Acton Institute Powerblog

How to give thanks in 2020

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Thanksgiving in 2020 seems to be an oxymoron. What good can we celebrate in the year that witnessed an ongoing global health pandemic, an artificial economic crisis, and the largest federal budget deficit in U.S. history? In Thanksgiving, as in life, it helps to step back from the rush of headlines and social media alerts to take stock of the abiding and eternal blessings of everyday life.

This is in no way to minimize the disastrous year of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed 260,000 American lives, mostly among the weak and defenseless. Government-mandated lockdowns contracted the U.S. GDP by a record-breaking 32.9% in the second quarter and triggered unemployment so profound that, even in October, 11.1 million Americans remained out of work. The government offered Americans a stimulus check without curtailing its profligate spending, racking up an historic annual budget deficit of $3.1 trillion (and counting). Politicians stood down in the face of riots and looting that caused at least $1 billion in property damage, cost at least 19 lives, and culminated in an emboldened radical movement declaring its own autonomous zones in major metropolitan areas. It’s little wonder that a new study deemed 2020 the worst year in history for sleep quality, with 42% of Americans telling pollsters that their cannot remember the last time they could say with the Psalmist, “I will both lay me down in peace and sleep.”

Anxiety is real and destructive (Proverbs 17:22). Yet even secular social scientists have verified that gratitude yields transformative psychological benefits. Moreover, thanksgiving represents our “moral debt” to God, irrespective of our individual circumstances. In a year when people of faith are hard-pressed to find cause for gratitude, here are 5 reasons to give thanks.

1. Religious liberty. America still leads the world in the most fundamental of all rights: religious freedom. The United States came into existence because dedicated Pilgrims wanted to live out their faith according to the dictates of their conscience rather than those of the state. The very first Thanksgiving came about because of the success of the Plymouth Colony’s undertaking. Our Founding Fathers enshrined this first freedom into our founding documents and enumerated the free exercise of religion among our unalienable rights. Although government overreach in the name of COVID-19 has threatened freedom of assembly and the integrity of some church’s liturgical practices, we retain robust constitutional, legal, and historical liberties to practice our faith in church and at the workplace. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has forced believers to remove pictures of Jesus or lose government aid, to replace the Ten Commandments with socialist propaganda, and to interpret Christian doctrine as compatible with Communism. America’s precious liberties shine all the brighter when contrasted with Marxist darkness. The very ability to give thanks is reason enough to give thanks.

2. America’s religious heritage. The United States enjoys the blessings of liberty because of our deep-seated religious heritage. As Mark David Hall explains in the latest issue of Religion & Liberty: “Among other benefits, religion and virtue help create a unified, safe, and peaceful society. In the words of the minister Elizur Goodrich, ‘religion and virtue are the strongest bond of human society, and lay the best foundation of peace and happiness in the civil state.’” That bedrock of virtue created the capacity for self-government. Coupled with the Protestant work ethic, our faithful culture allowed commerce to flourish, contracts to be enforced, and abundance to fill our tables. To this day, the U.S. remains uniquely religious compared to other Western democracies – in no small part because we never had an established church. Much of our gratitude for our current religious observance must be directed to generations long forgotten.

3. Family. Our nation increasingly sacrifices family ties on the altar of partisan politics. For those who retained proper perspective, there is no greater comfort than family. Researchers have found that family relationships increase life expectancy and create “projected security about the future.” They merely echo the wisdom that Christian leaders espoused long ago. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom said that healthy families produce “great benefits, both to families and to states. For there is nothing which so welds our life together as the love of man and wife.” If you have a loving family, there are few greater blessings.

4. The free market. America’s free-market economy produced the wealth that makes even our modest Thanksgiving celebrations the envy of people around the world. Although it receives no credit, capitalism made 2020 more manageable. At the outset of this year, thanks to low taxes and deregulation, this nation had the most inclusive and prosperous economy in decades. Black and Hispanic unemployment rates reached their lowest level in U.S. history. It may be forgotten that February 2020 tied September and December 2019 for the lowest U.S. unemployment rate in 50 years, 3.5%. Once the virus began to spread in force, American patients fared better than nations with socialized medicine. Greater wealth creation gave us the ability to endure an economic shortfall better than we would have otherwise, and economy dynamism allowed businesses to pivot and fill new needs, like making ventilators and hand sanitizer. The disaster of “2020” has not yet lasted a full year – and multiple, viable vaccines loom on the horizon.

5. Salvation. Our greatest blessing cannot be apprehended by our taste, touch, sight, or sound. It comes from the reality at the heart of the other four blessings: the incarnation, sinless life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Through His grace, He assures us of the remission of our sins and everlasting life in glory with Him – purely of His own mercy and goodwill. His loving favor toward the human race imbues each of us with the dignity to live a “calm and peaceable life in all godliness and sanctity” (I Timothy 2:2). And it assures us of a relationship with a loving Father and an innumerable multitude of brothers and sisters that will never end.

If gratitude still seems elusive during the lousiest year in decades, allow me to offer one more primer. Egypt’s Coptic Church, which finds itself marginalized and persecuted in an increasingly hostile environment, does not praise God for His mighty acts once a year; it pours out gratitude every time its members pray. The Coptic Church begins every hour of prayer with an exhortation to give thanks. The prayer (which I blogged about at Aleteia.org) opens with this encouragement:

Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God – the Father of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ – for He has covered us, helped us, guarded us, accepted us unto Him, spared us, supported us, and brought us to this hour. Let us also ask Him, the Lord our God, the Almighty, to guard us in all peace this holy day and all the days of our life.

Eternity belongs at the center of our minds. Then we can make our own the words taken from the great Anglican prayer tradition: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.”

Even in 2020, we have many and bountiful reasons to give thanks.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and FrontPageMag.com, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at DailyWire.com, National Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout, CatholicVote.org, Issues & Insights, The Conservative, Rare.us, and The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are therightswriter.com and RevBenJohnson.com. His views are his own.