Judd Birdsall is the project director of the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD) and a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. From 2011 to 2020 Birdsall was based at Cambridge University, where he earned his Ph.D. and then founded the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies (CIRIS). He also served as an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies. Prior to his time at Cambridge, he served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. Birdsall is the editor of Religion & Diplomacy, and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and Religion & Politics. He is also a senior editor and a frequent contributor at the Review of Faith & International Affairs.
Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations solemnize an important moment in America’s national calendar. These proclamations—issued by Washington, Madison, and every president since Lincoln—are also windows into evolving conceptions of Thanksgiving and into the worldview of each successive commander in chief.
The 2022 proclamation is vintage Biden. It’s plain spoken, lacking the rhetorical flourish typical of the genre. His account of Thanksgiving also has comparatively few historical or theological references. What matters for Biden is simply gratitude. “We give thanks for everything that is good in our lives,” says Biden, “and reflect on the many blessings of our Nation.”
As he did last year, Biden focuses his expressions of gratitude in 2022 on professions that have played a key role in helping the United States navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. He thanks scientists, researchers, doctors, nurses, and frontline workers. Interestingly, Biden also thanks “faith leaders for their counsel, comfort, and support.” But then, eschewing the customary admonition to gather in houses of worship on Thanksgiving, Biden just encourages Americans to “join together and give thanks.”
Whereas many presidents have issued sermonic Thanksgiving proclamations chock full of theological language and biblical quotations and allusions, Biden follows Obama’s recent example of minimal God talk. Biden’s only direct reference to God this year comes in the context of summarizing Lincoln’s reasons for proclaiming a national Thanksgiving in 1863: “asking God to bring us together to care for one another and heal our Nation.”
Biden does quote one biblical passage, but in a curiously non-sectarian way. “As Scripture says: ‘let us rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.’” That’s 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18a. Without the rest of verse 18—“for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”—the object of our thanks seems to be left intentionally unspecified in the proclamation.
Biden likewise bucks the trend toward greater focus on the Pilgrims. In the post-WWII era, commemoration of the Pilgrims and their 1621 “First Thanksgiving” has increasingly taken center stage in presidential proclamations, mirroring the understanding of the Thanksgiving holiday in the culture at large.
In his 1961 proclamation, President Kennedy went so far as offer this exhortation: “I ask the head of each family to recount to his children the story of the first New England Thanksgiving, thus to impress upon future generations the heritage of this nation born in toil, in danger, in purpose, and in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through man’s efforts persevere and come to fruition with the blessing of God.”
As if it to take up the charge from Kennedy, Trump recounted the Pilgrims as “dauntless souls,” “determined individuals,” and “intrepid men and women” who endured a “courageous and inspiring journey” and remained “unwavering in their commitment to their dreams.” In 2020, Trump spoke of the Mayflower as bringing “the seeds of democracy to our land” and in 2018 he said the Pilgrims “instilled in our Nation a strong faith in God that continues to be a beacon of hope to all Americans.”
Instead of the lengthy paragraphs of praise for the Pilgrims that many previous presidents have penned in their proclamations, Biden offers just one sentence: “This American spirit of gratitude dates back to our earliest days, when the Pilgrims celebrated a successful first harvest, thanks to the generosity and support of the Wampanoag people.” Even last year, on the four hundredth anniversary of the First Thanksgiving, Biden did not offer more than one sentence on the specifics and significance of that 1621 event.
Biden does continue the pattern, established by Clinton in 1995, of specifically naming the Wampanoag tribe. But he decidedly reverses the trend toward greater consideration of Native Americans in general. For instance, in 2011 Obama mentioned the Wampanoag but then zoomed out to a broader reflection on American Indians: “We take this time 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.”
Many previous presidents have looked to the Pilgrims, the Indians, and the harvest festival they shared in 1621 for a variety of enduring lessons—piety, tenacity, diversity, fraternity, humility, and so on. For Biden, the lesson is just a “spirit of gratitude.” And that’s okay. In a highly polarized time when Americans are deeply divided by a complex web of factors, there’s something refreshingly simple and inclusive about a singular focus on gratitude.
A “spirit of gratitude,” of course, has deep resonances with Christian theology and American history. But it doesn’t need either. Gratitude is an attitude available to people of all beliefs and backgrounds.
Biden’s Thanksgiving proclamations are brief and lack theological and historical depth. But they are sufficient to remind all Americans that we have much to be thankful for. “This holiday,” says Biden in his 2022 proclamation, “we celebrate all that brings us together.”