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The Challenge of Thanksgiving

This morning a giant, helium filled cartoon character – Garfield – will float down State Street in Chicago wearing a Pilgrim outfit.  Americans with even the most tenuous grasp on our collective history will make the connection with the “first” Thanksgiving when indigenous Americans welcomed their starving guests from Europe to a feast, if not of turkey, then of quail, clams, and venison.  Ironies in this great American origin myth abound.  The hosts, of course, were eventually eliminated by the descendants of their English guests whose slow genocide of the native population stretched over centuries from gruesome beheadings in New England to forced removals in Georgia and Tennessee to mass executions in the Dakotas.  No good deed goes unpunished. 

Also ironic is the fact that this founding story of communal sharing in the face of shared adversity will be celebrated in a culture increasingly marked by class separation, personal acquisition, and an entrenched poverty to which many of us are increasingly indifferent.  In their book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell make the case that religious people in the United States have historically shared a deep concern for class inequity.  They point to the two “Awakenings” in the 18th and 19th centuries as times when churches fueled an egalitarian spirit challenging concentrations of wealth at the expense of the most vulnerable Americans. 

But apparently things have changed.  Everyone acknowledges that, since the late 1970’s, income disparity has dramatically risen in the United States.  Throughout the 1950’s the top ten percent of Americans shared less than 35% of the wealth in this country.  By 2010 the share controlled by the top ten percent approached fifty percent.  Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the income distribution saw their share gradually decrease while those in the middle barely kept up.  Many things contributed to this.  Putnam and Campbell note the increased value of higher education prompted by technological change, globalization that depressed manufacturing wages, changes in tax policy benefiting the rich as well as other government policies that undermined minimum wage laws and discouraged unions, and what they call the “fading of social norms that had (in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II) restrained upper-class avarice.”

But unlike the reformist zeal of earlier generations of highly religious Americans, Putnam and Campbell report that today religiously committed Americans lag behind the general population in support for public policies that address poverty and inequality, preferring instead private, voluntary charity.  Religious Americans do tend to be more generous in their support of and participation in these voluntary efforts.  But it is naïve to think that this will really address the vast and growing chasm between the very rich and the rest of America.  As one Salvation Army leader they quote put it a century ago, “To right social wrong by charity is like bailing the oceans with a thimble.”  Just as private acquisition has been increasingly glorified, so, too, our confidence in private redress of the ensuing problems has been enshrined among those who claim to be led by Scripture.

To put it another way, the sense of public responsibility for the common good which was ritualized in the first Thanksgiving myth is now being discarded by the most religious Americans in favor of the notion that a myriad Thanksgiving meals for the homeless will ultimately reverse the alarming income disparity that government policy, among other things, has encouraged. Based on their comprehensive analysis of extensive survey data, the authors of American Grace offer this disturbing judgment:  “Religious Americans have adjusted with little opposition to the growing class cleavages in our society.”

There’s nothing wrong with annually reciting the beloved legend and lore of that “first” Thanksgiving even if it does present a highly romanticized version of what actually may have happened.  No one should be discouraged from volunteering at the food pantry’s annual Thanksgiving dinner.  And hopefully all of us will be able to gather with friends and loved ones for a special meal together.  But even highly idealized memories of that feast in New England ought to prompt us not simply to gratitude, but also to awareness that the earliest accounts of our national life were profoundly communal describing events of mutual dependence for the sake of the common good.  The Thanksgiving myth was not about self-reliance and personal advancement, but about the body politic – native and English – organizing itself for the survival and benefit all.

John H. Thomas
November 22, 2012

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