend on human acknowledgment of the same.

One is frequently reminded that numerous Americans don't get that point at all, their own point being that allegiance to God is something like allegiance to the Republicans or the Democrats -- you pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Clearly, this wasn't the Pilgrim fathers' understanding. They had come to Massachusetts, not to escape God, rather to find Him in His fullness. They bowed the knee in voluntary recognition of His power and might. He was more than "a" truth. He was Truth itself. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," is one of the better-known deductions from this same acknowledgment.

God's allegedly special connection to the United States of America is grossly overstated, not least by over-repetition of John Winthrop's image of the "Citty upon a Hill." Still, in religious terms -- the terms in which most American continue to think -- no God, no blessings; no blessings, no thanksgiving; no thanksgivings -- daily or annual, formal or informal -- no conquest of pride, lust, anger and malice. In the end: no God, no human freedom.

America's long love affair with the Lord may unsettle particular Americans. These, on Thanksgiving, are free if they like to glom an extra drumstick, watch football 'til the world looks level, and render praises to instinct, evolution or whatever comes to mind. They will miss the point. But to miss even the point of all points -- isn't that just one more God-given right on a virtually endless roster?