To our children and the Obamas: Thanksgiving is spiritual, not political

The Obamas sent political messages for Thanksgiving. Let's remember instead America's Godly heritage and teach it to our children. Photo: Library of Congress, The First Thanksgiving, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2013 —  I cringed at the Thanksgiving messages from President and Mrs. Obama. The Obamas are using Thanksgiving to push Food Stamps and Obamacare; they ought to be talking about America’s Godly heritage. The first couple sent out at least four messages that contained these common themes:

  • Only one of the four missives had a very brief reference to God; Pilgrims and Indians were mentioned only in passing;
  • Food and football got more attention;
  • Our blessings were attributed to our being “lucky”;
  • The president used Thanksgiving to make an extensive political plea to spend more on food stamps, complete with statistics;
  • The first lady used Thanksgiving to make a political plea to Democrats to promote Obamacare at Thanksgiving gatherings, helpfully providing 14 talking points to use with family and friends.

SEE RELATED: George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

Here is a better message: Don’t make Thanksgivings political. Do celebrate America’s special Godly heritage. And please avoid all temptations to hijack Christmas!

But rather than bemoan the Obamas’ crassness while we’re still enjoying this long Thanksgiving weekend, let’s accent the positive by teaching our children the connection of Thanksgiving with America’s special Godly heritage.

Keep it simple. Thanksgiving is not a political holiday; it is a spiritual holiday that blends our special Godly heritage as Americans. Its creation is rooted both in the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of an annual observance; he found grounds for gratitude even in the midst of a devastating civil war.

Have each of us paused to intertwine our gratitude for God’s personal blessings with some reminders of what America is about? Many of us learned to do this at home as children. My mother taught us a song that we always sang on Thanksgiving Day, called“Little Johnny Pilgrim”:

SEE RELATED: Gratitude: The meaning of Thanksgiving, the source of wealth

Little Johnny Pilgrim landed here one day

From his home in England, many miles away,

Seeking opportunity for peaceful men.

That was 1620 — things were different then.


Plymouth Rock was cold and bare and animals were wild,

But he found his freedom there, so Johnny stayed and smiled.


Indians opposed him, still he worked and prayed.

Knowing God was for him, he was unafraid.

That’s why each Thanksgiving, people join and sing,

“Thank you, Johnny Pilgrim! Thanks for everything!”

The simple little song has stuck with me through all the years and despite all efforts of political correctness to strip it from me. I taught it to my children and we sang it each Thanksgiving. Now they have their own families; when we’re not able to come together at Thanksgiving, I phone them on that day and sing it to them and their children.

Yesterday I called and sang “Little Johnny Pilgrim” to my grandchildren over the telephone. It’s likely that you’ve never heard it. It was recorded by Gene Autry, who also did numerous Christmas songs, most notably “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” For everyone wanting to enjoy Autry’s “Little Johnny Pilgrim,” (including the second verse) here’s a link so you can hear it on my personal blog.

For over two hundred years, we’ve drawn moral strength from the early American stories of overcoming hardship, putting aside differences and grievances, and celebrating blessings that combine in the account of the Pilgrims and Indians’ “First Thanksgiving.” The inevitable objectors will remind us that the participants — especially the Pilgrims — were imperfect, but that dwindles compared to the value of this lesson. It’s not the details that matter; it’s the principle.

The events in New England and elsewhere shaped moral fiber from hardship. The same ability was demonstrated by President Abraham Lincoln. During the bloody struggle of the American Civil War and the debates over the evils of slavery, Lincoln consistently pointed our attention to the blessings of God even when others could not see those blessings. Some would consider it cynical or the worst of oxymorons to establish an anuual day of Thanksgiving in the midst of civil war, yet that is what Lincoln did in 1863.

Prior to Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation, Thanksgiving observances were irregular and on lesser scale. He made it annual on the fourth Thursday of November.

What shines forth from Lincoln’s proclamation is not merely the notion of giving thanks to God. Lincoln wrote of the need to be grateful for “these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.” What also stands out is that Lincoln penned an admonition to his countrymen.

He wrote that Americans should do penance for not obeying God’s will, “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

The humility of Abraham Lincoln, of the Pilgrims and of the Indians are simple lessons that should be remembered and taught on Thanksgiving weekend to strengthen America. Simple lessons, simply taught.

What do we gain when Thanksgiving weekend is just about food, shopping, politics, and football? We end up gaining weight, deeper in debt, arguing about our disagreements — and half of our football teams are going to lose.

By focusing on America’s Godly heritage, we can all come out winners.



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Ernest Istook

Ernest Istook spent 25 years in public office, including 14 years in Congress. He was rated one of the top 25 conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then was a Heritage Foundation fellow and a fellow at Harvard's Insitute of Politics, where he led a study group on Propaganda in American Politics Today. 

Now as a radio host and a commentator, Ernest aims to expose Washington's gimmicks--to help you avoid the pitfalls. He brings clarity out of the confusion. 

Native to Texas, Ernest transplanted to Oklahoma after graduating from Baylor University.

Contact Ernest Istook


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