According to this article by the Capital News Service educators in Maryland are guilty of leaving God out of their lessons on the history of Thanksgiving. The article implies that this omission is a matter of policy at the state level right in the opening paragraphs with the following statement:
Maryland public school students are free to thank anyone they want while learning about the 17th century celebration of Thanksgiving – as long as it’s not God.
And that is how it should be, administrators say.
Needless to say, this has caused no small amount of outrage among the Christian conservative pundits and bloggers who picked up on the story. The problem is that the opening statement is not only misleading, but its implications aren’t supported by the rest of the article. Additionally Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has taken issue with the news item for suggesting that there is any kind of official state policy requiring God be kept out of discussions of Thanksgiving and there certainly isn’t any ban on students “thanking God” while learning about Thanksgiving. Steve Crane, the Capital News Service’s Washington bureau director, defended the article:
“It’s correct, if you read the story. It is about the balancing act public schools have to perform when they teach about a holiday like Thanksgiving,” Mr. Crane said. “I understand there has been a lot of chatter about it from people. I can’t help how people perceive it.”
What utter bullshit. The opening paragraphs set the tone and planted a misleading suggestion right from the beginning that make it clear what perception the article was designed to invoke. It worked pretty well too considering the amount of teeth gnashing it’s brought about. It didn’t take long for Hannity & Colmes to chime in on the issue by holding discussion with Jerry Falwell on the topic. Because he’s, you know, so unbiased and fair-minded when discussing issues of church and state.
It was that chat with Falwell that prompted the folks over at News Hounds to take a closer look at the issue:
Falwell wondered why our teachers, who are well educated, would tolerate any administration that would refuse academic freedom calling the current teaching of Thanksgiving revisionist. Hannity added that the first Thanksgiving was about the Pilgrims thanking God and how could the public schools exclude this.
comment: Since I have always included religion and thanking God in my lessons about the first Thanksgiving celebration, I wondered what Hannity and Falwell were talking about. I decided to take a good look at all the books we have in our school library about Thanksgiving thinking that perhaps I had missed something. After checking 23 books on the subject, 19 clearly discussed the concept of Thanksgiving as a time to be grateful to God for our blessings.
The reading levels of these books were pre school through 8th grade and only the pre school books neglected the spiritual side of Thanksgiving. Falwell and Hannity are the ones guilty of distortion not the teachers.
Meanwhile the folks over at johnny dollar’s place take News Hounds to task for thinking that the books in their local school library would have any bearing on what was happening in Maryland. This is in spite of the fact that Falwell’s comments seem to imply he thinks what happened in Maryland is typical of school districts across the country, let alone the fact that the article that prompted all this tongue wagging was misleading in the first place. As an interesting aside, I think “johnny dollar’s place” is the first example I’ve seen of a “FOX News Apologists” website. It’s even in their “about us” statement that they’re trying to defend the channel’s claim of being fair and balanced.
The original article that started this firestorm quotes a snippet of George Washington’s proclamation of a day of Thanksgiving on October 3rd, 1789 as an example of how the (fictional) Maryland school policy flies in the face of the “holiday’s original premise.” The implication being that the national holiday got its start with Washington’s proclamation at which time its intent and purpose was cast in stone. The truth is this wasn’t the first such proclamation by Washington nor did it establish the holiday legally. It was merely a “recommendation” made by the President at the request of Congress and had no legal authority or bearing nor was there unanimous agreement that the President should even be involved in making such a proclamation. Thanksgiving wasn’t observed annually until 1863 after President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation for that year and it didn’t become a legal holiday until 1941, under President Roosevelt, a mere 63 years ago. Something that wouldn’t have sat very well with the likes of Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, this whole sorry mess only exemplifies the concerns Thomas Jefferson had over official government proclamations of Thanksgiving and validates his refusal to make such proclamations despite what his predecessors had done during their Presidential terms:
…I consider the government of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U.S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
Jefferson recognized the problems that arise when there is the slightest appearance of government promotion of religious expression as might be construed by proclamations for a day of Thanksgiving. During his and Washington’s time the argument in support of such proclamations was that they amounted to little more than a recommendation by the government that carried no legal weight in and of themselves which the people were free to adopt or ignore as they saw fit. After all, what harm is there in having the President merely suggest that Americans participate in a day of Thanksgiving? You’ll also note that the references to God by many of the earliest Presidents are crafted in a manner meant to avoid associating the concept with any one particular religion. Yet these facts haven’t stopped modern day Christian revisionists from suggesting that not only does Thanksgiving—as an official legal holiday—stretch all the way back to George Washington supposedly making it a long-standing official tradition, but that the God referenced in these proclamations is specifically the Christian God in spite of the fact that many of the early Presidents were not Christians, but Deists. Not the least of whom was Washington himself. This is exactly the sort of situation Jefferson feared would come to pass if the government engaged in these ‘harmless’ proclamations and it would appear his fears were justified. Sadly, the problem is likely to get worse long before it has any hope of getting better.