In the first Thanksgiving address given by an American President, George Washington encouraged his fellow citizens in 1789 to join him in "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."
It may not be fair, but as a way of gauging just how far removed we are from our foundations, I always had a habit of comparing the yearly statements of the current president to Washington's declaration. I stopped that practice in 2011 when then-President Barack Obama used the occasion of our national day of Thanksgiving to call our generation of Americans to a day of "eating great food, watching a little football, and reflecting on how truly lucky we are."
Thankfully, Obama later issued a written statement that gave God credit for the "kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives." But it wasn't so much the omission of the Almighty in Obama's public remarks – what he didn't say – that convinced me we had crossed the cultural Rubicon, it was what he did say.
To this day I would argue that President Obama's suggestion that the great prosperity of the United States was the consequence of "luck" was as controversial and radical as anything he ever said. Yes, as controversial as proclaiming Israel should go back to its pre-1967 boundaries. Yes, as radical as suggesting that knowing whether or not to defend the unalienable right to life was above his pay grade.
In a very real way, that comment not only put the entire presidency of Barack Obama into context, it brought perfect clarity to the muddled picture we often have of our civilization.
Taken by itself, crediting luck as the source of American greatness could perhaps be excused as a slip of the tongue or a lazy retreat behind a tired rhetorical cliché. But when placed in context and added to other common cultural themes, it explains why our people seem so uncomfortable and confused when asked about American exceptionalism. It explains why we obstinately omit reference to the Creator God as the source of our rights, even when quoting from the American Declaration of Independence. It explains why we frequently seem ashamed of American preeminence, fretting constantly over the evils of nationalism, and feeling obligated to prostrate ourselves before foreign societies and apologize profusely for our national sins – real or imagined. It explains both a foreign posture and domestic preference that relegates America to the role of world participant rather than world leader.
Our people misunderstand the significance of American greatness because we misappropriate its foundational source. In our thoroughly secular society, America's riches are not the blessing from One whom Abraham Lincoln called the "beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." They are not the result of a prior national obedience to the Natural Lawgiver, nor the consequence of a once-national commitment to conform to the timeless truths of His moral order.
No, to a country that believes itself to be the standard bearer of freedom throughout the world, we now pretend they are nothing more than the byproduct of an advantageous roll of the civilizational dice. If a transcendent being was involved, it was only to spin the globe blindfolded and un-ceremonially plop its supernatural finger down randomly on the United States, instigating a flood of prosperity that was no more purposeful than it was deserved.
That is why Obama once declared there is nothing more exceptional about America than Britain or Greece, why we have no right to admonish the human rights atrocities occurring with impunity in China, why America should presume to hold no position of moral superiority in our dealings with foreign thugs and tyrannies, why our time is better spent apologizing for our arrogance than recommitting ourselves to the glorious truths of our founding.
And it's why "food and football" are just as likely to cross the lips of our people on this Thanksgiving as the name of the One to whom we have, at the direction of presidents far greater than Barack Obama, historically rendered thanks.
May God help our self-centered, ungrateful hearts.