On ‘Thanksgivukkah,’ give thanks for religious freedom

Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are rooted in stories about the struggle for religious freedom.

The marketing frenzy surrounding “Thanksgivukkah” – a term coined by a Massachusetts woman for this year’s rare convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah – reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon:

Leaning on the railing of a ship bound for the New World, one Pilgrim says to another: “My immediate goal is religious freedom, but my long term plan is to go into real estate.”

The joke works because as every schoolchild learns, millions have come to these shores drawn by the promise of religious freedom – and once here, immigrants have used that freedom to build a free enterprise system that is the envy of the world.

That quintessential American spirit was on full display this week as the marketplace filled with everything from Thanksgivukkah cards to yarmulkes with Pilgrim belt buckles. My favorite Thanksgivukkah entrepreneur is the 9-year-old who came up with a turkey-shaped menorah called “Menurkey” and then got it funded through Kickstarter.

Beyond the fun and hype, however, is the vitally important causal link between freedom from oppression, especially in matters of conscience, and freedom to innovate and prosper. As one of the Thanksgivukkah t-shirts puts it: “8 Days of Light, Liberty & Latkes.”

Both holidays are rooted in stories about the struggle for religious freedom. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE over the army of a Syrian king who had profaned the Temple and outlawed Judaism. And Thanksgiving has is origins in 17th century celebrations by the Pilgrims of Plymouth who came to what is now Massachusetts seeking freedom from religious persecution.

But neither holiday marks a lasting triumph for religious freedom. Rome eventually conquers Jerusalem and re-subjugates the Jews. The Pilgrims and Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony do protect religious freedom, but only for themselves and not for others.

Not until Roger Williams founds Rhode Island in 1635 does religious freedom find a true and lasting home in America. Exiled from Massachusetts Bay for advocating liberty of conscience, Williams created the first society on earth that fully separated church from state and guaranteed free exercise of religion for all people.

Imagine the shock and amazement of the first boatload of Jewish families to land in Rhode Island. Unwelcome in most places, barely tolerated in others, Jews in Europe and the Americas had long suffered persecution and discrimination.

But when Jewish families reached Rhode Island in 1658, not only were they permitted to settle there – they were guaranteed complete freedom to practice their faith as full citizens of the colony.

Today, the twin principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” essential for religious freedom in Rhode Island are enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, undergirding humanity’s boldest and most successful experiment in freedom of conscience.

Of course, we have often failed to live up to our own principles and ideals. Anti-Semitism persists, Islamophobia is on the rise, nativism keeps rearing its ugly head, and Native Americans are still asking when religious freedom will fully apply to them.

But this Thanksgivukkah we can be grateful – very grateful – that in a world torn apart by sectarian conflicts and ethnic divides, the United States stands out as a sign of hope that people can, in fact, live together with deep religious differences.

By the time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah converge again in 79,000 years (according to one estimate being bandied about on the Internet), the “Thanksgivukkah” trademark will have probably expired.

But if we keep working at it, the American experiment in liberty will long endure.

Image courtesy of beowabbit.

  • warking7

    The Washington Post fights against religious freedom as it supports Obamacare and it’s funding of birth control and abortion on demand.
    The Pilgrims were devout Christians that understood that they were within their rights to serve Jesus Christ and to shun other false, unbiblical philosophies.

  • itsthedax

    And here you are, accepted and tolerated in this country, able to practice your beliefs without interference, just like everyone else.

  • Catken1

    Just FYI, “religious freedom” does not mean “my freedom to force everyone else, or at least those who work for me, to follow my beliefs in their lives, and everyone else’s freedom to sit down, shut up, and obey.”
    The Pilgrims were devout Christians, yes, who “served Jesus Christ” by setting fire to Indian villages and shooting everyone who ran out – women, children, the elderly, everyone – and then saying a self-righteous prayer of thanks to God for helping them murder some more of His children.

Read More Articles

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.