At this time of year it’s quite natural for people to start thinking about the spiritual.
After all, at the roots of both Thanksgiving and Christmas are religious expressions, although that’s not all there is to them.
The Pilgrims and Indians were also building quite secular ties through their shared meal in 1621, while today the celebration of the birth of Jesus is also joined by the traditions of many faiths at the time of the winter solstice.
We are called upon to be grateful and to be generous, and the Old and New Testaments say that both expressions being quite favored by God. Those without such faith still find both expressions to be worthy practices in and of themselves.
And yet these simple acts of virtue must struggle to be recognized amid so much clatter and differences among us.
We learned from this past week’s news that the glass doors of the stores at the malls that cracked open after dark on Thanksgiving Day last year will now be opening wide as early as 6 a.m. Some argue that people are going in there to get things to give to others in honor of one holiday are obliterating any reasonable observance of another.
We may find it easy to recoil from such an idea because we see people shopping when we believe that they should be spending the day among loved ones surrounded by the smells of home cooking, the sounds of football broadcasts and the telling of stories. Norman Rockwell, after all, did not depict Thanksgiving on canvas as a family sleepily piling into a minivan in the dark hoping to scoring one of only 17 Hot Items This Year. We didn’t travel over the river and through the wood only to find that Grandmother and Grandfather aren’t home but in the checkout line at the mall.
And yet for well or ill, we are less homogenous a society than we might have once been. Some people have little family around to gather around a dining room table with, or those they have are too difficult or too distant to visit. Kind souls at the office may try their best to seek out these Thanksgiving “orphans” to join their celebrations, but not everyone will be found, and some don’t want to be.
Rather than sit home alone, and to their credit, on such days many such folks are found at the local charity dining rooms serving meals to the less fortunate. Or they volunteer to work on holidays to earn needed extra income and so others can enjoy the holiday. So that the department stores are open on Thanksgiving Day may offer an experience that is exactly how some people define giving thanks, by using one’s bounty to give for others.
And so it follows that, as we are not as homogeneous a society as we once were, common expressions may not be so common any more.
Sometime before the end of June the U.S. Supreme Court will decide a case involving prayers led at the start of public meetings, a tradition in government since the dawn of the republic. It’s not the same situation as teacher-led prayer in schools, which the court banned 50 years ago. At a city council meeting, for example, the risk of social retribution for not joining in is far less than it would be among children.
The question before the court today is whether people of no faith or of a different faith than that being expressed in these opening prayers should have to listen.
There are good arguments on both sides and it is a difficult question for the court that it last addressed 30 years ago.
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in the ruling of that 1983 case that the practice of a chaplain leading prayer at the start of legislative sessions is not an “establishment of religion” forbidden by the First Amendment but “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”
The decision in this year’s case will come down to how much the Supreme Court believes our society’s homogeneity is still sufficient to continue to practice “a tolerable acknowledgment” of widely-held beliefs.
It’s hardly likely that public prayers make people more faithful. For those already of faith, they serve as reminders but hardly can be expected to be the glue that keeps them faithful. For those who aren’t of faith, well, it’s extremely rare to hear of someone who said, “I was an atheist until I started going to city council meetings!”
Still, after hearing at such gatherings what some elected officials decided I was often moved to ask God, “Why?”
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.