The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘Isn’t Thanksgiving a Secular Holiday?’

You know what the worst damned thing on the radio is? Terry Gross. And I write that in a world in which Sean Hannity exists. For a combination of smugness, banality, and towering ignorance, it is difficult to top Terry Gross.

Example: This afternoon, I listened to her interviewing David Litt, who is plugging his new memoir about his time working as a speechwriter for Barack Obama, which was surely the worst job in politics at the time. Litt feels that Obama was sometimes given unnecessarily rough treatment by the media, and he tells a pretty standard Democratic bedtime story: The mainstream media gets bullied into covering non-stories and non-events by the conservative media, which is part of what Litt describes as “a whole industry dedicat[ed] to trying to take your words out of context.” As an example, he talks about the brouhaha surrounding Barack Obama’s omission of any mention of God during one of his Thanksgiving addresses. Fox News did a story, and then ABC News did a piece not on the omission itself but on the controversy. Litt insists that this wasn’t a story at all.


Millions of Americans care deeply about preserving at least some of the religious character of the public square. They might be wrong to do so, but they do not cease to exist simply because some punk speechwriter working for a punk politician doesn’t share their interests. Of course it is a story. Of course Litt was talking through his hat to say otherwise, and of course Terry Gross did not even think to challenge him. That’s what we mean when we talk about media bias: not making things up, just accepting a relatively narrow, coastal progressive view of the world as though it were the self-evident truth, as though nothing else exists. Bill Buckley knew what he was saying when he wrote: “Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.”

Instead of challenging Litt, Gross did the opposite. “Isn’t Thanksgiving a secular holiday?” she asked, knowingly. (The backward assertion in the form of a question is one of my least favorite rhetorical strategies.)

Well, Skippy, let’s think on that for a minute, shall we? Thanksgiving was instituted by the Pilgrims, who were a bunch of fairly fanatical Christians, if you’ll recall. To whom does Terry Gross imagine they were giving thanks? Beyoncé? Jeff Bezos, Peace Be Upon Him?

Sure, they were Christian hardliners, but the Pilgrims were operating back in the dark ages. What did the founding father of our secular republic have to say? George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation begins: “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor — and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness . . . ’ President Lincoln, during the Civil War, proclaimed a “Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

In the Heavens, Terry Gross. Not in Philadelphia.

I’d like to quote Washington at length, both because of the lovely writing and because he spells out what exactly it is the gentlemen gathered in the city that bears his name are supposed to be doing with themselves.

That we may then 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 — to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually — to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed — to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord — To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us — and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

How’s that for a presidential agenda? That Washington had the insight to seek forgiveness for our national transgressions — in 1789 — is a mark of what a truly remarkable man he was, and how far his epigones are from living up to his example.

But back to Terry Gross for a second. Never mind the explicitly religious character of our Thanksgiving holiday, harvest feasts of thanksgiving have been part of the Christian tradition — and the pagan tradition before that — for about as long as recorded history can show. The word “feast” literally means “religious observance,” from the Old French “feste.”

“Isn’t Thanksgiving a secular holiday?” The implicit “you feckless rubes,” coming from this illiterate peon, is what truly rankles. Imagine being so plank ignorant as to be able to not only say those words but to say them with contempt.

Worst damned thing on the radio.

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