I have a deep ambivalence about Thanksgiving as a holiday. For example, it’s not properly part of the (transnational) church’s liturgical year, and it tends to be easily conflated with American civil religion–while also tending to paper over the history of colonialism. But while the “official” holiday is at least questionable, certainly gratitude and thanksgiving are central to the Christian life. Indeed, in the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism, the entirety of the Christian life is encompassed under the rubric of gratitude.
So, ambivalence aside, it doesn’t take much coaxing for me to take a day to enjoy a feast and football with family and friends (even if that means having to watch the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys). But my friend, Mark, and I both commented again this year on how puzzling it was to see the incessant military references and images on the Thanksgiving broadcasts. It was like the NFL was somehow broadcasting on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Why would Thanksgiving be so interconnected with the armed forces?
But I think I’ve discerned the logic to this. I know I’ve noted (complained!) about this before, but I think I’ve further crystallized the linkage. For some reason, broadcast television always feels compelled to secularize religious and quasi-religious holidays; this is, in some ways, part and parcel of other secularizing currents in commercial culture. But when Thanksgiving is secularized, what’s lost is precisely the Object to whom we would render gratitude. In other words, we end up being thankful for “gifts” without being able to recognize the Giver.
So we come up with a substitute Giver, which is something like the idea of “America”–the land of the free. And while there are alternative conceptual histories that would actually honor how much the United States was conceptually forged–that the U.S. is really the experimental product of ideas–our current anti-intellectual climate would rather think of “America” as the product of force and might (as the national anthem prefers). So if we are thankful for America, we’re thankful to the military who, proverbially, “protect our freedom, ” “keep us free,” “make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” etc. Soldiers are thus revered as the warrior-priests of freedom.
And what are we free for? Well, to shop. And so the best expression of thanksgiving is precisely Black Friday, that Dionysian display of consumerist passion when people literally die in the frantic pursuit of consumer goods.
In sum, the secularization of thanksgiving leads to the sacralization of the military as the guardians of consumer freedom. Such secularization, then, is not a-religious but otherwise-religious. Thus a secularized thanksgiving yields a uniquely American idolatry.