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Mark Bennett B-Sides

November 25, 2010

B-Sides: Be thankful for those who agree with a 150-year-old goal

TERRE HAUTE — Thanksgiving, as Abraham Lincoln envisioned it, may not be possible today.

His proclamation of Oct. 3, 1863, setting aside the fourth Thursday of every November as a “national day of Thanksgiving doesn’t fit the current mood of the country.

In his declaration, Lincoln reminded Americans of their “fruitful fields and healthful skies.” He noted the presence of peaceful industries; busy mines producing iron, coal and precious metals; and a growing U.S. population. He also credited a merciful God for providing those “great things.”

Then, Lincoln added this: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”

One heart. One voice. By the whole American people.

Lincoln issued that call in the midst of the nation’s most tumultuous time, the Civil War. Nine months earlier, he’d signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery — the heinous practice that tore the country in two. In July 1863, 51,000 Americans were killed, wounded or unaccounted for in the Battle of Gettysburg, perhaps the most sobering few days in U.S. history.

Yet the president asked for unified thankfulness.

Utopian? Of course. But not invalid. Only the most cynical would dismiss the good fortune of abundant crops, productive industries, vast natural resources and a multiplying populace.

Then again, cynicism is pretty popular right now. In fact, could America, circa 2010, look past its anger and express universal thanks for … anything?

How about those things Lincoln listed?

Let’s start with our “fruitful fields,” the nation’s farm crops. Production of soybeans — that versatile sprout found in so many foods — is expected to set a record at 3.38 billion bushels this year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast. The United States leads the world in soybean, and corn, production. It’s easy to be thankful for that …

Unless somebody at the dinner table today decides to weigh in on farm subsidies from the federal government, which totaled $15.4 billion last year, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Well, then, how about expressing gratitude for our “peaceful industries”? Uh, once everybody’s scooped an equal share of mashed potatoes, you might want to brace yourself for a rant about the bailouts of GM and Chrysler, and the banking industry, as well as the reform of the U.S. health-care industry.

Those “abundant mines”? Prepare for a cap-and-trade debate that might ramble on through the first quarter of the Saints-Cowboys game.

Our growing population? Oh, my. A mouthful of pecan pie and an earful about illegal immigration.

Life wasn’t so simple 147 years ago, either. Still, from the words of his Proclamation of Thanksgiving, Lincoln appeared to be counting on a virtue that’s running in low supply today — respect. How else could he ask people — divided, wounded and wronged by war — to “solemnly, reverently and gratefully” acknowledge the nation’s blessings “with one heart and one voice”? Such an act requires respect for the other person’s life and all that he or she holds dear, despite their differences.

Twenty-first century Americans sense the need for respect. A study this year by the University of Oregon showed that self-respect was the No. 1 core character value desired by Americans, and by a far wider margin than in identical surveys in 1986 and 1976.

Perhaps that needs to be the starting point for today’s accounting of thanks.

If you have the respect of your family, be thankful.

If friends respect you, be thankful.

If neighbors, co-workers, fellow church members and acquaintances respect you, be thankful.

If you’re capable of showing respect others deserve, be thankful.

As a country blessed with hard-fought freedom, we absolutely should cherish and exercise the right to disagree. Through the hatred and bloodshed between Americans during the Civil War, Lincoln probably dreamt of an era such as 2010. He alluded to better days ahead in the closing passages of his Proclamation of Thanksgiving.

Lincoln asked his countrymen to pray for “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, tranquility and union.”

Today, we can be thankful for all who agree with Lincoln’s goal.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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