As we celebrate Thanksgiving, it is significant to note that 10 presidents have declined to issue national proclamations. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson explicitly cited the separation of church and state as their reason, and we can assume that the other eight agreed with them.
Under pressure from Alexander Hamilton, who said that “we should make the most of the religious prepossessions of our people,” George Washington reluctantly declared a Day of Thanksgiving on November, 26, 1789. Church historian Forrest Church submits that “it met a polite yet cool reception.”
Trying to be as inclusive as possible, Washington referred to God as “a great and glorious Being,” but the Presbyterians complained that the text lacked “a decidedly Christian spirit.”
On May 9, 1798, John Adams declared a national day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” It was so controversial (for the same reasons as Washington’s day of thanksgiving) that Adams believed that this act divided the electorate and cost him the 1800 election.
This is the problem with state sanctioned religious ceremonies: they are either diluted to accommodate everyone, and end up leaving the conservatives unhappy; or they prefer one religion or others and displease the liberals. This may be reason why in 1792 Congress refused to support a national fast, because, according to Church, “it recalled royal presumptions to sacral authority.”
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to forego a call for a national day of thanksgiving. In his famous 1801 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, Jefferson introduced the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.” In the final draft of the letter he deleted the idea of government sanctioned prayers so as not to alienate the Baptists as potential allies.
The Connecticut Baptists were well acquainted with Jefferson’s unorthodox religious views, but they trusted him far more than the Federalist Congregationalists in their state. They had established a Christian Commonwealth which levied taxes on and generally suppressed all other sects.
Both Federalists and Republicans politicized religious issues, and it is good for us that the Republicans won because minority religions flourished in the aftermath of Jefferson’s savvy politicking. Jefferson was playing both sides of the Wall of Separation: insuring religious freedom for minorities and keeping the state as secular as possible.
Ironically, Jefferson and the Republican presidents after him laid the ground for the Great Awakening of the 1830s, where religious freedom led to the creation of new and lasting denominations. This movement proved Madison’s prediction that “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
In 1832 Andrew Jackson decided not to issue the presidential proclamation for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving declaring: “I could not do otherwise without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the general government.”
In 2010, following Jeffersonian principles, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that a federal law creating a National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. She wrote that the law “connotes endorsement and encouragement of a particular religious exercise.” She allowed the celebration to continue pending appeal. President Obama went ahead and declared a national prayer day, but with this important provision: “pray or otherwise give thanks.”
For the first time in American history, Obama mentioned non-believers in his first inaugural address, and he also did not hold any religious services at the White House. This does not, however, make up for his decision to invite evangelical Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation, praying in Jesus’ name and concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.
In his 2016 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Obama did not use the word God or appeal to any specific religious doctrine. Rather, he reminded us that “very first thanksgiving celebration brought together people of different backgrounds and beliefs, and every year since, with enduring confidence in the power of faith, love, gratitude, and optimism, this force of unity has sustained us as a people.”
Donald Trump’s 2017 Thanksgiving Proclamation brought God back with four references, and I submit that “Almighty God” and “Most High God” imply the biblical deity. As the foremost Republican in Early America, Jefferson would have obviously preferred Obama’s inclusive and fully secular formulation.
Early Republicans had a compelling motto: “Religion: we love it in its purity, but not as an engine of political delusion.” The belief that Americans can have non-denominational prayers that include all of us in this multicultural nation is indeed delusional.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his article on religion and the founders at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/foundfathers.htm. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.