Thanksgiving can be a tough time of year for many Americans. “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank,” G.K. Chesterton pointed out many years ago.
These days, the holiday has two stumbling blocks that I see. The first is America’s growing secularization. The second is something evident even among many of the still-faithful: a failure to appreciate the abounding blessings we all enjoy. The answer to both is the same: Look up.
Let’s take those in reverse order. In our deeply divided world, with impeachment hearings dominating our news cycles (and threatening us with those insufferably woke “how to tell your grandfather he’s wrong at Christmas” pieces), is there anything to be grateful for? Greta Thunberg tells us our house is on fire. Democratic presidential candidates tell us the middle class is falling further behind. And we’re told that overall, the poor get poorer while the rich get richer.
But look up from your devices, for I bring you good news. The late Swedish scholar Hans Rosling made it his life’s mission to show people the positive progress we’ve made as a species in the last hundred years. His book, “Factfulness,” is now something that billionaire Bill Gates says is required reading for employees at his foundation.
As Rosling wrote, “here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” And elsewhere in the book, he added, “Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”
By nearly every measure, humans are better off now than they’ve ever been in history. So why aren’t we thankful? Why do we succumb to the crushing pessimism advocated by Greta (“I want you to panic”), instead embracing the facts—such as U.S. air and water quality have never been better? What the facts show is that environmental improvement goes hand-in-hand with economic development. We should feel optimism, not despair; we improve the world when we improve the lives of our fellow humans. And we most expeditiously do that with what got the U.S. to the top of the heap—freedom and trade.
Meanwhile, our unemployment rates are historically low, and wages are responding—by rising, not stagnating. Income inequality is still a pronounced feature of our economy, but it’smuch more pronounced in places such as California and New York than it is in Texas—in the places where the usual prescriptions (higher taxes, broader social programs and more regulations on economic activity) are already in place. The answer, clearly, is to be more like Texas.
And something to be thankful for that doesn’t get a lot of attention: We’re in the midst of a Great Awakening for criminal justice reform. Decades of misguided “tough on crime” policies, fully embodied in the Clinton Crime Bill, are being rectified with alternatives that focus on restoration, treatment, job training and finally, redemption. Families and communities are being made whole again.
The most visible achievement was the First Step Act, signed by President Trump in December 2018. But reforms are continuing at the federal level, and making great progress at the state level, where most inmates are doing their time. I am truly thankful that my organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has been a key part of these reforms.
But thankfulness must have a target, as Chesterton pointed out. When (and too often, if) American families say grace on Thanksgiving Day, Who is their intended audience?
The Pew Research Center tells us that secularization continues to transform our society. The newest numbers say that “65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade.” The trend toward religious disaffiliation, across all faiths, “has continued apace.”
Fear not! The U.S.—and the world—have been here before; each era of spiritual decline has been followed by revival.
Chesterton, a fellow historian, put it this way: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
My hope is not in political power for the right party, or in federal programs, or even in the future promised by presidential candidates.
Hope is something higher, and gratitude is something richer by far. In this season of thankfulness, let’s look up. Let’s raise our eyes from our screens, let’s look into the faces of our families and friends, and remember that we feel thankful because there is One truly deserving of our thanks.