By Mike Dorf
Is it possible to be thankful without being thankful to anyone or anything in particular? That question might be thought to bear on the appropriateness of official celebrations of Thanksgiving in a secular country. Judges and scholars who argue that the Establishment Clause permits a fair degree of official religious exercise often point to the tradition of Presidents' Thanksgiving Proclamations. George Washington's 1789 Proclamation pretty much set the standard, and while its invocation of the Divine is non-denominationally monotheistic, it nonetheless has religious content. Thus, modern separationists who say that the Thanksgiving holiday is merely a secular occasion may be right about what the holiday has become, but it seems they are wrong about the origins.
Well, so what? If the holiday has become secular, then, under the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause precedents, there's nothing with the govt recognizing the holiday's secular aspects. Of course, modern Presidential proclamations often have as much religious content as the first one. (For the complete set, click here.) They tend to vary in the degree to which they directly invoke God versus recognizing how past and present Americans have thanked God.
Still, one might think that there inherently cannot be a secular holiday of "Thanksgiving," because the whole concept indicates thanks to God. This is plainly not true, both in a trivial and a less trivial sense. Obviously, one can be thankful to other people--and President Obama's proclamation makes just this point. It talks of
Americans coming together "to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own." But beyond gratitude to others, one can meaningfully be grateful "in the air," as it were (to borrow and pervert a line of then-Judge Cardozo). Perhaps this is just a linguistic point, so that people in these circumstances, if they are not thankful to the Divine, aren't technically "grateful" for, say, good weather on a wedding day; perhaps they feel lucky or relieved or something similar. Still, I think it meaningful to talk about being grateful in general, or perhaps grateful to the universe, even if one thinks it a Godless, soulless place.
Happy Thanksgiving to all, whomever, Whomever, or whatever you are thankful to.