“As we stand at the close of one year and look to the promise of the next, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings, for one another, and for our Nation,” is how President Obama speaks of Thanksgiving. It is a reminder of to whom thanks are being given. It is also part of a long tradition, going back to Washington, who, when he issued his first Thanksgiving proclamation on October 3, 1789, here at New York City, noted that Congress had requested he recommend “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
John Adams, noting that the “the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God” and that “the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety without which social happiness can not exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed,” recommended “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer” to “the Father of Mercies.” Thomas Jefferson — an architect of the idea of the separation of church and state — did not issue a Thanksgiving proclamation.*
The practice resumed with James Madison, who set aside January 12, 1815, as “a day on which all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering at the same time in their respective religious assemblies their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance.” Lincoln issued four Thanksgiving proclamations, two of which — in 1862 and 1863 — made reference to a divine role in Union military victories. In 1864, he set apart the last Thursday in November “as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.”
Similarly pointed references to God were made by Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, like Lincoln, recognized God as an ally of American soldiers in wartime. “God's help to us had been great in this year of march toward world-wide liberty,” Roosevelt wrote in his 1943 proclamation. A year later he suggested “a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas.” President Truman was, in 1950, the first president to make explicit reference in a Thanksgiving proclamation to Jews, asking all Americans “to appeal to the Most High” and entreating them “in church, chapel, and synagogue, in their homes and in the busy walks of life, every day and everywhere, to pray for peace.”
President Eisenhower added a nod to freedom of conscience, a freedom of which the founders were well aware. “We are grateful that our beloved country, settled by those forebears in their quest for religious freedom, remains free and strong, and that each of us can worship God in his own way, according to the dictates of his conscience,” Eisenhower wrote. President Kennedy began his first Thanksgiving proclamation by quoting the psalmist: “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.” He went on to ask “the head of each family to recount to his children” that America was born "in the conviction that right and justice and freedom can through man’s efforts persevere and come to fruition with the blessing of God.”
Richard Nixon’s Thanksgiving proclamation in 1972 was probably the first that mentioned Jesus. “From Moses at the Red Sea to Jesus preparing to feed the multitudes, the Scriptures summon us to words and deeds of gratitude, even before divine blessings are fully perceived,” he wrote. President Ford’s 1975 proclamation, by contrast, replaced reference to thanking God or the Almighty with a more vague reference to “our belief in a dynamic spirit that will continue to nurture and guide us.” President Carter spoke of “Almighty God.” President Reagan said that the Thanksgiving custom derives from “our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
President Clinton in 1993 described the “true spirit of Thanksgiving” as "acknowledging God’s graciousness, and in response, reaching out in service to others." In his 1996 proclamation, Mr. Clinton referred to “the genius of our founders in daring to build the world’s first constitutional democracy on the foundation of trust and thanks to God.” President Bush, in his proclamation in 2004, said, “On this Thanksgiving Day, we thank God for his blessings and ask Him to continue to guide and watch over our Nation.” President Obama’s message this year moved him into this tradition.
We mention all this not to suggest that atheists have no place at the harvest table. On the contrary, America’s government is a secular institution and all have the same standing. But it is a secular institution whose greatest leaders have always expressed gratitude to God. It is a bipartisan tradition that has now endured for centuries with harm neither to believer or atheist. It is a tradition that reminds us that the founders of America conducted their labors in the light of Sinai. Which in itself is something for which to give thanks.
* At least not while he was president; in 1789, he did, while serving as governor of Virginia, issue a proclamation establishing December 9, 1789, as a day of thanksgiving to God.