“The gods of my tribe have spoken. They said do not trust the pilgrims. And especially do not trust Sarah Miller. For all these reasons I have decided to scalp you and burn your village to the ground” — Wednesday Addams, “Adams Family Reunion.”
“I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form of religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not. Rather than simply denounce what seems in any case inevitable, it seems more responsible to seek within the civil religious tradition for those critical principles which undercut the everpresent danger of national self-idolization.” — Robert Bellah
One of the peculiarities of the United States is the absence of a state church or any kind of broad-based religious tradition that can be considered authentic and indigenous. From its inception it was multi-confessional, created largely by men from within the protestant tradition who themselves had a highly skeptical view of the church.
Of course America has not dispensed with religion entirely. Apart from anything else, it says “In God We Trust” on the money. One way to create national cohesion is with shared feast days, celebrating events, individuals and values in keeping with the desired ethos. Doing so reinforces the approved messages and creates shared experiences that solidify a sense of unity.
The sociologist Robert Bellah dubbed this as “American Civil Religion.”
The current struggle in the culture wars seems to be between those who hold this notion of American Civil Religion is inherently white supremacist and needs to be dismantled, and those who believe it is right and proper to honor as “heritage” rather than “hate.”
No festival encapsulates this divide more than Thanksgiving. Even Columbus Day, which gets a lot of pushback, evokes less anguish, because hardly anyone celebrates it. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is deeply bound up with people’s homes, family dinners and happy times.
Some argue the holiday reinforces a colonialist narrative which celebrates white European domination of the native population, aided and abetted by collaborators within those native populations. It is one of history’s ironies that without the active assistance of various native tribes during the first century or three of European presence in the land, the settlers may very well have perished.
It’s also true that America is the freest and wealthiest society that has ever existed. It’s achievements are glorious, and its people well fed and secure. What is uncomfortable for many people (especially on the contemporary left) is that those achievements were not simply made in spite of America’s history of racism, slavery, imperialism and genocide, but because of it.
Crying over the past in some kind of performative way isn’t going to bring back any burned villages, or restore the native peoples to their land. Nor is anyone doing this really serious about giving up this country and returning, shame-faced, to Europe in wooden boats. Nor would the Europeans, mired as they are in their own problems, particularly appreciate a sudden flood of SJW immigrants rocking up at Dover, Hamburg and Marseilles bleating about the Trail of Tears and the Manifest Destiny.
Any conversation about this has to treat history as history, and deal honestly with the present and the future, rather than rehashing centuries old conflicts which have long since been resolved.
So how do you, as an individual, relate to Thanksgiving? It’s a festival which perhaps more than any other encapsulates this peculiarly American reality – immense gratitude for the present situation, with more than a little unease over the blood-stained path which led us here.
Well how does any faith tradition deal with the discomfort of its brutal past?
To refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving can seem to be an ungrateful slap in the face which disregards the reality of American prosperity. To celebrate it without acknowledging the dark underside seems churlish, naive and cruel.
How you decide to commemorate it will set the tone for you and your family. Rituals like this feast day, whether you like it or not, embed a set of unconscious assumptions into the minds of those present and participating. If you do decide to go ahead with a family meal (as most people do), it may be a good idea then to think carefully about exactly which direction you want to go.
If you have your own home, there is no requirement to proceed according to tradition simply because that is what you are used to. You have inherited the practices of your ancestors. What you do with them, whether you decide to carry them on, or alter them, or disregard them, is up to you.
Decisions about the trajectory of a society are made on the micro-level, millions of times over, by individuals in their own homes. What values you want to reinforce in your household today will be the inheritance your children remember.