Thanksgiving Thoughts on Freedom and America

Most of us are probably familiar with Norman Rockwell's famous Thanksgiving painting. But few realize that it traces its inspiration to an address that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made to Congress on January 6, 1941.
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replica in Silverton of one of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings. This one depicts freedom from want. | Date 2010-03 | Source ...
replica in Silverton of one of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" paintings. This one depicts freedom from want. | Date 2010-03 | Source ...

Most of us are probably familiar with Norman Rockwell's famous Thanksgiving painting of a family at home around the dining room table with "mom" putting the platter of turkey on the table with a beaming "dad" standing behind her. Many of us probably don't know that this painting is titled "Freedom from Want." Few, we believe, realize that this "Freedom" painting --which was one of Rockwell's Four Freedom paintings created during WW II -- traces its inspiration to an address that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made to Congress on January 6, 1941.

In that speech Roosevelt said, "We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is the freedom of speech and expression... everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way... everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want... everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear... everywhere in the world."

In this Thanksgiving season in this election year, we thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on where we stand on those freedoms "not everywhere in the world" but here in the United States. We, as Americans are blessed and have much for which to be thankful. But, for many of our citizens, those freedoms are challenged or remain illusory.

The freedom of speech is enshrined as the first amendment of the Bill of Rights to the constitution. In spite of this, in the run up to the election, states across the country, made voting tougher by implementing measures such as picture voter ids, and shortened periods for early voting. These actions taken to ensure that only "legitimate" voters could participate in the process would have resulted in voter suppression. Fortunately, due to interventions by courts, the work of activist groups, and the courage and tenacity of individual citizens who were willing to stand in long lines to cast their ballots, voter expression triumphed over voter suppression. For that we are thankful.

America was founded on freedom of religion and the separation of church of state. Since 9/11, however, the tolerance for those of Muslim faith here in the United States has decreased and there have been isolated instances of violence. Over the past several years some citizens and elected officials have also advocated narrowing the distance between the church and state. Fortunately, even though there may be a growing antipathy and xenophobia toward some religions in some segments of the population, there is no genocide and direct religious persecution as there is in so many nations around the world. The church-state separation -- although being questioned -- remains our guiding framework. For that we are thankful.

The United States is a country of virtually endless bounty and has been the bread basket of the world. Today, because of the aftermath of the great recession, we have a very high poverty rate of 15 percent, 1 out of every 7 citizens receives food stamps, children go to bed hungry, and over 60,000 of our veterans are homeless. Fortunately, we have government programs trying to address these problems -- although for the past two years our national discussions have focused far too much on the "financial condition" and far too little on the "human condition". More importantly, the United States has the most charitable people in the world who work as volunteers and give generously to organizations of all types to help those in need. For that we are thankful.

Fear is not commonplace in our country today. But, there are neighborhoods where youth and adults don't feel safe because of violence. There are occurrences where assault type weapons are used to wreak havoc in seemingly safe places. There are people who because of their race, ethnicity or sexual preference have been threatened or excluded from the mainstream. Fortunately, we have an evolving system of laws and in this past election elected the first openly lesbian United States senator, bisexual congress person, and two states passed same sex marriage laws. We have much work to do to eliminate the other sources of fear but there are dedicated individuals and groups in the private and public sectors committed to those tasks. For that we are thankful.

The four freedoms frame our democracy and the American dream for our citizens. As we review our progress on them, we conclude that America is still a work in progress -- as it must always be, if we are, as our founders called upon us, "to form a more perfect union."

One other thing that we see as we look at our country is a citizenry that is more divided in values and perspective than it has been in the past. As we considered this and the need for a renewed sense of unity and shared perspective, Frank Sinatra's recording of the song, The House I Live In, came to mind.

The lyrics of that song written to bring America together and to encourage unity and tolerance during World War II may be more meaningful, powerful and important now than they were back then. They are definitely relevant on this Thanksgiving Day. Below are selected stanzas from the song. (You can click on this link to read the complete lyrics.)

What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see;
A certain word, democracy.
What is America to me?

The house I live in,
A plot of earth, a street,
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet;
The children in the playground,
The faces that I see,
All races and religions,
That's America to me.

The house I live in,
My neighbors white and black
The people who just came here,
Or from generations back;
The town hall and the soapbox,
A home for all God's children;
That's America to me.

The house I live in,
The goodness everywhere,
A land of wealth and beauty,
With enough for all to share;
A house that we call Freedom,
A home of Liberty,
And it belongs to fighting people
That's America to me.

America, the house we live in is a more diverse one, than it was at the outset of World War II and we believe a better one for it. The family in Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving dining room painting was all white. Today that family could also be African American, Latino, Indian-American, multi-ethnic, gay, straight and we are certain that we are better off because of this as well. For that we are thankful.

We also remember that on this Thanksgiving Day there are those without homes to live in whether due to natural disasters such as Super Storm Sandy or personal circumstances. We know that because of who we are as Americans there are numerous citizens who will reach out to help them both on this day and throughout the year. That's America, the house that we live in, a nation of immigrants. That's the final reason we are thankful on this Thanksgiving Day.

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