If Abraham Lincoln released his October 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation today, it would be panned by all sides. In the statement that is considered the beginning of the unbroken annual tradition of presidential Thanksgiving proclamations, Lincoln said that God had dealt "with us in anger for our sins." He recommended "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."
The words "sin" and "perverse" would set off the left as overly judgmental and embarrassingly archaic. The right would bristle at national self-criticism from the country's commander in chief (at a time of war, no less). Lincoln had good reason to speak of perversity, of course. He was knee-deep in blood in a Civil War precipitated by half the country leaving the Union so it could protect slavery. But his proclamation was firmly within the American tradition.
The founding generation of presidents struck similar notes. In 1789, George Washington urged that we "unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions." John Adams in 1798 recommended that religious congregations "acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation."
This line carried through into the 20th century. Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the need to "bow before God in contrition for our sins." Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush acknowledged George Washington on "our shortcomings and transgressions." But any suggestion of national failings, let alone sin or perversity, has gone missing from the Thanksgiving proclamations of recent decades (and so has much of the majesty).
Without it, we lose any sense that we have an obligation to live up to a national standard that derives, if not from the God of the Bible, from the natural law. This has always been part of what makes America different from other nations. France will always be France no matter what, but America involves striving toward an ideal. The great political scientist Samuel Huntington, in rebutting the new left of the 1960s whose sense of the nation's sinfulness exceeded all reasonable bounds, stated it nicely. "Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals," he wrote. "They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope."Not surprisingly, President Obama's Thanksgiving proclamations have been particularly pedestrian and perfunctory. God is lucky to get a mention or two. In his 2009 proclamation, the only reference to God came in a quote from Washington. What God has lost in prominence in Obama's statements has been gained by the American Indians, in a bow to multicultural pieties. His 2010 proclamation described how a spirit of Thanksgiving "brought together the newly arrived Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe who had been living and thriving around Plymouth, Mass., for thousands of years in an autumn harvest feast centuries ago." His proclamation last year urged the country "to remember the ways that the first Americans have enriched our nation's heritage, from their generosity centuries ago to the everyday contributions they make to all facets of American life."
Near the end, that proclamation included the ringing, "Let us pause to recount the simple gifts that sustain us, and resolve to pay them forward in the years to come."
From Lincoln's "fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation" to Obama's "pay it forward" is a long way down.