Thanksgiving 2008: Be Thankful For Religious Liberty

Do you realize what a rare and wonderful thing freedom of conscience is?

Note: This post is a re-publication of one that originally appeared on Thanksgiving Day 2007. Enjoy the holiday!

When you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner today, do you plan to say grace?

If so, what religious tradition will the prayer come from? Will it be a blessing from the Jewish, Muslim or Hindu faiths? Will it be Catholic, Mormon or one of the infinite varieties of Protestant denominations?

Maybe you won't offer a prayer at all, instead simply thanking the cook for the bounteous meal set before you rather than a deity of any sort.

The choice – in America – is yours.

And most importantly, do you realize what a rare and wonderful thing freedom of conscience is? Religious liberty will probably be far from most Americans' minds on this day of roast turkey, parades, football and family. But it shouldn't be.

Throughout much of human history, governments and various religious faiths were united in an unholy and oppressive combination. People were required to profess allegiance to an official state religion – or at least keep a pretty low profile about their real beliefs.

When the first settlers came to America, that tradition of church-state union continued. The Pilgrims set their first Thanksgiving feast in November of 1621 in the context of a community where only the Protestant faith was observed. (OK, their Native American guests probably had their own religious traditions, but that's a different matter.)

On the way to the New World, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact. That governing document begins "In the name of God Amen" and asserts that the colonists undertook their mission "for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country."

The Compact pledges its signers to "Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony."

Some Religious Right leaders point to the Compact and other early governmental endorsements of Christianity and then make the leap that our government today should prefer Christianity — at least their version of it — over other faiths.

In his Nov. 18 "Falwell Confidential" e-mail, Virginia preacher Jonathan Falwell cited historical observances of Thanksgiving as evidence for his theocratic agenda.
"Thanksgiving," he said, "is the perfect time to understand the Judeo-Christian history of our nation. Our forefathers were not uneasy about openly thanking God for His blessings or beseeching Him in times of trouble. Our nation is deeply rooted in Christianity and candid expressions of faith."

But Falwell and Company miss the larger point. We are not governed by the Mayflower Compact — or by the historical fact that most of our early settlers were Christians. Instead, we are governed by the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom for all. Article VI mandates "no religious test for public office," and the First Amendment separates religion and government, leaving us free to profess a faith or follow no spiritual path at all.

In his book, Head and Heart: American Christianities, Garry Wills talks about how remarkable those constitutional provisions are.

"Disestablishment," Wills says, "was a stunning innovation. No other government had been launched without the protection of an official cult. This is the only original part of the Constitution. Everything else – federalism, three branches of government, two houses of the legislature, an independent judiciary – had been around for a long time, in theory and in practice. But disestablishment was not a thing with precedents. Our Constitution never mentions God – an omission that was startling, and highly criticized at the time."
Wills adds, "It is probable that the great break with history signified by Disestablishment could have taken place at no other time in American history than the founding era." But what a wise and fortunate thing that it did! Our Constitution has broadly protected individual freedom of conscience, while allowing a great multitude of religions to flourish on their own, without government endorsement or impediment.

So on this Thanksgiving Day, I'm thankful for the Constitution and its religious liberty provisions. And I'm thankful for all the Americans United members and church-state separation activists who stand with us in the battle to keep those safeguards strong.

Now pass the gravy, please.