My friend Rick’s post pointed me to James K.A. Smith’s post called “The Secularization of Thanksgiving and the Sacralization of the Military.” Smith writes that during the Thanksgiving football broadcasts he noticed “the incessant military references and images on the Thanksgiving broadcasts.” Trying to think this out, he writes,
I know I’ve noted (complained!) about this before, but I think I’ve further crystallized the linkage. For some reason, broadcast television always feels compelled to secularize religious and quasi-religious holidays; this is, in some ways, part and parcel of other secularizing currents in commercial culture. But when Thanksgiving is secularized, what’s lost is precisely the Object to whom we would render gratitude. In other words, we end up being thankful for “gifts” without being able to recognize the Giver.
So we come up with a substitute Giver, which is something like the idea of “America”–the land of the free. And while there are alternative conceptual histories that would actually honor how much the United States was conceptually forged–that the U.S. is really the experimental product of ideas–our current anti-intellectual climate would rather think of “America” as the product of force and might (as the national anthem prefers). So if we are thankful for America, we’re thankful to the military who, proverbially, “protect our freedom, ” “keep us free,” “make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” etc. Soldiers are thus revered as the warrior-priests of freedom.
I’ve turned this over in my mind a bit, trying to see if I agree. Either the problem or profundity of his observation is that professing Christians, not secular people, seem that they would be the most likely to respond favorably to the imagery. Observant American Christians tend to be conservative and support not only the military but also its role as protector of our freedoms through our international involvement and especially in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (I tried to probe a related topic a bit back in July). On the other hand, they would also tend to be fairly vocal when a religious holiday is being secularized (for example, the controversies over public displays of Christmas imagery).
So if Smith and I are both right in reading the culture, then we have the secular (and, according to Smith, secularizing) media producing imagery that secularizes Thanksgiving in the interest producing a broadcast that can be consumed by the broadest possible audience without offense to too many. This imagery is then accepted enthusiastically by many Christians, who unknowingly participate in the further secularization of the holiday.
If this is right, and I think that’s a big if, it would be more evidence that Christians need to be more aware of our relationship to American nationalism and power.